Archive for the ‘Donizetti’ Category

Don Pasquale, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, September 2010

13 September, 2010

A wealthy older bachelor decides to marry a young wife. What a bad idea — as Chaucer tells us in the Merchant’s Tale, where the young wife gets up to some monkey business in a pear tree. Add to the plot a nephew who wants to marry a woman not of the older man’s choosing, and you have the basis for Ben Johnson’s Silent Woman, a play in which the wealthy fellow will cut his nephew off if he marries his intended. The idea is to trick him into accepting his nephew’s marriage while giving up his own intentions, and that’s the basis for this glorious opera by Donizetti.

Norina and Dr. Malatesta

Its libretto — by Donizetti and Giovanni Ruffini — is based on an earlier text by Angelo Anelli for Stefano Pavesi’s opera Ser Mercantonio, and that in turn was based on Ben Johnson’s play. Don Pasquale is the name of the older man, Ernesto is his nephew, and the trick is that Ernesto’s fiancée — a pretty widow named Norina — is ready to play the part of the demure wife in a fake wedding with Pasquale, and then torment him beyond endurance. All this is cleverly contrived by Pasquale’s ‘friend’ Doctor Malatesta.

Johnson’s play The Silent Woman is also the basis for Richard Strauss’s little-performed opera Die schweigsame Frau, but the Donizetti is much easier to appreciate. It’s wonderful fun, and this Jonathan Miller production is a delight, with charming designs by Isabella Bywater showing us three floors of Don Pasquale’s house, along with tired servants who do his bidding simply because it pays their wages. When Norina moves in as the new, ostensibly demure wife, all sorts of people are hired and pandemonium reigns. Miller has put in some very clever dumb shows, which were brilliantly acted, and Jacques Imbrailo as Pasquale’s friend Doctor Malatesta was particularly good here, as was Bryan Secombe in the small part of the notary — I loved his pointed nose.

Don Pasquale with his 'wife' Norina

Imbrailo’s singing had great strength and charm, and Paolo Gavanelli gave us a boldly acted and well-nuanced portrait of the pig-headed Pasquale, a comic character, but one for whom we could still feel sympathy. Iride Martinez gave us a strongly sung Norina, and Barry Banks was an effete Ernesto with a lovely Rossini tenor voice.

Conducting by Evelino Pido, an excellent replacement for the late Charles Mackerras, gave a thrill to the overture before launching into some lyrical moments, and pacing things very well.

Performances continue until September 21.

La Fille du Régiment, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, May 2010

18 May, 2010

To a lover of darkly dramatic operas such as TristanTosca, and Trovatore, this Donizetti work might seem rather trivial, but of its type it’s brilliant, and Natalie Dessay is unsurpassable in the role of Marie. She’s vivacious, and utterly believable, as is Juan Diego Flórez in the role of Tonio. His rendering of the great tenor aria Ah! mes amis in Act I, with all its high Cs, was greeted with huge applause. These two formed a perfect match, brilliantly supported by the rest of the cast, who were all entirely at home in their roles. Alessandro Corbelli was a wonderful Sulpice, sergeant of the regiment and surrogate father to Marie. Ann Murray gave a finely nuanced portrayal of the Marquise of Berkenfeld, with Donald Maxwell perfectly fitting the role of her Major-Domo. And Dawn French in the speaking role of the Duchess of Crackentorp had excellent comic timing and stage presence.

Royal Opera photo by Bill Cooper

The performers could hardly be better, but it’s their interactions within Laurent Pelly’s wonderful production that makes these performances work so well. While the staging of Act I is cleverly done on a map of the area in Switzerland where this opera supposedly takes place, Act II is the pièce de résistance of the production. It starts with four maids cleaning, their movements choreographed in time to the music, and continues with one small nugget of comedy after another. For example it’s a rare opera production that has one singer playing a piano accompaniment for another, rather than miming what a pianist in the orchestra is playing, but that is exactly what Ann Murray did for Natalie Dessay, and it was followed by Ms. Dessay and Mr. Corbelli having a go on the piano themselves. The entrance of the wedding guests was wittily done, and the use of different languages was a delight. While the opera was performed in French, Dawn French herself occasionally made sharp comments in English, translated by French surtitles — a lovely touch. And when push came to shove and the French soldiers ousted the Major-Domo from the room, he burst into German!

