23 Jun 2008
Don Giovanni. No, the other one
No one has ever called Gazzaniga’s Don Giovanni an overlooked masterpiece.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
No one has ever called Gazzaniga’s Don Giovanni an overlooked masterpiece.
It was composed to a typical buffo libretto by Giovanni Bertati, his collaborator on twenty farces, in Venice in February 1787, where its success inspired someone to send the score to Lorenzo da Ponte in Vienna. He rewrote and expanded the piece, borrowing many of Bertati’s ideas, and gave it to Mozart, who presented his version at Prague’s Tyl Theater on October 29.
One goes to hear Gazzaniga’s Giovanni for foretaste, a prediction, a glimpse of the glory soon to come — a hint of Mozart’s inspiration — but there is little sign of it. The piece opens with an attempted rape and a murder all right, there is a catalogue aria (someone has altered the numbers! Aha!), a peasant wedding, a statue invited to dinner, a ghostly return. There are many moments when you expect to be stunned, enlightened, exalted, shocked, as Mozart’s opera does even on the twentieth hearing — but Gazzaniga keeps missing the chance to startle, to amaze, to create wonder. Donna Anna has the perfect moment for an aria of vengeance when she finds her father’s body (or a duet of vengeance, as in Mozart), but in Gazzaniga … she simply departs, never to return. Don Giovanni has many moments for a seduction duet, but it does not enter his brainless tenor head. Elvira’s last entreaty for Giovanni’s repentance is not an outburst — it’s a full-length aria at a moment when the drama should be snap, snap, snap. The statue’s return sends no cold shivers — the experience of the afterlife has not transformed his vocal manner, as Mozart felt it should. And, having heard Mozart, we know he was right.
It is impossible not to make such comparisons, but it is most unfair to Gazzaniga, and to an evening pleasantly spent. There are lovely tunes in this opera, justifying a long and successful career (51 operas, all but this one forgotten), some elegant ideas, and … a lot that fizzles. With pretty voices, it is a delicious way to pass ninety minutes — ideally by candlelight in a baroque garden theater. (A remodeled warehouse in Toronto’s Distillery District will do in a pinch, and the acoustics are ace.) Gazzaniga was good but ordinary; attending his opera reminds one that Mozart was … extraordinary.
The most effective music, it seemed to me, was the scene of the peasant wedding: the chorus had a Spanish style to it that Mozart did not bother with, and the arias of Biagio (infuriated at his wayward girlfriend) and Maturina (the girl in question, who is falling for the tall, handsome stranger) were very fine and sung by the finest voices in the company, Canadian Opera’s Studio (i.e., their young artists’ program). Justin Welsh, a baritone of energy and smooth production, made the most of Biagio, who has rather more presence in this version — da Ponte and Mozart rightly abbreviated his protest in order not to interrupt the rush of the drama. Gazzaniga gives him a full da capo, and Welsh sang it beautifully — but it interrupts. Maturina was Lisa DiMaria, a sweet, clear, luscious soprano who will mature (no pun intended) into a splendid Susanna and Zerlina in a very short time. I look forward to hearing both of them again.
The other singers, all young, healthy and good actors, did not seem quite so polished, so ready for the major leagues. Jon-Paul Décosse had the most to do as the servant, Pasquariello — he opens the show (just as Leporello does) and sings the catalogue, and serves as his master’s foil in the tomb and dinner scenes. His baritone is strong and supple, but his vigorous antics — sometimes humorous, sometimes menacing — will make him a particular asset to the livelier school of buffo staging. Melinda Delorme, afflicted with a wig that would alienate any lover, made a poignant and energetic Donna Elvira — in this opera the unchallenged prima donna, with two ornamented arias and a comic duet in which she and Maturina fight over “their” man, who of course has set them on each other while he pursues another lady entirely. (That duet’s an idea Bertati might have stolen from Act I of Mozart’s Figaro, but it was probably a buffo staple.) The Commendatore of Andrew Stewart looked gaunt and (as a statue) immobile, but did not succeed in creating shivers where Gazzaniga had neglected to provide them in the score. Michael Barrett (Ottavio) and Adam Luther (Giovanni), the two tenors, sounded uncomfortable with the style of the music, forceful where they should have been graceful, sensuous, ardent. They bit off the ends of notes that should drift into the aether. I suspect both are aiming for nineteenth-century tenor roles, and I applaud that ambition, but precise vocal control always comes in handy.
The production by Tom Diamond was basic and clear, with one annoying, pointless touch: Instead of nobly killing the Commendatore face to face, Don Giovanni sneaked up behind him and stabbed him in the back. This did not suit the story or the personality of our antihero. A consort of nine musicians played the score — undoubtedly it would sound grander with a full orchestra, but the subtle touches of Mozart’s version would still not have been there.
Melinda Delorme as Donna Elvira and Adam Luther as Don Giovanni in the COC’s Ensemble Studio production of Don Giovanni. Photo © 2008 Michael Cooper
The second half of this double bill — for a rather larger band of musicians, tackling a self-consciously brilliant score with aplomb — was Stravinsky’s brief retelling of a couple of farmyard folktales, Renard, composed for the Paris salon of his buddy Princess de Polignac — that’s Winnaretta Singer, the sewing machine heiress, to you. The piece was not meant to be staged, merely sung by a quartet of male singers — but Mr. Diamond could not resist. His production derived from World Wide Wrestling matches (the witty costumes were by Yannik Larivée), and no doubt I missed a lot of in-jokes, but the four hammy singers hurled themselves joyously into it. (No limbs were broken — but it was close.) They sang well, too, in clearly pronounced English — again, I especially enjoyed tiny Mr. Welsh, but the standard was high across the board.