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.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
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?
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.