An Exemplary L’elisir d’amore at the Royal Opera House

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November 19, 2014
From Seen and Heard International By: José Mª. Irurzun; Photo Credit: MARK DOUET

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore (Laurent Pelly’s production revived by Daniel Dooner): soloists, orchestra and chorus of The Royal Opera, Daniele Rustioni (conductor), Covent Garden, London 18.11.2014 (JPr)

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In my review when this co-production with the Opéra National de Paris was first performed by the Royal Opera in 2007 I wrote ‘What L’elisir needs is laughter and tears otherwise what’s the point? I counted only four potentially big laughs when the audience chuckled together rather than individually’ … and one of these was when a fast-moving Jack Russell terrier ran across the stage and then later back! However, as revived by Daniel Dooner in 2012 I remarked how the production ‘rarely now misses a trick to give the audience something to laugh at’. Now back for its third revival in 2014 I cannot imagine a nicer or sunnier staging of L’elisir d’amore; there is humour, sentiment and pathos aplenty but all bathos and buffoonery is reined in from an ensemble that treats Donizetti with respect and bring us a colourful evening full of gentle charm that sounds lovely and will look wonderful on a large screen in next week’s live broadcast to cinemas.

When it works as well as this L’elisir d’amore is an uplifting experience not least because as Simon Rees mentions in a programme essay, what with all the operatic deaths for sopranos ‘by disease, accident, murder or self-immolation, it is refreshing to find a cluster of operas in which the heroine (fat, thin or just nicely proportioned) doesn’t die but lives on to the final curtain, triumphant, victorious and happy. Adina in L’elisir d’amore is one, but one of not very many.’

In 2007 everyone seemed to take Donizetti’s 1832 melodramma giocosa much too seriously even though the description does suggest a story with some laughter rather than an out-and-out comic opera. The story’s genial humour come from the social attitudes of a small Italian village where it is harvest time and love is in the air. Adina owns the local farm, her friend Giannetta and a group of those working on the land are having a siesta. Nemorino, a naïve village boy, is in unrequited love with Adina. She is urged to read the story of Tristan who won Queen Isolde’s heart by drinking a magic love potion and Nemorino decides this is exactly what he needs. A quack doctor, Dulcamara arrives and sells him his ‘cure-all’ elixir so that he can win Adina’s heart. To spite him, the impulsive Adina announces her immediate marriage to a braggart army sergeant, Belcore. This ‘elixir’ is nothing but cheap Bordeaux but as in most rom-coms, after all the trials, tribulations and misunderstandings, true love wins out in the end.

How women were depicted in Italian post-war cinema seemed central to Laurent Pelly’s original staging; however, as the comedy has become broader this has been considerably diluted. There remains a somewhat French view of Italian peasant life and when the sergeant swaggers in with his ‘little and large’ soldier companions I still think of Captain Bertorelli from TV’s ‘Allo Allo!. A huge ziggurat of hay bales is intelligently used during the opening scene and Chantal Thomas’s set designs are naturalistic and three-dimensional throughout; there are a hay-baler, a tractor, a roadside trattoria, bicycles and scooters and a lorry-load of Dulcamara’s ‘snake oil’. Joël Adam’s lighting shows the passing time as it goes from sun-drenched morning to the starry sky of evening. The Act I scene change is accompanied by pastoral sounds and we see a front cloth with adverts entertainingly explaining how Doctor Dulcamara’s potion is the answer for everything – and I mean everything! Last – but perhaps not least – there is that Jack Russell, Alfie, who scuttles across the stage during Dulcamara’s ‘Udite, udite, o rustici’ and later runs back.

It is possible the 2012 revival had interesting consequences as now its two stars, Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak are an ‘item’ and earlier this year had a daughter. They were a memorable pairing in an ensemble I expected the current cast would have difficulty matching let alone surpassing, as was the case. Alagna was an agreeable Nemorino and he had brought his own costume including a felt hat that gave his portrayal a hint of Chico, the dim-witted Italian con artist member of the Marx Brothers. In hindsight, he concentrated too much on the physical comedy and did not portray a believable character who we genuinely end up caring about, as the very engaging Vittorio Grigolo now does. It is the first time I have heard Grigolo live and he did not disappoint. If this generation has a finer tenor for this repertoire then I have not heard him and his ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ was a show-stopping moment. I remember Nicolai Gedda reprising it at Covent Garden because of the storm of applause but audiences seem more restrained these days and although Grigolo has Gedda’s sensitivity over Donizetti’s long lines, it was greeted warmly but no one demanded an encore as in the old days. Grigolo’s magnetic personality on stage was ill-matched by his over-exuberant Villazón-like antics at his curtain call, hopefully this was just because he had enjoyed singing as much as his audience had taken pleasure in hearing him.

