20 Jun 2011
Don Pasquale, Opera Holland Park
As it turned out, it was a mild and mainly dry evening.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
In a production first seen in Houston several years ago, and now revised by its director John Caird, Puccini’s Tosca has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago with two casts, partially different, scheduled into March of the present season.
As it turned out, it was a mild and mainly dry evening.
Opera festivals — indeed, all outdoor or semi-outdoor activities — in the UK are in thrall to the vagaries of the weather, and as I write this review in early June I am sitting in my living-room, listening to the rain battering on the window and hoping it might clear up by the time I have to go to Glyndebourne in two days’ time.
For Opera Holland Park, whose theatre is ultimately a tent (albeit a highly sophisticated one) in which the sounds and light quality of the outside world are an inevitable part of the show, director Stephen Barlow has harnessed the characteristic changeable gloom of the British summer to create a modern and very British Don Pasquale that will resonate with anybody used to taking seaside holidays in this country. It is an ingenious treatment, finely honed by the work of lighting designer Mark Jonathan, which I cannot imagine would work as well in any other theatre. It almost made a virtue of the frequent noises-off from aeroplanes passing overheard and children playing elsewhere in the park.
The opera is sung in the original Italian, and Pasquale’s drab, tatty beach café is arbitrarily Italian (in the surtitles, Pasquale refers to it throughout as his ‘casa’). Its menu, however, consists of fish and chips or pie and mash, and there is no question that we are on the British coast — a world of striped awnings, deckchairs for hire, pensioners picnicking on benches with home-made sandwiches and a Thermos. Crucially, it’s the world of another phenomenon with its roots in Italian culture but adopted by the British as their own — the end-of-pier Punch and Judy show, an idea which, while never overtly suggested, Barlow recreates in spirit with a staging which served this peculiarly mean-spirited opera well with a combination of broad visual comedy and vicious humour.
None of the characters in Don Pasquale are obviously sympathetic. Even Ernesto, for all he’s been given the best of Donizetti’s lyrical melody to in which to bewail his uncle’s attempt to disinherit him, is ultimately a lazy freeloader who has grown too used to taking advantage of his old uncle’s generosity. While Pasquale is unquestionably in need of being taught a lesson in respect of his view of women, the bullying he suffers at the hands of everybody else in the cast goes much too far and you can’t help but feel sorry for the old man. It’s cynical, cruel and unashamedly selfish.
The visual humour was plentiful, with some laugh-out-loud moments. The fresh-from-the-convent “Sofronia” whipped off a full nun’s habit to reveal a sexy scarlet number, and in Act 3 was “revealed” in a more grotesquely extravagant get-up still, draped across the counter of her newly refurbished “Café Corneti” like a swimwear model across the bonnet of a sports car.
Donald Maxwell as Don Pasquale and Richard Burkhard as Dr Malatesta
Meanwhile, a series of peripheral gags involving walk-on characters from the chorus further highlighted the general tone of the production. Don Pasquale’s outdated attitudes are underlined by his gleefully lascivious reaction to the sight of two scantily-clad young lady joggers, and disapproving glances towards a male gay couple with a baby (they are later revealed not to be a couple at all, but the partners of the joggers). Meanwhile, a casual user of a coin-operated telescope on the seafront has his gaze distracted by the sight of the snazzily-attired Norina provocatively applying sun lotion to her décolleté, much to the annoyance of his long-suffering pregnant wife.
Top vocal honours went to the Ernesto, the South African tenor Colin Lee who is now deservedly enjoying a high-profile international career. He has a personable stage presence, and a voice at the more substantially rounded end of the flexible bel canto tenor spectrum, with bright liquid tone which pings right to the back of the auditorium. In the title role, opera buffa veteran Donald Maxwell was highly entertaining when the action demanded, but on the whole he was more sympathetic and genuine than most, offering a rare degree of balance. Richard Burkhard’s Malatesta had a well-schooled voice and engaging personality.
Majella Cullagh as Norina
I have admired Majella Cullagh in numerous Donizetti roles in the past, but sadly felt that she was miscast as Norina; her light, vinegary soprano did open up somewhat as the evening progressed, but she remained overpowered by her colleagues during the ensembles. And as spirited and entertaining as her performance was, she made rather a matronly heroine — believable perhaps as the scheming merry widow (there’s no reason at all why Ernesto’s lover shouldn’t be somewhat older than him), but hardly convincing as the nubile young bride who the lecherous Pasquale believes is the embodiment of his fantasies.
In the pit was bel canto’s supreme champion, Richard Bonynge, looking spry and conducting with poised lyricism.
All in all a strong, entertaining and memorable opening to Opera Holland Park’s 2011 season, and one which turns this unique theatre’s many idiosyncrasies to its advantage. One of next year’s operas is Falstaff, which has immense potential in a theatre which loses natural daylight as the performance progresses; let us hope the director makes the most of it.
Ruth Elleson © 2011