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.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
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.