Farcical aquatic ceremonies: La donna del lago at the ROH


According to the Royal Opera House’s new production of Rossini’s La donna del lago, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. But while the production’s vague juxtaposition of barbaric highlanders and European-style courtiers doesn’t really work, there’s a lot of exciting singing, Joyce DiDonato as the titular aquatic lass, and Juan Diego Florez in a kilt.
Continue Reading

Elisir d’amore: I need a drink

Juan Diego Flórez is a very charming and accomplished guy, and not a good enough actor to disguise it.  As moony dumbass Nemorino he doesn’t convince, no matter how many precisely timed pratfalls he pulls.  This was a production that existed for one reason, and that was to hear him sing “Una furtiva lagrima.”

It got an endless ovation.  It was an exceptionally fine piece of singing, but embedded as it was in a production with no other distractions, how could it not?  This was your Platonic ideal of Wiener Staatsoper repertory performances: an adored star surrounded by solid but unexceptional ensemble costars, all engaging in well-worn dramatic shtick on a set that is older than any of them.  The only exception was that your average rep night has rather fewer stage-orchestra train wrecks than this one did.

Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore.  Wiener Staatsoper, 29/10/10.  Production “after” Otto Schenk with sets by Jürgen Rose.  Conducted by Yves Abel with Juan Diego Flórez (Nemorino), Sylvia Schwartz (Adina), Tae Joong Yang (Belcore), Lars Woldt (Dulcamara), Anita Hartig (Giannetta)

Otto Schenk’s Elisir d’amore is located in a sunny part of Italy where the peasants are remarkably clean and well-dressed.  The set, though, has been going for 179 performances and resembles a pale beached whale, even conman Dulcamara’s wish-fulfillment wagon is faded.  The blocking is steadfastly conventional and not polished enough to acquire wit beyond the most obvious drunk jokes.  Also, re-stretch your damn backdrop, Staatsoper.  The sky is wrinkly.  But if you like this kind of thing, here it is.

So far, so repertory.  The attraction here was the Nemorino of the Flórez.  I’m usually nuts for him, but he really rubbed me the wrong way in this.  Nemorino’s music gives him little space to display his virtuoso technique and high notes, leaving him to get by on his lyricism and charm alone.  His singing is musically unimpeachable, but the tone is a bit narrow and nasal for the role.  He can fill a performance with clever stage business, but it doesn’t really cohere into a character.

Absent his dazzling coloratura, I actually found him kind of smug and annoying.  His charm is indeed plentiful, and bowled the rest of the audience over, but he seemed to know exactly how good he is, and that’s never attractive.  It’s particularly not good when you’re playing a simple and sincere soul like Nemorino–tellingly, only Nemorino’s elixir-smashed confidence actually worked.  What the hell am I asking for, I know!  But the most sympathetic performances have a sort of generosity to them, and I found that absent here.

He did encore the aria, though.  Of course.

Yes, that’s La Netrebka.  Only picture I could find, sorry!

The rest of the cast was perfectly acceptable.  New ensemble member Sylvia Schwartz as Adina missed the first two performances of the run due to illness.  Maybe she had not entirely recovered; her tone wavered between sweet and focused and fluttery and squally.  She improved as a the night went on, though, and made for a poised and accurate Adina of the lyric sort.  She doesn’t have the easy coloratura or extension for a killer “Prendi” cabaletta, but her secure low notes bode well for her appearances as Susannah and Zerlina later this season.

Tae Joong Yang has a strong and noble baritone voice, but seemed to force unnecessarily both vocally and dramatically; his Belcore scored on pomposity but could have used more suavity.  Lars Woldt was miscast as Dulcamara, with a fine voice but without the velocity to make the patter roll.  Anita Hartig’s warm voice seemed overqualified for Giannetta.

Now for the biggest problem of the evening: the conducting.  I have rarely heard such a messy performance.  Yves Abel chose perfectly conventional tempos but nearly every number featured major coordination problems between orchestra and stage, including losing the entire soprano section in the Dulcamara entrance chorus, losing both tenor and soprano towards the end of the concertante Act 1 finale, and many, many places where the singers were a beat or two off from the orchestra.  Recitatives featured odd pauses.  It was BAD.  That’s the only way to put it.

Lots of enthusiastic applause from everyone in the audience, though.  Now I remember why I avoid these tourist-magnet repertory productions.  I think I have discovered the proper place for that irritating word Startenor, though.

