Archive for Gaetano Donizetti

Una Furtiva Lagrima

Posted in Biographical, Opera with tags , , , , on December 2, 2014 by telescoper

Too busy for a proper post today so here’s a bit of music. On Saturday I had the pleasure of listening on BBC Radio 3 to a live broadcast of the opera L’elisir d’amore from Covent Gardens, one of my all-time favourite works. I definitely have a thing for the kind of Italian Bel Canto exemplified by the work of Gaetano Donizetti and this is one of his greatest; certainly his most performed anyway. One the surface it’s a light romantic comedy with a very silly plot involving a quack doctor and a fake potion, but it’s beautifully characterized and has considerable dramatic depth and wonderful music. I don’t mind daft operas, as long as they’re sufficiently daft to be true to real life…

Anyway, listening on the radio made me realise how long it has been since I went to see an opera live. Looking at the Covent Garden website to see if there were any more performances due, I saw the prices of the remaining tickets, which brough tears to my eyes. All of which brings me to the highlight of L’elisir d’amore, the Act III aria Una Furtiva Lagrima, one of the most famous and beautiful tenor arias in the entire repertoire. Here it is, sung by the late great Pavarotti. Enjoy!

Oh, and while I am on the theme of opera I’ll just mention that Maria Callas was born on this day in 1923. Happy Birthday, La Divina!


Maria Stuarda & Roberto Devereux

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 10, 2013 by telescoper

I spent last weekend in Cardiff in order to catch the remaining two operas in the series of three bel canto Tudor operas by Gaetano Donizetti being staged by Welsh National Opera; my review of the first, Anna Bolena, which I saw a month ago, can be found here.

Saturday night (5th october) in Cardiff Bay saw me at the splendid Wales Millennium Centre for Maria Stuarda. Although inspired by the story of Mary Queen of Scots, the plot of this Opera is almost entirely imagined. In particular, the dramatic centrepiece of the story is a meeting between Maria Stuarda and Queen Elizabeth I an event that never actually happened. In the Opera it is this encounter – which, to put it mildly, doesn’t go very well – that leads to Elizabeth finally making the decision to have Mary Stewart executed.

The Opera begins with Elizbeth I under pressure from her Court to marry the Duke of Anjou and to show mercy towards Mary Queen of Scotland (who has ambitions for the throne of England) who has been under house arrest for the best part of twenty years. She sees the political advantage of an alliance with France through marriage, but is secretly in love with Roberto (aka Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester) who is actually keen on Mary. When Elizabeth and Mary actually do meet – accidentally, when Elizabeth is out hunting – their hatred for each other is impossible to disguise. After some terse exchanges, Mary loses her temper and denounces Elizabeth. Doomed, she is taken back into captivity; Elizabeth finally signs her death warrant, and orders Roberto to witness the execution. Protesting her innocence Mary says her goodbyes and is led off to be beheaded. End of story.

The plot may not be historically accurate but it’s ideal material for an opera, with the Chorus of Welsh National Opera in good form and Donizetti’s beautiful score to counterpoint the seething emotions of love, jealousy and revenge. Lasting around 2 hours and 45 minutes (including the interval) it’s also sharper and more focussed than Anna Bolena. The highlight of the evening was Judith Howarth’s stunning performance as Maria Stuarda, whose huge voice invested her role with immense dramatic power; Alastair Miles was a sombre and sonorous Talbot and Adina Nitescu was pretty good as Elisabetta (Elizabeth). Costumes were dark, and scenery minimal, as in Anna Bolena. The one thing I didn’t like was Maria Stuarda’s tartan skirt, not exactly the most subtle way of marking out the Queen of Scotland, which stuck out like a sore thumb among the black dresses on stage.

And so to Roberto Devereux, which finds an older Queen Elizabeth trying to protect her lover Robert Devereux (Earl of Essex) against charges of treason emanating from his enemies at court until she discovers that he also loves another woman, although she doesn’t know who it is; in fact it is her friend Sarah Duchess of Nottingham. Meanwhile the Duke of Nottingham isn’t too happy about Roberto’s dalliances with his wife. Eventually the net closes on Roberto and he attempts to flee but is captured, foolishly carrying a gift given to him by Sarah. His fate is sealed and he is executed, but not before Sarah shows up and reveals herself to be Elizabeth’s rival. Elizabeth has a sudden change of mind and attempts to halt Roberto’s execution, but she’s too late. In remorse the Queen longs for her own death.

The star of this show was undoubtedly the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, who were on superb form, right from opening bars of the overture with its deliciously wry references to the National Anthem. Conductor Daniele Rustoni, who was great in Anna Bolena too, bouncing about in the pit, clearly enjoys Donizetti’s music enormously and got the very best out of the musicians.

The production was a bit strange though. Mostly sombre and minimal as the previous two Tudor operas, it nevertheless included some bizarre variations in costume and scenery. Leonardo Capalbo as Roberto Devereux was a leather-clad gigolo whose diminutive stature contrasted with the tall and elegant Alexandra Deshorties as a rather vampy Queen Elizabeth, even dressed in leather like a dominatrix for some of the time; although her attire was a bit incongruous I actually thought she was fabulous. Later on, even more strangely, a giant mechanical spider appeared on stage. I didn’t really get the point of this contratption, but thought the sudden injection of Steampunk imagery was a blast. After all, you don’t go to the opera expecting everything to make sense. The elderly blue-rinsed lady sitting next to me didn’t agree: “I don’t think so” she said in a loud voice when the aforementioned arachnid began its perambulation across the set…

Anyway, I enjoyed all three of these operas. Each has much to offer, though I think Maria Stuarda is the best overall. Some people seem to think that Bel Canto operas just consist of a series of vocal exercises with those not involved hanging around on stage clearing their throats ready for their turn. That’s entirely unfair. There’s real drama in these works and I commend Welsh National Opera for their courageous decision to stage all three of them in a single season.

