19 Mar 2012
Don Pasquale, San Diego
You can’t keep a good opera buffa down. And Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale is about as good as opera buffa gets.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
Handel's Rinaldo was first performed in 1711 at London's King's Theatre. Handel's first opera for London was designed to delight and entertain, combining good tunes, great singing with a rollicking good story. Robert Carsen's 2011 production of the opera for Glyndebourne reflected this with its tongue-in-cheek Harry Potter meets St Trinian's staging.
You can’t keep a good opera buffa down. And Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale is about as good as opera buffa gets.
So here it is once again at San Diego Opera in its “spaghetti western” guise — the David Gately production that the opera company premiered in 2002. Happily for the opera company’s patrons it signals the end of their mourning period for poor, demented Salome and for the unfortunate crew in Moby-Dick. There’s nothing but rollicking operatic fun ahead for them.
Danielle de Niese as Norina
Not having previously seen this production, the Western “shtick” promotions for the work - ladies in corsets and cowboys in bubble baths — stirred old puritanical impulses and elicited my deepest fears. Of course transpositions of time and place are common in opera productions. In fact it happened to this very opera, Don Pasquale, just a few years after its 1843 premiere at the Italian Theater in Paris. Donizetti and his librettist Giovanni Ruffini had set the work in contemporary time. “But,” says the old Grove Dictionary of Music, “the singers and audiences considered there was a little absurdity in prima donna, baritone and basso wearing the dress of every day life; and it was usual for the sake of picturesqueness in costume to put back the time of the incidents to the 18th century.”
I needn’t have worried about sinful excess. As in that early Don Pasquale, picturesqueness in costume and sets is primarily what this clever production is about. Six-guns and horses notwithstanding, the most admirable element of Gately’s production is the restraint he showed in not allowing wild West gags and horseplay to overpower the essential commedia dell’ arte formula at the heart of this opera buffa.
Charles Castronovo as Ernesto
Don Pasquale was the last of the great opera buffas. At the heart of all of them were fairly formulaic commedia dell’arte plots, acted out by stock characters, behaving in satisfyingly predictable ways. There was usually a rich, old miser, a wily “dottore”, a shrewder-than-everyone servant. One or two of these had to be a bass or a baritone, who would likely sing a dizzying patter song. There were young lovers kept apart by some multifarious plot. She might be a soprano or a mezzo-soprano, but he most likely was a tenor. The plots were generally filled with intrigue involving love affairs, money, inheritances, mistaken identity and the like. It made no difference how complicated the machinations of the first two acts were. By the end of the third act everything will have worked out perfectly and audience and characters went home happy.
In Don Pasquale, miserly rich old Pasquale plans to marry Norina, a young and beautiful woman, who loves a young and penniless man, Ernesto, Pasquale’s nephew. Norina and Ernesto scheme with a wily dottore, Dr. Malatesta, to outwit Pasquale. Pasquale schemes with the same wily Dr. Malatesta to outwit Norina and Ernesto. Confusion. Who’s doing what with whom and where? But fear not! Don Pasquale is fooled into letting Norina go. Norina ends up with the Ernesto. Ernesto ends up with both Norina and Don Pasquale’s money. What could be better? The great music with it. Donizetti had an enormous gift for melody from the coloratura of emotional highs to lyrical, love-lorn laments. And better still, he wrote humor into his music - rollicking, rhythmic, playful music that can get you bouncing in your seat.
Jeff Mattsey as Dr. Malatesta, Danielle de Niese as Norina and Charles Castronovo as Ernesto
San Diego Opera was fortunate to have bass-baritone John Del Carlo as Don Pasquale. At this time in his career, Del Carlo is the very essence of Don Pasquale. His ringing voice and skilled acting allow us to see both the humor and pathos of the man. Tenor Charles Castronovo sang Ernesto, the young man in love with Norina, whom Pasquale wants to marry. Castronovo, whose sweet legato singing is always a pleasure, swaggered about appropriately in cowboy hat, chaps and boots. But I still can’t shake my recollection of him as the postman in Catán’s Il Postino. Lyric soprano Danielle de Niese, who recently performed the role of Ariel in the Met’s new The Enchanted Island, made her San Diego Opera debut in the role Norina. She’s one of the new wave of slim, young, athletic sopranos with lovely voices, who can sing bel canto arias while sitting, standing, lying down, or leaping from bed to chair. Baritone Jeff Mattsey in the role Dr. Malatesta, didn’t seem quite warmed up in the first act, but got his voice in the saddle by the second. His “cheti, cheti” with Del Carlo delighted the audience. Marco Guidarini, making his conducting debut with the company, led an uneven performance. There were some lovely passages and some sprightly playing, but there were moments when the orchestra lacked the vivacity with which the singers were performing. The chorus sang its one big number splendidly.
There is spaghetti served and eaten in this opera, but that’s not where the term “spaghetti western” comes from. If you don’t know its origin, look it up. It adds an interesting twist to the production.