This was the final performance with Juan Diego but the opera marches on with various other casts later this season.  This production can also be seen on DVD with Netrebko and Villazón in excellent form.  However, my favorite Elisir remains the one with Alagna and Gheorghiu–cute 1920’s setting and he’s got that sweet stupidity, she’s got that bitchiness.

This was part 2.1 of my newly-discovered series Operas I See in Both Vienna and Munich that the Bayerische Staatsoper Does More Weirdly.  Meaning I’m going to see the notorious “underpants Elisir” with Calleja in Munich in January.

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper.

Continue Reading

Je vais marcher dans votre co-production

La Fille du Régiment, Met Opera, 4/21/08. Natalie Dessay, Juan Diego Flórez, Felicity Palmer, Alessandro Corbelli et. al. Marco Armiliato.

Donizetti’s Fille du Régiment is an obsession-filled story of a twisted nuclear family. Only when Marie has shed her fractured paternal attachment with the regiment and reluctantly conformed to a traditional model of feminine conduct can she be united with her love, Tonio, who must in turn trade his lederhosen for a uniform to prove his masculinity. Don’t make me tell you about the tank.

Just kidding. Mostly. Been reading some Freud recently; it gets to you.

This production is a hoot. It kept coming very close to the line of Too Much, but never really crossed it.

I liked Natalie Dessay’s Marie a lot more than I liked her Lucia (not reviewed here because I saw the dress rehearsal). Her Marie is a little like a cartoon character, mixed with a slightly mystifying dose of Olympia and occasionally capable of brief introspection. Her voice is still razor-like and somewhat vinegary, but it suits this role and her interpretation of it precisely. Her middle voice had something of a glow to it that I didn’t hear in her Lucia, and her manic presence is also more at home as Marie than as Lucia (where she was hopelessly muted until the Mad Scene). “Forceful” would perhaps describe her voice, but, well, Marie is forceful too. The coloratura is so integrated with the stage action, it’s both funny and entirely verisimilar in an operatic way.

My appreciation of this opera will probably be forever hampered by my utter ambivalence about the 9 or however many high C’s that take up residence in Tonio’s “Ah! mes amis.” I have nothing but praise for Senor Flórez’s panache in singing them, and recognize that it’s an amazing feat, it’s just not my preferred mode of vocal athleticism. And I don’t find the music itself of this number very interesting. Yes, he sang it twice, it was pretty great the second time too, I’m sure I just saw vocal history but give me the regiment song or the Act II trio, or something with lots of coloratura, or whatever. Bwah. Sorry.

But I love love love Juan Diego Flórez. He’s got a lot more than the high C’s, namely charm and style. The slow parts were beautiful, and the cute parts totally cute. He’s funny without forcing anything.

I think Alessandro Corbelli has somewhat more than the amount of voice required of your average buffo but somewhat less than would be required by most other operatic roles. Tonight, at least, he sounded somewhat small and not quite boomy enough. He’s very amusing and his French is fine, though. Felicity Palmer was, as usual, both hilarious and vocally authoritative as the Marquise, nice piano playing too (and re Maury’s question: her piano bit sounded vaguely like Act III of Wozzeck to me). Marian Seldes didn’t steal the show as the Duchess of Krakenthorp, which I think is a good thing. She did make it pretty funny though, including a recurring joke about a bobsled team that made wonderfully little sense.

They all sell the thing, perhaps a little too well. There isn’t a lot of time to breathe. Sometimes the production feels like a slightly overoiled machine. Donizetti comedy is goofy but lovable, without the spicy touch of the surreal that can invade Rossini opera buffa. To be the truly anarchic experience this sucker wants to be, it could use a few more touches of interpolated Wacky to take it out of the “mildly zany” (pace Maury) and into the “totally weird” (though a little bobsled joke goes a long way), or it needs to take the piece as it is and play it a little more straight. It feels like they’re going to squeeze the opera too hard and it’s going to break, though it never quite happens. The emotional scale is a little too big, they want to be able to be touching and wacky at the same time but the gear shifts don’t happen quickly or completely enough and you end up on a fence.

These sell-out-before-anyone-has-seen-it productions bother me. I don’t think it’s been overhyped exactly, it just seems like it has been ordained a hit regardless of its actual quality. Like the encore, it seems somewhat planned out and calculated when it could use some spontaneity. It’s symptomatic of the gains and the losses you get when you import or co-produce something with other houses (in this case, two others–ROH and the Wiener Staatsoper). It arrives battle-tested but maybe just a little bit shrink-wrapped.

Continue Reading