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.
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
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.