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.
Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
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.