02 Jul 2014
La finta giardiniera, Glyndebourne
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.
With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.
Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.
If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”
Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.
On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.
Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.
Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.
Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.
The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s ﬁrst great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.
This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.
Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’
Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.
Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Theseus’ words to his wife, Hippolyta, spoken before the Mechanicals’ theatricals in the final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, would be an apt epigraph for Frederic Wake-Walker’s new Glyndebourne production of Mozart’s La finta giardiniera — the first time the House, for whom Mozart has been the cornerstone, has staged the composer’s adolescent experimentation with opera seria. For, Wake-Walker’s basic concept rests upon that old theatrical conundrum: reality or fantasy?
The artifice takes two forms: in Act 1 it is the stylisation of the eighteenth-century theatre, in the final two Acts it is the fickleness and elusiveness of the human heart — or, as Shakespeare put it: ‘O me! What eyes hath Love put in my head,/Which have no correspondence with true sight’ (Sonnet CXLVIII). So, in the opening Act the exhibitionism and stagecraft are foregrounded, before the very edifices of the stage itself are literally torn down in an effort to uncover the truth about love.
In interview in the Glyndebourne programme book, the director declares his intention to make the characters seem ‘not quite rooted in the real world’, a decision supported by the set which ‘removes the characters from any outside world’. He may define the ‘outside world’ as ‘any sense of politics or religion or anything’, but here ‘anything’ could also mean matters horticultural, for Wake-Walker places more emphasis on the ‘pretence’ indicated in the work’s title than on the disguised heroine’s assumed profession. The virtual absence of a garden is a pity, for the symmetries and geometries of the eighteenth-century formal garden both infer the desire to impose artificial order upon nature, but also permit much intrigue and subterfuge — as evidenced later by Mozart’s in Così and Figaro.
Instead, designer Antony McDonaldpresents us with what the director describes as a Lustschloss, ‘aplace where people can behave differently where people can come out of themselves and go crazy’. This feeding ground for folly is a gracious, if slightly worn-around-the-edges, rococo cupola room, appointed with towering windows, shadowy niches and firework recesses. In Act 2, this ‘real’ chamber is replaced by a papery pastiche; the crumbling façades are violently swept aside and amid the ruins the doting protagonists find themselves transformed into shepherd and shepherdess, adrift in a pastoral wilderness with only a dented mantelpiece and a dainty parlour sofa to hint at the ‘artifices’ of the formal, class-stratified society from which they have escaped. After the overt theatrical effrontery of Act 1, the direction makes little attempt subsequently to communicate directly to the audience with the result that character and situation are sometimes hard to fathom.
Christiane Karg, Joélle Harvey and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke anchor an expert Mozartean ensemble. Glyndebourne’s new Music Director Robin Ticciati conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
Lighting designer Lucy Carter does provide some striking chiaroscuro effects, boldly complementing the directorial juxtapositions. But, overall it feels as if Wake-Walker is trying rather too hard to make sense of the nonsensical. Indeed, productions of the opera tend to be justified by the historical importance of this youthful example of Mozart’s musico-dramatic genius, and weaknesses blamed upon the inane libretto rather than the music.
The opera tells of Violante, who has been beaten and left for dead by her lover Count Belfiore — here we witness the aristocrat’s desperate bid to escape the crime-scene during the overture — and who takes refuge amid the flower beds in order to save her skin and her reputation. (It’s not clear why in the ensuing action she should selflessly save her abuser from accusations of murder, then forgive him and go to such lengths to win him back). Don Anchise, the Podestà (Mayor) of Lagonero, loves his new gardener, Sandrina (the disguised Violante), to the chagrin of his enamoured servant, Serpetta. Serpetta, though, has her own admirer in Sandrina’s cousin Nardo (actually her servant Roberto, in disguise). Arminda, the Podestà’s niece, casting aside her former lover, Ramiro, now adores Belfiore — Violante’s former lover and assailant. By the end, one can sympathise with Podestà who just seems to wish they’d all get on with it and marry someone, and give him some peace!
