Donizetti, The Elixir of Love

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By Harvey Steiman

Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.

Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of San Francisco Opera, Conductor Bruno Campanella, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 29.10.2008 (HS)


Adina: Inva Mula (soprano)
Nemorino: Ramón Vargas (tenor)
Belcore: Giorgio Caoduro (baritone)
Dulcamara: Alessandro Corbelli (bass)
Giannetta: Ji Young Yang (soprano)

Nemorino: Ramón Vargas

In the very first scene of The Elixir of Love, re-set to a small town in nearby Napa Valley instead of “a small Italian village,” we meet Nemorino scooping ice cream for a gaggle of children. From the vintage of his ice cream truck and the costumes, it’s around 1915. He sees Adina on the town bandstand, wearing a sash proclaiming her “Queen of the Harvest” and signing up townspeople for library cards. He prepares a strawberry ice cream cone for her, but in delivering it he falls face-first and the ice cream tumbles to the ground. He picks it up, balances it on the cone and sheepishly offers it to her. She laughs and turns away.

In one deft moment, director James Robinson establishes the setting and the personalities of the two protagonists. Nemorino, played by tenor Ramón Vargas, is awkward and shy, and clearly infatuated with Adina, played by Inva Mula. She may be bookish but the town adores her. You can tell by the way they follow her around. The way she smiles at Nemorino, you can tell that she likes him but considers him unworthy. She’s a dish and she knows it. It’s only the first of many delightful and telling moments in this charming, colorful and apt production.

The Act I Set

Using painted flats and a Victorian bandstand as a unit set, the staging depicts a bucolic Napa Valley before its current incarnation as a luxury wine region. Those who know the Frank Loesser musical, also set in a early-20th-century Napa Valley, might be forgiven for thinking of “The Most Happy Fella.” In this story, infatuated with Adina, he buys an elixir from a traveling quack, supposedly like the one Isolde gave Tristan in the story Adina reads aloud in Scene I. Before the elixir (actually red wine) can work, Adina agrees to marry the army sergeant, Belcore, who rolls into town with a squad of recruits. It becomes clear, however, that Adina is only doing it to get to Nemorino, who joins the army to get the money to buy more of the elixir. Meanwhile, the whole town hears the rumor that he has inherited a fortune from a rich uncle, and when all the women flock to him, he’s convinced that it’s the elixir at work. In the end, Adina chooses him and pays off the sergeant to get Nemorino out of the army.

Vargas has a clear, high, lyric sound that’s ideal for Nemorino. He doesn’t play him as a bumpkin; he is just awkward and has low self-esteem. Mula has the slim, adorable looks and the light, creamy soprano to make an audience fall in love with her character. She knows who she is, and clearly is accustomed to getting her way.

Each character enters with a flourish. Dr. Dulcamara, the quack medicine man, played here by bass Alessandro Corbelli, arrives on a motorcycle with a sidecar. He places his suitcase full of elixir bottles on a small folding table, not the elaborate wagon seen in other productions. Corbelli does not overplay the character, either. You can tell he’s a slick con man, but he’s charming about it, not blatant. And he sings the music with spot-on articulation and diction. A team of leather-helmeted football players precedes Belcore, who practices plays with them as he sings his entrance aria. Baritone Giorgio Caoduro plays the character as pompous but totally unaware of it. He is just the school sports star a few years older. He also displays the best coloratura in the cast.

But the stars are Vargas and Mula. In the opera’s most famous aria, “Una furtiva lagrima,” Vargas spun out a gorgeous filament of sound, keeping the pulse of the music going while conveying the character’s joy at seeing a telltale tear on Adina’s face, evidence that she does indeed care for him. Mula, for her part, sang with youthful ease, creating a series of touching moments with Vargas as their relationship circles in on its denouement.

In the pit, conductor Bruno Campanella led a straightforward effort that sparkled just enough to keep everything moving along nicely, though not quite with the élan of the best performances of this familiar opera.