Then to top it all there was the beautiful musical direction of Bruno Campanella. His conducting had a rhythmic energy that received a spontaneous round of applause immediately after the overture, and kept things moving throughout the opera. This was the same cast I saw three years ago — except that Ann Murray has replaced Felicity Palmer — and it’s a cast that has to be seen. Any young lover of opera should visit these performances so that in fifty years’ time they can tell their grandchildren they once saw Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez in the roles of Marie and Tonio — a pairing that will be difficult to beat for the rest of their lives.

Student standby tickets are sometimes available, and performances continue until June 3.

The Elixir of Love, English National Opera, ENO at the London Coliseum, February 2010

25 February, 2010

Andrew Shore as Dulcamara and Sarah Tynan as Adina. Photo by Tristram Kenton

This Donizetti opera with its wonderful libretto by Felice Romani, doyen of the Italian librettists of his day, is always a treat. Having seen it so many times in productions set in 19th century Italy, I’ve sometimes wondered what the original would have felt like in 1832, in what would have been the rather limited rural society of the day. This new Jonathan Miller production — imported from the New York City Opera — shows us, by placing the action in 1950s America. The programme claims it’s the American Midwest, the notes that I read say the American Southwest, and the car driven by Dulcamara has a Texas number plate — take your pick. Wherever it is, it works well, with designs by Isabella Bywater and lighting by Hans-Åke Sjöquist.

Having the libretto in English may disappoint some who love the Italian, but this adaptation by Kelley Rourke is very effective. When the beautiful young Adina, looking like Marilyn Monroe and running a diner, sings “Oh, Tristan conquering hero come take me as your bride”, we need no surtitles, and we know that here is no simple country girl. Her comment brings the idea of a love potion into focus even before Dulcamara and his bogus medicines have been seen or heard of. When he drives up in his smart and slightly dusty open top car, the small community centred on Adina’s Diner is agog, and at a dollar a bottle his cure-all is quickly snapped up.

Andrew Shore as Dulcamara did a fine job of presenting this charlatan as a man with panache — not a clown, but a fellow who would not be out of place in an auction house. And with Sarah Tynan singing beautifully as a charmingly shrewd Adina, we had two smart characters, contrasting well with the slower wits of Nemorino and Sergeant Belcore, both of whom want to marry her. Although she finds Belcore attractive, Nemorino just needs a bit of confidence in order to win his girl, and Dulcamara’s bogus love potion gives it him. There is, admittedly, his wealthy uncle in the background, whom Adina is perfectly well aware of, but she likes him for himself, and eventually gets the best of both his desire and his money. John Tessier portrayed Nemorino convincingly well, going from an abject lack of self-confidence to supreme certainty that Adina will fall for him, and David Kempster played Belcore without the exaggerated swagger one sometimes sees.

Musically this was wonderful, with the young conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, still in his early thirties, making Donizetti’s composition ring with joy and energy. The singing of Sarah Tynan was particularly good, and very well supported by Andrew Shore’s Dulcamara and John Tessier’s Nemorino. This performance was a delight to listen to, but even more of a delight to experience on stage.

Lucia di Lammermoor, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2010

5 February, 2010

This David Alden production for the ENO, originally staged in 2008, has a clarity that allows a striking distinction between Lucia’s beloved Edgardo, and her brother Enrico. He is shown as a very nasty piece of work — a child still playing with his toys, putting his hand up his sister’s skirt, and showing himself to be an immature bully who eventually twists the neck of the mortally self-wounded Edgardo. This is hardly the Walter Scott story on which the opera is based, but the libretto by Salvadore Cammarano cut some of the main characters, namely Lucia’s mother and father, in order to fit the story into a three act opera. The result is usually considered a great success, and it makes Enrico the force behind Lucia’s fatal wedding, against her will, after he has shown her some forged letters demonstrating that Edgardo no longer cares about her. Enrico’s retainer, Normanno who is fully complicit in these forgeries is shown to be a callous rogue when he laughs loudly after hearing the chaplain’s condemnation. Altogether, David Alden has created a particularly malicious take on the story, and it works.