Lucy Crowe was a pert and delightful Adina with a pure voice and refined coloratura but she was so very English sounding and I longed for more Italianate colours than she currently possesses. Levente Molnár was ideal as the preposterous, mock-macho Belcore and has a flexible baritone with just the right amount of swagger to it. Jette Parker Young Artist, Kiandra Howarth led the chorus of potentially lovesick maidens appealingly whilst the men went about their bucolic duties enthusiastically. Daniele Rustioni, a former Jette Parker Young Artist, conducted his impeccable orchestra with irresistible lyrical verve, whilst keeping all the patter very brisk and light and all the dramatic accents pointed.

This opera succeeds or fails with Dulcamara, a comic archetype (W C Fields or Groucho Marx come to mind) who is alternately a wary and conniving ‘snake-oil salesman’, clownish or quick-thinking. Bryn Terfel is not the first singer you would imagine in the role but he clearly relishes singing Dulcamara at Covent Garden for the first time and brings to it perfect comic timing where the merest look, gesture or movement speaks volumes. His fast-paced pitch for his all-purpose tonic – ‘Udite, udite, o rustici’ – brings the opera to life in Act I and is central in the opera’s musical and comic development. My earliest memories of L’elisir d’amore are of Geraint Evans in this role; that other great Welshman never sang Wotan so it is amazing that Terfel can still get all his quick-fire words out, but he does. He seems to have great fun on stage and as always this was radiated throughout the opera house so it was a real pleasure to have been in his company once again, as it was to see such an exemplary performance of L’elisir d’amore. Do go and see it if you can.

Cast:
Adina: Lucy Crowe
Nemorino: Vittorio Grigolo
Dulcamara: Bryn Terfel
Belcore: Levente Molnár
Giannetta: Kiandra Howarth
Director: Laurent Pelly
Set designs: Chantal Thomas
Costume designs: Laurent Pelly
Associate costume designer: Donate Marchand
Lighting design: Joël Adam

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Wagner’s Tannhäuser Back in Dresden

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October 5, 2014
From Seen and Heard International By: José Mª. Irurzun; Photo credit: Matthias Creutziger

GermanyGermany Wagner: Tannhäuser, Staatskapelle and Staatsopernchor Dresden, Cornelius Meister (conductor), Semperoper Dresden, 3.10.2014 (JMI)

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All opera lovers know about the close relationship between Richard Wagner and the city of Dresden, where he premiered three of his operas. The Semperoper maintains its fidelity to the composer, and the audience responds again and again with a full house.
This was a revival of the Peter Konwitschny production that was premiered in 1997 and has now reached 67 performances at the Semperoper. Despite the years that have elapsed and the many times it has been performed, I confess that I knew nothing of this production and hence was curious to see what Mr. Konwitschny would do, given his iconoclastic and transgressive ideas in opera. The truth is that I could not believe what I saw in the first two acts which are basically within the tradition, whether or not the stage or costumes could be more suitable and attractive.
Mr. Konwitschny tends to not take Wagner’s dramas too seriously, and this came finally to the fore in the last act with his own version of the opera that has little to do with what Wagner wrote. Elisabeth dies here, but not due to her sorrow for the missing Tannhäuser; rather, she commits suicide by cutting her veins with Wolfram’s sword. It seems to me rather strange that someone later declared a saint by the church does this. Tannhäuser then arrives from Rome and meets his friend Wolfram, but he does not see Elisabeth’s corpse (which, by the way, is quite visible). Finally, Tannhäuser also kills himself, leaving the two dead lover sat the feet of none other than Venus,in an aesthetic composition reminiscent of a famous Pietà. What is never lacking in Mr.Konwitschny’ works is his remarkable direction of actors and crowds.
The musical direction was entrusted to Cornelius Meister, a regular in Dresden, who is having a remarkable career at just 34. I did not find his reading particularly compelling or exciting. He did show a great control of all the forces under his command and this connection never failed, but I tend to give great importance to emotion in opera, and it was somewhat absent. In general, his tempi were too slow. The Dresden Staatkapelle disappointed me somewhat during the first act. I expected more from them, based upon past experience, and they did improve significantly in the second half of the opera. Something similar can be said of the chorus which was less good than in the past, particularly the male section.
Stephen Gould as Tannhäuser proved again that today he is preeminent in these particularly demanding dramatic tenor roles. Few tenors have been able to do justice to the role of Tannhäuser, one of the most demanding in the entire repertoire. The difficulties of his singing in the Venusberg are followed by the challenging tessitura at the end of Act II, and then he has the strenuous account of Rome. Stephen Gould is not a paragon of subtleties and nuances, but his voice is large, powerful, and always ringing, able to overcome all the difficulties that Wagner wrote into the score. With more elegance and a more nuanced singing, he could be a perfect Tannhäuser, but perfection is not of this world.
Soprano Elisabet Strid played Elisabeth, and her performance was good once she got past some difficulties in her entrance with “Dich, teure Halle.” Her interventions in favor of Tannhäuser in the singing contest were very convincing, but she was somewhat short of emotion in the Prayer of the last act. Her voice is suited to the part, if somewhat impersonal in timbre.
Seldom does Wolfram Von Eschenbach not triumph in this opera: the music that Wagner gave to the character falls into the category of sublime. Markus Brück was a very good interpreter, singing with intensity and good taste, especially the “Song to the Star.” I have always found him an excellent singer, and he proved it again here.
Georg Zeppenfeld was a solid Landgrave and sang with authority. He is one of the most solid values of ??Dresden opera. Alexandra Petersamer was a discrete Venus, with a good middle range but tight at the top and too weak down below
The secondary characters were well covered. Ulrich Ress was a good Walther with a mediocre voice. Tilmann Rönnebeck was a fine Biterolf, and Emily Dorn did well as the Shepherd. Both Aaron Pegram as Heinrich and Jörn Schümann as Reinmar were correct.
The Semperoper was sold out. The audience was warm and gave the biggest ovations to Markus Brück and Stephen Gould.