In the title role, Christiane Karg blends expressive grace with technical virtuosity, her gleaming soprano soaring through effortless, long-breathed phrases. Sandrina’s end-of-Act 1 aria was imbued with romantic pathos, and Karg characterised the seria situations without undue caricature. She didn’t quite convince as a horticulturalist though but this wasn’t her fault, as she was not helped in this regard by the direction or costuming: attired in cornflower blue silk gown, as she sighed and waned, this Sandrina did not look ideally made for agricultural exertion beyond a touch of gentle rose-pruning.
Her troubled lover, Count Belfiore, was pleasingly sung by Joel Prieto. The Spanish tenor’s physical elegance was matched by his beautifully shaped vocal lines and tenderness of tone, although perhaps Prieto’s voice is a little too slight to convey Belfiore’s insane ardour. More commanding of presence was Nicole Heaston as Arminda, whose strong tone and ability to carry off some fantastically extravagant costumes impressed equally. Arminda’s rejected lover, the black leather-clad Ramiro, was sung with flexibility by mezzo soprano Rachel Frenkel, her rich lyricism sparked by a flash of fire in her excellent Act 2 aria. Joèlle Harvey was acerbic and spirited as the spurned Serpetta, and she used her bright soprano most expressively. As Podestà, tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke delivered an arresting Act 1 aria and was a picture of buffo bumptiousness throughout.
Romanian baritone Gyula Orendt was indisposed, and was only able to sing the recitatives of the heroine’s devoted servant Nardo, his mute, lively acting supplemented in the arias by Gavan Ring’s warm bass resounding from the side of the circle. Ring deservedly received the most appreciative applause of the evening — and, it would have been fitting if he had been able to join the other principals on stage rather than receive his accolade from the shadows of the auditorium.
Wake-Walker has judiciously applied the pruning shears to both arias and recitative, and there is some re-ordering, but — even with such a uniformly excellent cast, and especially in the long second half — there are a few redundant arias, showing that the precocious composer might have acquired musical mastery but had not yet sharpened his dramatic instincts. That said, there are many moments which look ahead to the treasures to come, most particularly the two Act final ensembles where conductor Robin Ticciati moved things along swiftly, highlighting the juxtapositions between characters. And, there was a directorial nod towards Don Giovanni with the cloaked entrance of the masked gang, searching for Sandrina, at the end of Act 2, as the characters mistook other’s identity in the darkness.
Ticciati expertly guided some of today’s finest baroque specialists, from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, through a graceful, limpid performance. The pace was neither too leisurely nor too frantic, Ticciati responding thoughtfully to the juxtaposition of comic and serious, and the dramatic details were judiciously pointed with some fine instrumental solos and the astute, sensitive continuo playing of Andrew Smith and cellist Luise Buchberger.
At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when the four lovers return to regularities of the Athenian court after the lunacy of the fairies’ wood, one of the beloveds, Demetrius, remains bewitched — order is restored but it is an order that depends upon enchantment and fantasy. This seems to be Wake-Walker’s essential argument: that the moment of most clarity, when Sandrina and Belfiore recognise the artifice about them, is also the moment of most madness. The director has moved Nardo’s Act 1 aria — which asserts the folly of loving women, accompanied by the mad frolics of the violin — to the final Act, preceding the closing duet in which the lovers realise that madness and love are indivisible bed-fellows. It’s a neat idea, but one might counter-argue that in fact the route to madness is to try to make sense of the absurd plot. In this case, depth and credibility of characterisation might be a surer path to ‘truth’ rather than artifice.
Cast and production information:
Don Anchise (Il Podestà, Mayor of Lagonero), Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacker; Sandrina (La Marchesa Violante Onesti), Christiane Karg; Ramiro, Rachel Frenkel; Serpetta, Joèlle Harvey; Nardo (Roberto), Gyula Orendt/Gavan Ring; Arminda, Nicola Heaston; Count Belfiore, Joel Prieto; Director, Frederic Wake-Walter; Conductor, Robin Ticciati; Designer, Antony McDonald; Lighting Designer, Lucy Carter; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Saturday, 28th June 2014.