As Lucia, Anna Christy sang beautifully, and looked about sixteen. This was partly helped by her excellent costume, courtesy of Brigitte Reiffenstuel whose costumes gave a strong impression of religious Protestantism, and I liked the bowler hats on some cast members — in particular Normanno — reminding me of the Orangemen in Northern Ireland. Indeed Scott’s original story had this feature, as Lucia’s family were Protestant supporters of William of Orange, while Edgardo’s family were supporters of the Jacobites. But to return to the singing, Barry Banks was a very fine Edgardo, and Brian Mulligan a strong Enrico. Clive Bayley sang very clearly and powerfully as the chaplain, holding the stage with his erect posture, which reminds me that the staging involved people on their knees at many points, making them look small and powerless in this ill-fated drama of love and hatred. This was helped by the set designs of Charles Edwards, which were simple, yet surprisingly effective. With Adam Silverman’s lighting they gave an appropriate air of darkness and decay to the dwelling places of both Edgardo and Enrico.

Of course the singers can only give their best with suitable direction from the orchestra pit, and here we have to thank conductor Antony Walker for excellent work. The orchestra, including a glass harmonica that is used during Lucia’s mad scene, played beautifully. These are performances of Lucia that should not be missed!

Linda di Chamounix, Royal Opera, September 2009

8 September, 2009

chamonix[1]

This late work by Donizetti was written for a Viennese audience and first performed in May 1842, then revised for Paris in November the same year. It was a great success, but its rather silly plot is now little known, so I’ll give a brief synopsis. Linda is a very pretty peasant, loved by, and in love with, an apparently impecunious artist named Carlo. Unfortunately the local Marquis has designs on Linda, and her father Antonio is dependent on him for the renewal of their lease. To add to the complication, Carlo is the nephew of the Marquis, a fact hidden from everyone. But before things can come to a head, the young men arrange to go to Paris to perform as street entertainers during the winter months when there is no work, and the local Prefect persuades Linda’s father that she should go with them to keep out of the Marquis’s clutches. Carlo follows her, reveals his true identity, and in Paris sets up a stylish home with her. Carlo’s mother hears of it and makes immediate arrangements for her son to marry a member of the aristocracy. In the meantime, the Marquis visits to persuade Linda to leave with him, but is firmly rebuffed. Then Antonio visits seeking help, and when faced with his daughter, living in luxury, he disowns her. Now comes news of Carlo’s forthcoming marriage, and Linda goes mad. Unlike Lucia di Lammermoor however, this all ends happily. Linda returns to Chamounix with her friend, the orphan Pierotto, and is cured by the sound of music, first from Pierotto, then from Carlo, who sings the words they shared when they first met. The whole village then rejoices in anticipation of their wedding. Rather like Act I of Giselle in reverse.

This was a concert performance, brilliantly conducted by Mark Elder, and the cast, headed by Elise Gutierrez as Linda, and Stephen Costello as a gloriously voiced Carlo, was excellent. The father and mother, Antonio and Maddalena were strongly sung by Ludovic Tezier and Elizabeth Sikora, with Balint Szabo singing a firm bass as the Prefect, and Marianna Pizzolato in the contralto part of Pierotto. But the star of the show for me was Alessandro Corbelli as the Marquis. His voice expressed so well the pomposity of the role, and even his entrances and exits were comic masterpieces. He and the young American, Stephen Costello, who was making his debut at Covent Garden, were a delight to watch with their body language helping to express their feelings, even in this concert performance.

Finally it’s worth mentioning that the stage was beautifully lit for the orchestra and chorus, and the dimmed lighting of the auditorium added to the effect, with the dome lit in blue from two lights in the orchestra pit. A very attractive ‘production’, even if it was merely a concert, and I would gladly see more unusual operas like this. An excellent start to the new season for the Royal Opera House.