Cast:
Tannhäuser: Stephen Gould
Elisabeth: Elisabet Strid
Wolfram: Markus Brück
Venus: Alexandra Petersamer
Landgrave: Georg Zeppenfeld
Walther: Ulrich Ress
Biterolf: Tilmann Rönnebeck
Heinrich: Aaron Pegram
Reinmar: Jörn Schümann
Shepherd: Emily Dorn

Production: Semperoper Dresden
Direction: Peter Konwitschny
Sets: Hartmut Meyer
Costumes: Ines Hertel

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Chance to See Underrated Meyerbeer Opera

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October 5, 2014
From Seen and Heard International By: José Mª. Irurzun; Photo credit: Bettina Stoess

GermanyGermany Meyerbeer: Dinorah, Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchestra and Chorus, Enrique Mazzola (conductor), Berliner Philharmonie, 1.10.2014 (JMI)

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It is quite curious what has happened over the past hundred years with Giacomo Meyerbeer. From being one of the most important opera composers of the first half of 19th century, and certainly the undisputed representative par excellence of French Grand Opera, he has become almost forgotten and even despised. Today, Les Huguenots and Robert le diable can be seen on stage on very rare occasions. In this sense it seems a laudable initiative by Berlin’s Deutsche Oper to offer Dinorah, since few opera lovers have had the chance to see it performed.
One of Meyerbeer’s last operas, Dinorah was premiered in 1859 at the Opéra Comique in Paris under the title of Le Pardon de Ploërmel, the Breton village where the action unfolds. It’s a pastoral comedy (with a weak libretto) that has historically served to showcase a coloratura soprano in the title character. The score is the work of a very sound musician and has a remarkable orchestration, but it is short of inspiration. Apart from a long and not outstanding overture, I must mention Dinorah’s famous aria, “Ombre legère,” and also Hoel’s aria, “Reviens à toi.“
The opera was done in concert form under the baton of Enrique Mazzola,whose reading was fully convincing and much better than I had expected. I think it’s the best performance I remember from him: he showed great knowledge and mastery of the score and took care of the details. The truth is that this opera lacks dramatic interest and can be boring, but he managed to avoid that. There was an excellent performance from the orchestra of the Deusche Oper Berlin, and also from the chorus,one of the very best in the world. Their prayers to St. Mary were extraordinary.
Dinorah was performed by Patrizia Ciofi, and we could debate at length whether she is the coloratura soprano that the part requires. In fact, one can always discuss this Italian soprano: her vocal quality has never been exceptional and that has not changed. To be able to have an important career with her instrument means that Patrizia Ciofi has always been and remains a great artist. Her ability to communicate with the audience is praiseworthy, and she had the triumph of the evening, though in purely vocal terms I can think of better alternatives for the role.
Baritone Etienne Dupuis left a very favorable impression in the character of Hoël, Dinorah’s fiancé and the cause of her misfortune. He is a lyric baritone who sings with taste and expression, and he would be a good choice for many roles in the dramatic repertoire.
Tenor Philippe Talbot interpreted the simple bagpiper, Corentin. His light tenor is not too attractive, but he was well suited to the role.
In the secondary characters Seth Carico was a sonorous Hunter while Gideon Poppe sang his aria with gusto. Finally, Elbenita Kajtazi and Christina Sidak were a good complement.
The auditorium of Berliner Philarmonie was at about 80% of capacity. The audience was very pleased with the concert, offering ovations and cheers to the artists, and especially to Patrizia Ciofi, Enrique Mazzola, the orchestra and the choir.

Cast:
Dinorah: Patrizia Ciofi
Hoël: Etienne Dupuis
Corentin: Philippe Talbot
Hunter: Seth Carico
The Reaper: Gideon Poppe
Shepherds: Elbenita Kajtazi and Christina Sidak

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