This being San Francisco, food is a running theme in this staging. Nemorino makes a sundae for Adina, which they share during their Act I duet, suggesting that Adina really might have feelings for him. Later, Adina idly snitches a few maraschino cherries from his truck. To drown his sorrows after Adina leaves Belcore before their wedding is completed the sergeant sits down to eat a whole pie during his Act II lament. He chooses it from an array of pastries brought by the townsfolk.

In the end, having won Adina, Nemorino repaints the generic “ice cream” sign atop his truck to say “Nemorino’s Ice Cream,” indicating that he finally has some self-esteem. And he definitely has become the most happy fella.

Pictures © Terrence McCarthy

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Second Opinion. Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov

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By Harvey Steiman

Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.

Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera, Conductor, Vassily Sinaisky, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 2.11.2008 (HS)

Boris Godunov – Samuel Ramey (bass-baritone)
Prince Shuisky – John Uhlenhopp as Prince (tenor)
Grigory/The Pretender Dimitri – Vsevolod Grivnov (tenor)
Varlaam – Vladimir Ognovenko (bass)
Pimen – Vitalij Kowaljow (bass)
The Simpleton – Andrew Bidlack (tenor)
Innkeeper: Catherine Cook (mezzo-soprano)

The Act I Set

Probably no other other opera has gone through as many revisions, re-orchestrations, re-sorting of scenes and acts and other adaptations than has Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Right from the beginning, the composer himself went back to the drawing board. The Imperial Theater rejected his original 1869 version, noting among other things the lack of a significant female role. By 1872 the composer had reworked the seven existing scenes and added an entirely new act set in Poland, where the princess Marina decides to use a pretender to the throne as her path to becoming queen of Russia.

The stark scenes in the original more single-mindedly focus on a dark, brooding portrait of the troubled tsar than the grander, more epic-scaled opera we are accustomed to. By the time the original version finally was staged in 1928, several posthumous revisions, culminating in a colorfully orchestrated one by Rimsky-Korsakov, had changed Mussorgsky’s tight, no-frills portrait into a grand opera.

This time around, San Francisco Opera mounted a strong, musically and dramatically moving production of the original version, never seen here. (In fact, Boris hasn’t held the stage at SFO since James Morris assayed the role in 1992.) One can argue that the later versions are more complete, and the revisions to the original scenes make them play more smoothly, but the original has a power of its own: owing to a more economical palette of music and dramatic material and that single-minded focus on what’s going in in Boris’ mind without the distractions of colorful Polish balls and extensive scenes detailing plots against him. Instead we can follow Boris’ disintegration from his accession to the throne through his growing madness and eventual death.

Samuel Ramey as Boris

Musically, Mussorgsky ends several scenes abruptly, the music stopping suddenly rather than reaching a climax or arching into rest. The curtain comes down for the one intermission at the end of the scene at an inn, where the drunken friar Varlaam and his pal Grigory, the pretender, are pursued by the tsar’s guards. Despite the vivacity and comic elements of the scene, it ends so unpreparedly that only the drop of the curtain cued the audience to applaud.

This economy, however, gives the scenes a certain realistic power, the sense that we are encountering actual reality instead of a staging of it. In its way, this series of individual moments is affecting. The first two scenes, in later versions making up the prologue, show a crowd of peasants being asked to pray that Boris will accept the throne, followed by the coronation scene with the “slava” chorus and Boris’ prayer. Then we cut to the monk Pimen’s cell, where he recounts Boris’ murder of the heir and Grigory decides to become the pretender. Then comes the scene at the inn. After intermission we get the scene in which Boris’ monologue, wherein he sees the spectre of the murdered heir, then the scene of in which a simpleton confronts a frightened Boris, and the final scene of Boris’ confrontation with Pimen and his death. End of opera. No Polish act, no Kromy Forest scene.

