14 May 2009
L’elisir d’amore at Covent Garden
L’elisir d’amore is perhaps Donizetti’s silliest opera — but also one of his most charming.
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments: “I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
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A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
A new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
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L’elisir d’amore is perhaps Donizetti’s silliest opera — but also one of his most charming.
Laurent Pelly’s 2006 staging, first seen at Covent Garden in 2007 and revived here by Daniel Dooner, certainly supplies much absurdity, capriciousness and inanity, but it is rather lacking in genuine warmth and tenderness. In this ‘busy’ staging, characters are entertaining but not fully engaging; we smile gently at their follies and witticisms, but they don’t truly touch our hearts. We don’t really care; and, it seems, neither do they. The humour is largely visual: indeed, on the opening night the largest laughs were raised by the manic terrier which intermittently whips across the stage, and by the between-scenes front cloth advertising Doctor Dulcamara’s entire range of miraculous potions and lotions - the clutter of cures for Constipazione and Impotenze recalling an email inbox, deluged by SPAM offering fake Viagra.
Striving for a realism that would put many a verismo production to shame, Pelly furnishes his stage with a relentless assemblage of period props — tractors, lorries and Vespas — to evoke rural, post-war Italy. The curtain rises on a precipitous mound of hay-bales. It’s true that this Nemorino — a foolish bumpkin — certainly has a mountain to climb if he’s to win the hand of Diana Damrau’s feisty, spoiled Adina. While the workers toil in the sun-drenched fields, the queen bee perches aloft, preening herself beneath her pink parasol, laughing disdainfully at tales of ‘real’, un-dying love of the kind that will later catch her unawares.
No-one could accuse Giuseppe Filianoti of lack of commitment: as Nemorino he, literally, throws himself into the part, hurling himself around the stage like a hyperactive child, tumbling and flailing in a hopeless effort to catch the eye of the indifferent Adina. When Dulcamara declares that he met a few fools in his time but none quite as dim as Nemorino we are inclined to nod in agreement. While this self-deprecating slapstick raised a few chuckles, it did not distract from Filianoti’s vocal weaknesses. His is a dark-toned tenor, but the upper range is strained and reedy, and his opening number was particularly uncomfortable. In the Act 1 finale he seemed completely adrift, musically and dramatically. Despite these problems, there were moments to admire. Filianoti’s diction is excellent, he uses the words well, and his performance did improve as he slowly warmed up. He certainly conveyed Nemorino’s ardency and sincerity in the Act 2 ‘Una furtiva lagrima’. Yet, it was rather an effort, and the simple elegance required to communicate the profound, ‘poetic’ sensibility to be found beneath the buffoon’s clownish exterior was lacking.
As Adina, the German soprano, Diana Damrau, commands the stage. Dressed in a seductively low-cut dress (costumes are by Chantal Thomas), she flirts and flaunts, incessantly prancing, posing and pouting. However, while she entirely lacks innocence and does not really earn our sympathy, she can be forgiven for these exaggerated excesses as she renders Donizetti’s lyrical melodies and capricious coloratura with delicious beauty and ease. Outraged by the attention that Nemorino’s new-found wealth garners from the other girls, Damrau’s fiery fioratura is flawless. And, her declaration of love - a stunning two-octave plunge sealing her promise to make him ‘as happy as I used to make you miserable’ - is the high-point of the evening.Simone Alaimo as Dulcamara and The Royal Opera Chorus [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of The Royal Opera House]
The Sicilian bass-baritone, Simone Alaimo, played Dulcamara as if this was his five-thousandth performance of the role … perhaps it was. His buffo gestures were rather tired; even the chorus, who excitedly anticipated his entrance, didn’t wait around to hear his sales pitch — leaving Alaimo addressing an empty stage. A sharp, red suit in Act 2 enlivened him somewhat; responding to Adina’s confident assertions that the power of her own physical attributes is more than a match for any elixir Dulcamara cares to offer, he demonstrated more energy and sparkle. But, Pelly seems to view the quack doctor less as a loveable rogue than as a greasy slime-ball. Like Anthony Michaels-Moore’s cock-sure Sergeant Belcore, he is presented as a cynical opportunist. In Belcore’s opening aria, despite standing aloft the hay-bales, a ‘king of the mountain’, Michaels-Moore struggled to project his baritone; he was a rather one-dimensional figure throughout, a charmless bully. The Japanese soprano, Eri Nakamura, supplied the evening’s one genuine moment of sweet, unaffected tenderness, as Giannetta.
Pelly’s direction of the chorus is confusing and over-emphatic. At times, they are uncompromisingly involved in the action, was in the opening scene when they taunt and torment Nemorino with an alarming aggression! Elsewhere they ignore the action entirely, and face forwards, immobile, to address the audience — a gesture which lacks subtlety, relevance and becomes increasingly irritating.A scene from L’elisir d’amore [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of The Royal Opera House]
Despite Pelly’s desire for realism, this production does not truly convey the dark side of the drama - the potential sadness, even tragedy, hiding behind the comic frills, or the cynical exposure of the true elixir of love: money. Fortunately, Bruno Campanella understands the aesthetics of bel canto, and he stylishly controlled the colour and pace of the performance from the pit.
So, in this visually catchy production there is lots to entertain and much to admire, but perhaps rather less to enchant.