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.
It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.
With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.
Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.
If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”
Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.
On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.
Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.
Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.
Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.
The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s ﬁrst great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.
This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.
Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’
Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.
Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.
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.