Some of the music we associate with Boris’ big set-pieces had not yet been written for this score. But Samuel Ramey, in the title role, grabs hold of the material and gives us a portrait of a man haunted by his past deeds (having killed the heir to get the throne) and, in his dying moments, urges his son to keep his conscience clear in order to be a good ruler. At 66, Ramey can occupy a character with mesmerizing intensity and wield a gloriously dark bass-baritone. The wobble that has affected him in recent years stayed more or less in check in Sunday’s performance, but a prominent dynamic beat on the correct pitch, especially in his mid-range, could be off-putting. At the top or the bottom, or in the big moments, he can still pull it together to achieve astonishing power.

The cast was strong across the board, both vocally and dramatically, especially bass Vitalij Kowaljow as Pimen, bass Vladimir Ognovenko as Varlaam and tenor Vsevolod Grivnov as Grigory, the pretender. As The Simpleton, first-year Adler Fellow Andrew Bidlack appeared in virtually every scene. Bald, cradling a model of an onion-domed Kremlin tower, he roamed the stage, interacting mutely with other characters, until encountering Boris in the penultimate scene. His disturbing presence and clear, pure tenor made for strong theater.

Vassily Sinaisky, chief guest conductor of the BBC Philharmonic who recently led performances of Carmen and Der Rosenkavalier at English National Opera, was strongest in the more intimate moments. The big crowd scenes never quite erupted with their full power, possibly because Mussorgsky’s own orchestration was less colorful than the more familiar ones from Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich. That only put more emphasis on Boris’ internal struggles, which is exactly what made this version so compelling to watch.

Pictures © Terrence McCarthy

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Strauss, Elektra

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By Bernard Jacobson

Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.

Seattle Opera, soloists, cond. Lawrence Renes, dir. Chris Alexander, set designer Wolfram Skalicki, costume designer Melanie Taylor Burgess, lighting designer Marcus Doshi, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Seattle, 18, 19, & 29. 10. 2008 (BJ)

It is too easy, in discussing Strauss’s Elektra, to stress the sheer aggressiveness of the score at the expense of other equally important qualities. From a composer who had already established his modernist and psychologically penetrative credentials in Salome, the drama of Elektra’s obsession with avenging her father Agamemnon’s death naturally drew clamorous orchestral writing and dissonant superimpositions of mutually contradictory chords that grind terrifyingly on the ear.

Yet Hofmannsthal’s and Strauss’s Elektra is not merely a violently inclined madwoman–her madness, and her lust for vengeance, are the twisted results of a love for her lost father and a capacity and longing for family happiness that have been unhinged by the trauma of that father’s murder by his wife Klytämnestra and her lover Aegisth. (I give the characters’ names in their German versions for consistency’s sake.) This shattering experience, intensifying the “Elektra complex” posited by Jung as a daughter-father counterpart to Freud’s “Oedipus complex,” is just one psychologically significant element in the plot – Freud’s emphasis on the importance of dreams, too, is evoked by the nightmares that have poisoned Klytämnestra’s sleep and also torture her daughter.

If it had been merely bloodcurdling, Seattle Opera’s new Elektra would have been a less astounding achievement. What this stunning production managed to do, without shortchanging the violence of the action or the uncompromising vehemence of Richard Strauss’ music, was to reveal the humane and lyrical side of both in their full glory. Yes, the composer of Elektra was the composer of Salome; but very soon he would be the composer of Der Rosenkavalier, and you could hear that in the warmth and lyricism that, together with the moments of gruesome discord, emerged from the pit.

On a grandly scaled and appropriately grim set designed by the late Wolfram Skalicki (and seen when the opera was last done here in 1996), director Chris Alexander gave us a drama of rich psychological penetration, worthy of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto and of its source in the play by Sophocles. Meanwhile, Lawrence Renes achieved the feat of drawing gloriously vital and seemingly unrestrained playing from the large orchestra without ever drowning the voices. The only exception was one moment near the end when Aegisth, being murdered offstage, was barely able to make himself heard.