Anna Bolena at WNO

Posted in History, Opera with tags , , , , on September 9, 2013 by telescoper

It was the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday, but I was otherwise engaged at the First Night of the new production by Welsh National Opera of Anna Bolena by Gaetano Donizetti at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. This is one of three famous Donizetti operas set in the Tudor period (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux) which I was slightly surprised to learn are collectively often described as the “Three Donizetti Queens”; I’m not sure what this implies about the erstwhile Earl of Essex. Anyway, as a fan of Italian bel canto I decided I just had to go to see Anna Bolena in Cardiff, even though it meant a trek back to Brighton yesterday. Hopefully I’ll be able to see the other two Queens in due course.

Anna Bolena is Donizetti’s imagining of the last days of the life of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, so it’s basically the dark story of a young woman trapped in a web of intrigue and betrayal, a story made all the darker by the fact that it is based on real events. I wonder if such a plot would have ever have been considered plausible if it hadn’t actually happened?

The opera begins with Anna already having lost favour with her husband Enrico (Henry VIII), who is intent on ditching her in favour of  Jane (Giovanna) Seymour (who would shortly become Wife Number Three), but he first has to find a pretext to have her got rid of. Enrico lays a trap involving her brother, George Boleyn (the Lord Rocheford), the young musician Smeaton and Anna’s ex, Lord Percy, into which they and Anna duly fall. The hapless Smeaton confesses to having had an affair with Anna in the mistaken belief that she would be spared if he did so. Unfortunately, this amounts to an admission of treason. Despite Jane Seymour’s plea to Enrico to spare Anna’s life, she is condemned to die. The opera ends with all four people implicated in the plot walking off the stage to face execution, reconciled to their fate.

Of course the story is familiar from school history lessons, but what is especially compelling about it how it is told in this context is how the opera draws the audience into the character and innermost thoughs of the protagonists. For examples, Anna is more complex than you might imagine. It is true that she is naive, and out of her depth in a court so filled with plots and snares, but she is also at the same time ambitious and determined. Anna’s relationship with her rival Jane Seymour is also subtly nuanced, their deep fondness for each other demonstrated in a truly wonderful duet between soprano (Anna) and mezzo (Giovanna). The only real weak spot as far as characterization goes is Enrico, who comes across as little more than a pantomime villain (even to the extent that he received humorous boos on his curtain call). Of course Henry’s behaviour was tyrannical, but the drama would have worked more convincingly if there were at least something about him (other than his crown) that made Anna and Giovanna both adore him so much..

In typical bel canto style the voices of the singers are often extremely exposed, with the orchestra taking a back seat to a succession of dazzling coloratura passages with very little doubling of the vocal line to act as a safety net. At times, Donizetti’s music is little more than a basic backing track, but there is gorgeous orchestral writing in there too where the drama requires it. And that’s the point. Bel canto is not and never has been just about beautiful singing; the great operas in this genre also have great dramatic power and emotional intensity.

Serena Farnocchia’s Anna Bolena (soprano) was ably matched in beauty and clarity of voice by Katharine Goeldner as Giovanna Seymour (mezzo soprano). Faith Sherman (contralto) sang the part of the boy Smeaton with great sensitivity. Alastair Miles was also pretty good as Enrico, but I think the role suits someone with a more powerful bass voice. Robert McPherson as Lord Percy sang accurately enough but his lightish tenor voice has a rather nasal edge to it which took me quite a while to get used to.

The staging is stark and rather minimal, with just a few references to the Tudor period in items of furniture and in the style of the costumes (which are mainly black) but otherwise very little in terms of scenery. Very effective use was made of the revolving centre of the stage which provided movement without distracting from the most important aspect of the opera, namely the emotional turmoil of the characters on stage. The various elements of the staging and music came together in stunning fashion during Anna’s `Mad Scene’ near the end of Act II in which, delirious on the eve of her execution, she lapses into a trance-like state and relives happier moments while her friends gradually drift away into darkness. The lighting is sombre throughout the production, but in the Mad Scene Anna takes on a ghostly appearance. Musically speaking, this scene is quite famous – there’s an amazing version with Maria Callas as Anna here– but I found the cumulative effect of the elements of the life performance quite overwhelming. I’ll have to add this one to my list of pieces of music likely to make me fall to bits and thus to be avoided on trains…

A word too for the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under conductor Daniele Rusitioni who played the gorgeous music impeccably. And another word for the Chorus of Welsh National Opera who were also excellent, not just in their singing but also in their wider contributions onstage.

All in all, a very fine night at the opera. The only real disappointment for me was that there were so many empty seats. It’s true that Anna Bolena isn’t one of the best known operas, but it is a gem. I hope this production gets the audience it deserves. And I also hope I can get to see the rest of the Tudors!

PS. I notice that the Guardian review has given it 4 stars. Bit stingy, possibly..