12 Jul 2010
A Magnificent Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne
Don Giovanni isn't new and most of the cast at Glyndebourne (led by Gerald Finley) are familiar.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Don Giovanni isn't new and most of the cast at Glyndebourne (led by Gerald Finley) are familiar.
What is "news" however, is the amazing production of Don Giovanni at Glundebourne, a work of art in itself. Wonderful orchestra, wonderful set, fully supporting the music and drama.
Jonathan Kent and set designer Paul Brown created the astounding Purcell Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne in 2009, so there was no chance this new production of Don Giovanni would be dull. Think about who Don Giovanni is. He’s always one step ahead, adapting and changing, always on the move. Kent and Brown take their cue from the opera and its music.
Anna Virovlansky as Zerlina and Luca Pisaroni as Leporello
As we sat waiting for the performance to start, the theatre at Glyndebourne was suddenly plunged into total darkness. A power cut? No, this was theatre, in every sense. Gradually golden light picks out the orchestra. It’s a beautiful image, burnished instruments, musicians moving as in a ballet. Immediately, attention is focused on the music, as it should be.
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is one of the finest period orchestras in Europe. Historically-informed performance is valuable in Don Giovanni, not because it’s authentic whatever that might be, but because it creates lighter textures, reflecting the elegant, flexible movement in the music.
Then, instead of a conventional set, there’s a giant rotating cube, a square globe, so to speak, which contains “the world”. It unfolds, reshaping and reinventing itself: a box of tricks, like Don Giovanni himself. Because it’s meticulously designed the cube moves quickly and silently. it’s much less intrusive than conventional set changes. Major transformations take place during the interludes, so they don’t get in the way. This amazing set frees the action from technical limitations. allowing the drama to unfold, rapid-fire and free.
At first the cube reveals its secrets slowly. A crack appears. It’s a narrow alleyway. Don Giovanni is trapped like a rat, so he lashes out and kills the Commendatore..The cube closes again, its outer walls like a stone building. Later, the cube opens to reveal a sunlit garden, complete with trees. It’s the peasant wedding. So many shifts of focus. Garden transforms to ballroom, Zerlina’s loyalties shift, the masked visitors move in on Don Giovanni.
Conflagration ends the First Act. While the crowd converge on Don Giovanni, Don Ottavio points at objects, just like the Commendatore will later point at Don Giovanni. For now, it’s just the furniture that goes up in flames. Real flames, you can smell the gas. It feels dangerous, even though you know Glyndebourne (and its insurers) have checked it all out thoroughly. We know Don Giovanni will end up in hell, but seeing him circled by fire is dramatic. It’s entirely consistent with the turbulent music with which Mozart marks the beginning of Don Giovanni’s end.
Gerald Finley as Don Giovanni and Anna Samuil as Donna Anna
In the Second Act, the giant cube is transformed, as if it’s exploded. Don Giovanni’s clever stratagems are beginning to shatter. Instead of neat panels, wild diagonal planes, sharp angles, knife edges, if you will. Violence is implicit. The pace quickens, the orchestral playing with great agility. Some of the best singing all evening, too, the cast invigorated. Movement is well blocked, the cast nimbly negotiating the change of position (and costume).
Perched dangerously on the central diagonal plane, Gerald Finley (Don Giovanni) and Luca Pisaroni (Leporello) read the inscription on the Commendatore’s grave. No statue as such, but by this point in the performance the atmosphere of horror is so intense that a device like a talking statue would seem clumsy. As Finley teeters on the dangerous ledge, and Pisaroni cowers in terror, the Commendatore’s voice booms out. Invisible threats are much more frightening.
A golden candelabra on a luxurious table cloth. Don Giovanni’s showing off, trying to impress. . But the table’s on the spot that was the grave. Suddenly, the Commendatore pops up, a corpse in a rotting, blood-stained shroud. Death levels all, rich or poor. The corpse topples the table over, exposing its flimsy structure. Slowly, the corpse moves towards Don Giovanni and zaps him dead. Everyone gasps. A fantastic coup-de-théâtre!
It’s an overpowering image. Thank goodness for the final chorus “Questo è il fin”, where order is restored, and we’re reminded that theatre is glorious illusion.
Magnificent as the set is, this will also be a Don Giovanni to listen to for the orchestra. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are so good that they can generate almost demonic energy from the lighter timbres of period instruments. Vladimir Jurowski has rarely sounded more inspired, his tendency towards mysticism countered by the brightness of this playing. The music in the ballroom scene was particularly well defined. Trios move throughout this music, so defining the tripartite form in this orchestration is important.
Excellent flow between ensemble and soloists. Musicians of this calibre really make a difference This lutenist sounds truly seductive, and the harpsichord’s spiky interjections signal alertness, because there’s such sharpness of attack.
Gerald Finley’s Don Giovanni is smooth, even a little soft-grained to start with, but then he’s playing a man who achieves his aims by charm. His champagne aria “Fin ch’han dal vino”, didn’t fizzle but perhaps that’s a hint that Don Giovanni’s pursuit of pleasure is ultimately hollow.
When Don Giovanni’s trapped, he’s most lethal. In the Second Act, Finley’s voice darkens malevolently, yet he also manages to express the vulnerability in Don Giovanni’s character. Does he really enjoy seduction, or is it obsession? Perhaps women are attracted because they sense that need in him.
But the operas isn’t Don Giovanni’s alone. Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello made the dynamic between master and servant powerfully pungent. At Glyndebourne, you sometimes can’t tell patrons from waiters, they’re all in the same uniform, which adds extra piquancy to Mozart’s subversive undercurrents.
The interaction between Finley and Pisaroni is very carefully timed, superb vocal rapport. Pisaroni’s Leporello is no put-upon fool, he pulls the strings.. Very muscular, assertive singing, masterful in every way. At the end, Pisaroni’s Leporello takes a photo of his master’s corpse. Does he, too, have a “stud book” of past conquests?
Kate Royal as Donna Elvira
The friend with whom I attended this performance has heard Cesare Siepi, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and many others in this opera, but he doesn’t judge singers in isolation as if they were lab specimens. Context matters, too. “These female singers are more like real women”, he said, “not divas doing a role”. It’s a generous comment, as Kate Royal’s Donna Elvira is just too big for her, and Anna Samuil’s Donna Anna, though good in general, won’t go down in history. Though given the performance history of this opera, that’s a tall order.
Anna Virovlansky’s Zerlina stood out, vocally firm and bright, physically vivacious and energetic..There she is, up against a wall with Don Giovanni, eagerly co-operating. Confronted by Masetto (Guido Loconsolo) she begs him to beat her. Virovlansky makes it sound wildly kinky, hinting at the darker aspects of Zerlina’s personality.
Glyndebourne performances sell out quickly, so there’s almost no chance of getting tickets other than returns. Get involved now, to be ready for 2011. But there’s a lot more to Glyndebourne than attending its summer season.
Glyndebourne’s significance is immeasurably greater than its seating capacity. It’s a small house, but it produces work of such high quality that it easily competes with many larger companies. Anyone seriously interested in European opera needs to be aware of Glyndebourne. These days, all opera houses need to extend their coverage beyond core live performance. Not everyone can attend in person, but broadcasts, DVDs, licensing, all help to ensure the financial health of the house., and extend its audience around the world.
Glyndebourne’s Don Giovanni is being screened on BBCTV2 at Christmas, and on Medici TV. A DVD release is likely.
For more information, please see the Glyndebourne site.