Roberto Devereux, Holland Park Opera, June 2009

31 May, 2009
Robert Devereux — from Wikipedia

Robert Devereux — from Wikipedia

This gloriously dramatic opera by Donizetti, composed in 1837 at the time of his wife’s death, provides a powerful vehicle for the soprano as Queen Elizabeth. The story is loosely based on the life of Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex (1565–1601), adapted by the librettist Salvatore Cammarano from the French play Elisabeth d’Angleterre by Francois Ancelot, and freely using much of Felice Romani’s Il Conte d’Essex, written in 1833.

The essentials are as follows. Robert is a favourite of the queen, but has made a mess of commanding England’s troops in Ireland, and is under attack because of his apparent treachery. The queen, fearing for Robert’s life, has given him a ring that he should return to her if need be, and she will save him. But unbeknown to the queen he is in love with Sara, wife to the Duke of Nottingham, and he entrusts the ring to her. She in turn gives him a scarf she has embroidered to express their love. In Act II the queen’s ministers arrest Robert, search his apartments, and discover the scarf. The queen is furious at the declaration of love embroidered on the scarf, and wants to condemn Robert to death despite entreaties from his friend Nottingham. Later Nottingham realises what is going on, but when the queen interrogates him and Robert as to the identity of the mystery lady, both remain silent. The queen signs Robert’s death sentence, and he is sent to the Tower. In Act III Nottingham confronts his wife and orders her seclusion at home. When she eventually manages to take the ring to the queen, followed by Nottingham, it is too late — a canon shot announces Robert’s death. Nottingham has detained his wife long enough to forestall the queen’s intervention, and she now orders their arrest. But haunted by Robert’s ghost and her own coming death she abdicates the throne. Needless to say, this is a deviation from history, though Devereux was executed in 1601, and the queen passed away two years later.

This exciting new production at Holland Park, conducted by Richard Bonynge and directed by Lindsay Posner, boasted elegant designs and glorious Elizabethan costumes by Peter McKintosh, well lit by Peter Mumford. The stage was more extensive than it has been for many Holland Park productions, and with movement directed by Adam Cooper it all came off with great effect. Irish soprano Majella Cullagh looked suitably regal as Queen Elizabeth, with her high head-gear and almost white make-up. She sang the role well, gaining power as the evening progressed. Leonardo Capalbo was an eminently realistic Robert, with Yvonne Howard doing well in the mezzo role of Sara. Baritone Julian Hubbard sang strongly as her husband Nottingham, and Aled Hall was a sinister Lord Cecil, showing excellent stage presence. For opening night on June 2, Joan Sutherland was in the audience and when people began to recognise her shortly before the start of the second half, there was a warming round of applause. Her husband Richard Bonynge conducted with excellent precision and restraint, and this would have been a terrific performance if the singers had not seemed so nervous, perhaps because it was opening night, and possibly because of the famous diva in the audience.

Lucia di Lammermoor, live cinema screening, Metropolitan Opera, New York, Feb 2009

9 February, 2009

Anna Netrebko sang the title role, and her lover Edgardo, heir to a rival clan and sworn enemy of her brother, was sung by Piotr Beczala, replacing Rolando Villazon. He did a fine job with his impassioned singing and stage presence, and Ms. Netrebko was excellent, managing this agonising part with strength and delicacy. Her domineering brother Enrico was brilliantly portrayed by Mariusz Kwiecien, showing a nastiness that made one wish him dead. Compelling her to marry, against her will, the wealthy Arturo, sung by Colin Lee, he drives her to insanity, and her mad scene was very effective. I remember Joan Sutherland doing this nearly forty years ago, and it is almost impossible to equal her, but Ms. Netrebko managed the scene with great skill and dramatic flair. As Raimondo, the family chaplain, Ildar Abradazakov sang strongly, and this was altogether an excellent cast, well led in the orchestra pit by Marco Armiliato, who brought a secure and sensitive performance form the orchestra.

The production by Mary Zimmerman transposes this Scottish nightmare from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, and it worked well, giving a sense of spaciousness in the houses of Enrico and Edgardo, yet claustrophobia in the outside scene at night where Edgardo learns of his lover’s death. Designs were by Daniel Ostling and costumes by Mara Blumenfeld.