09 Mar 2010
The Elixir of Love at ENO
As a medic with a keen knowledge of psychology, Jonathan Miller probably knows a thing or two about elixirs and placebos.
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto was the composer’s ﬁfteenth opera, and the ninth to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini (1615-1651). First performed at the Teatro Sant’Apollinaire in Venice on 28th November 1651, the opera by might have been sub-titled ‘Gods Behaving Badly’, so debauched are the deities’ dalliances and deviations, so egotistical their deceptions.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
New from Oehms Classics, Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 1. Luxury singers - Valentina Farcas, Klaus Florian Vogt and Michael Volle, with the Staatskapelle Weimar, conducted by Hansjörg Albrecht.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
As a medic with a keen knowledge of psychology, Jonathan Miller probably knows a thing or two about elixirs and placebos.
On the evidence of this production, first aired by New York City Opera, he’s not too concerned about the ‘dark side’ of medical charlatanry; for here Miller invites us to enjoy a light-hearted evening of music and food, mischief and fun, at ‘Adina’s Diner’ — a popular stopping place way out in the America Midwest, beloved by homespun yokels and travelling tricksters alike. We lap up the aural and visual candyfloss and, after a charming evening, skip home, refreshed by the reassuring spirit of innocence and optimism which prevails.
Isabella Bywater’s set is a superbly naturalistic recreation of the era. The rolling yellow plains and flawless blue sky evoke the landscapes of Edmund Hopper, and Bywater’s bubblegum pink and lime green diner recreates Hopper’s ‘Nighthawk’, albeit with a more golden, ambient glow. The revolving set is ingenious, but the dusty exterior is more successful than the interior, the latter seeming cramped and overcrowded. Despite Miller’s detailed direction of the chorus, there was simply too little room, forcing many to remain seated — including, in the opening scene, Nemorino, who, set back and enclosed by the set, was swamped by the chorus and orchestra.John Tessier as Nemorino
Into this rural eatery waltzed the confident proprietor, Adina. Sarah Tynan, sporting a peroxide bob, was perky and coquettish rather than a vamp. Her voice was as agile as her wiggling hips, and bright and warm; and she offered a lively, engaging performance, perfectly conveying the mannerisms of a 1950s blond bombshell. However, there was no sense of ’depth’ beneath the flighty surface and Tynan offered little to mitigate her cruel treatment of Nemorino.
Indeed, there was a disappointing lack of chemistry between the Adina and Nemorino, the latter presented here as a gauche garage hand. Canadian tenor John Tessier was a naïve and trusting yokel, but while his clear, true rendering was well-received, his voice is fairly light-weight and lacks an Italianate warmth and colour that hints at passionate depths beneath. Tessier’s ‘miraculous’ transformation from garage dunce to matinee idol was not entirely credible and too often he sang to the audience, rather than to the other characters on stage. However, the production did create a dramatic context for ‘Una furtive lagrima’, which for once did not seem like a convenient ‘add-on’.Andrew Shore as Dulcamara and company
The real star of the show was the experienced Andrew Shore, as the oleaginous quack doctor, Dulcamara. He slid in, seated in an ostentatious open-top Cadillac cabriolet (its shine a little sullied after a journey across the dusty plains), looking sharp but shifty in white suit, shades and brogues, panama hat perched rakishly on ill-fitting wig. Shore’s swindler was confident, assured, and crafty. [The automatic dispenser for Coca-Cola — that ‘pure refreshment’ that ‘revives and sustains’ — was cleverly positioned ...] Indeed, for Shore’s sparkling salesman’s pitch the surtitles disappeared — one assumes this was an intentional acknowledgement of Shore’s prowess rather than a technical hitch — but every word of Kelley Rourke’s clever libretto was crystal clear. Shore presented Rourke’s wittily rhymed medicinal claims — “You reek of halitosis/ Then take a couple of doses” — with consummate mastery, although (if one was being harsh) one might accuse him of trying a little too hard at the risk of straining the voice. The subsequent wedding celebrations were pure MGM gold. Impersonating Elvis, Shore’s line ‘I’ve got a little ditty’, drew the largest laugh of the night; and when Adina joined him ‘on-stage’ in the diner, there was considerably more knowing interaction between them than was apparent in her exchanges with the younger heart-throb Nemorino. Adina’s Marilyn drawl might have been a bit too self-knowing, but Tynan, and Miller, pulled it off, just staying short of overkill.
As a gum-chewing GI, David Kempster’s Belcore swaggered and boasted his way, temporarily to Adina’s heart. Julia Sporsén’s Gianetta was sparkling and full of life.David Kempster as Belcore and company
Miller and Bywater had clearly, and effectively, thought hard about the realism of this production. But there was one incongruity: the inconsistency between the text and its delivery, with regard to accent. It was decided (so the programme told us) to use Americanisms (‘a knuckle sandwich’, ‘hello cupcake’), to pay homage to Porter and Sondheim (‘an elixir with a kick, sir’), and to attempt American accents throughout. The problem was that no one seemed to have told the chorus, and the principals frequently only remembered at the ends of phrases, which made Tessier’s native Canadian burr seem rather out of place.
Another problem was the over-enthusiasm of the conductor. Spaniard Pablo Heras-Casado, who enjoyed himself just a bit too much, encouraging the orchestra too excitedly and destroying the balance between stage and pit. Moreover, the tempi were often too slow: fine for the patter songs but fatal in the acts’ final choruses which should whip up a froth.Sarah Tynan as Adina and Julia Sporsén as Gianetta
So, this was a charming, folksy show. Miller’s humour was of the gentle kind — Nemorino turning momentarily into a bass-baritone when swigging the elixir, the outside loo flushing incongruously as Gianetti announced Nemorino’s financial good fortune. Dulcamara’s slugging of his own elixir when he observed the ladies chasing after Nemorino drew an appreciative chuckle from the audience. However, despite its ‘silliness’, there are some shades of darkness in this work — innocence is threatened by deception, guileless by guilt, and love seems indissolubly linked to money; but such shadows were kept well under wraps in this affectionate, enjoyable show.