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.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
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.