20 Jun 2011
Don Pasquale, Opera Holland Park
As it turned out, it was a mild and mainly dry evening.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
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.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
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.
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.
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