Such a triumphant result would hardly have been possible without a cast of spectacular musical and dramatic gifts, and such a cast was happily on hand. In her West Coast debut, New York–born Janice Baird played an Elektra whose fundamental nobility was evident from the start, and poured a stream of frequently ravishing tone over what may well be the most taxing role in the soprano repertoire. Elektra’s vocal line is not a million miles distant from that of Ariadne in a later Strauss opera, or for that matter of Wagner’s Brünnhilde. Being largely founded on traditional tonal triads, it has a rooted quality very different from the tortured angularity of much modern music for the voice. It is the orchestra that for much of the time fulminates around her. This conflict justly reflects Elektra’s embattled isolation in a hostile world – and when she is reunited with her long-exiled brother Orest, the vocal and orchestral elements aptly coalesce in a newfound, gleamingly sensuous (and Straussian) unanimity.

The Orest in the opening-night cast, New Orleans–born bass–baritone Alfred Walker, made a sonorously impressive company debut. British mezzo-soprano Rosalind Plowright’s tormented, vicious, yet pitiable and curiously dignified Klytämnestra was sung with opulent, precisely focused tone, yet also with a taut intensity that was indeed bloodcurdling. This too was an important local debut, as was that of German soprano Irmgard Vilsmaier, whose sympathetic Chrysothemis revealed a rich and powerful voice that could presage a career of major proportions if she can rectify a degree of tightness at the top of the range.

A more familiar figure locally, tenor Richard Margison from Victoria, British Columbia, was an excellent Aegisth, and could hardly be blamed for not vocally penetrating the orchestral maelstrom with his offstage cries for help. The five maids and a variety of court hangers–on were all strongly cast. Melanie Taylor Burgess contributed new costumes that admirably blended antiquity with colorful poetic suggestion. Marcus Doshi’s lighting design, effective throughout, offered a truly gooseflesh thrill when Orest’s longed-for arrival was preceded by a looming shadow, succeeded in turn by a sudden liberating illumination of the whole stage.

Seattle’s tightly packed performance schedule necessitates double casting of the bigger roles. The second cast – I don’t like to use the accepted “gold cast/silver cast” terminology, for you can often find gold threads among the silver – had a hard act to follow, given that opening night had offered as compelling and indeed thrilling a performance of this challenging masterpiece as one could hope to witness. The matinee on the following day was excellent too, if not comparably revelatory.

Elektra must be on stage, uninterrupted, from just a few minutes after curtain-up, and singing for much of that time. Jayne Casselman started well. But she could not rival the voluptuous apparent ease with which Janice Baird had sailed over the complex orchestral texture, and as the performance wore on, she tired considerably, sounding vocally exhausted by the end. Luretta Bybee’s Klytämnestra, sung and acted skillfully enough, was an impressive portrayal by ordinary standards, but not by the standard Rosalind Plowright had set in bringing to life before our eyes a creature at once depraved and poignantly regal.

Life is unfair. One reason why this performance worked less well than the first lay in the very strength of its Chrysothemis. Carolyn Betty, acting no less sympathetically than Irmgard Vilsmaier, deployed a voice more confidently and evenly produced across its entire range. And if you have a Chrysothemis who is vocally stronger than her Elektra, the whole vocal balance of power is damaged, and with it inevitably the dramatic balance also. As Aegisth, a part hardly substantial enough to call for double casting, Thomas Harper was at least the equal of his predecessor, while in the more demanding role of Orest Alfred Walker repeated his dignified and richly sung first-night success.

Those who saw this Elektra with the second cast had an enjoyable experience; with Janice Baird and Rosalind Plowright on stage, it was an unforgettable one. So wonderful, indeed, was it all that I returned for a third immersion the following week, when Irmgard Vilsmaier had already made substantial steps in the direction of greater vocal evenness, and Ms. Baird and Ms. Plowright were in even more glorious voice than on the first night. Chris Alexander and Lawrence Renes certainly had much going in their favor. But they must still be warmly congratulated for welding their constituent elements into one of the most comprehensively moving and beautiful opera productions that I can remember experiencing.

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