Archive for Millennium Centre

Don Giovanni

Posted in Art, Opera with tags , , , , , , on September 24, 2011 by telescoper

Another sign that autumn is nigh is that the opera season has started again, which at least gives me the opportunity to resume my series of occasional opera reviews.

I was planning to go to see the new  Welsh National Opera production of Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart   last week but was stymied it clashed with the cricket, which turned out to be a day-night game finishing too late to allow me to go to both. Anyway, I was able to get tickets for last night’s performance as well as dispose of last week’s so it all worked out for me in the end.

First night reviews of this production weren’t particularly good – the reviews in the Telegraph and the Guardian are fairly typical – which probably accounted for the fact that the Wales Millennium Centre wasn’t particularly  full even for such an extremely popular opera. I don’t usually pay much attention to reviews myself and I thought the critics were excessively harsh, although some of the points they make are valid.

I won’t repeat the synopsis in detail here because it’s probably familiar to most people likely to read this, even those who aren’t opera buffs. In fact it’s all explained by the subtitle il dissolute punito. We meet the villainous “nobleman” Don Giovanni attempting to molest  Donna Anna after sneaking into the house of the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father. Don Giovanni is rumbled and confronted by the Commendatore; a duel  ensues which appears to be ending without bloodshed until the Don draws a dagger and murders the Commendatore.

There then follows a series of escapades: attempted seductions, disguises, mistaken identities, narrow escapes, and so on. Typical comic opera stuff in fact, except that it’s not really typical comic opera  because it’s comic opera with music by Mozart and libretto by da Ponte. In other words, it’s genius.

Finally,  Don Giovanni’s past catches up to him. He taunts a statue of the dead Commendatore while seeking refuge in a graveyard. Later, back at Don Giovanni’s  house the statue arrives  and sends Don Giovanni to Hell.

The first impression you get of this production on entering the theatre is the monumental set, which is based (not inappropriately) on the  Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin (shown left), a huge bronze sculpture that depicts a scene from Dante’s Inferno. What you see on stage, however, is not a simple replica of the Rodin piece, but a series of variations on and extensions of the original artwork. Extra pieces are added to form a walled courtyard, it opens out to form a series of rooms and chambers, and in the end the gates themselves open to take the eponymous villain down to Hell (along with a smoke and fire effect which unfortunately didn’t work very well last night; there wasn’t enough smoke to engulf him as was clearly intended).

The idea of basing the set around this work of art was potentially brilliant but I didn’t think it really worked as well as it might. The reason is that the magic of Mozart’s operas emanates, at least in part, from the huge dramatic contrasts. Don Giovanni certainly has a very dark edge, but it also has a great many lighter comic episodes, some of them bordering on the slapstick. Having this heavy sombre backdrop to everything tended to dampen the swings between light and shade. It’s as if the  production was so obsessed with this one idea, that everything else became subservient to it. What could have been brilliant was just too clumsy. You don’t have to force things so much, especially not with Mozart, especially not with Don Giovanni.

Another criticism I would make concerns David Kempster as Don Giovanni. He certainly sang extremely well, his smoky baritone voice sounding very rakish. However I thought he acted the part too broadly, at times like a pantomime villain, to the extent that he seemed delighted by the theatrical boos he got on his curtain call. He was at times very funny indeed, but again I thought he was a bit forced.

However, if it sounds like I’m being very negative about the performance then I don’t mean to be. Apart from the unnecessarily imposing set, the look of the production is wonderful: the costumes and lighting were beautifully done, and the crypto-Gothic look was appropriately spooky when “spooky” was called for.

David Soar was a really oustanding Leporello; I think the audience agreed with me as he got a huge cheer at the end. Camilla Roberts was excellent as Donna Anna as was Nuccia Focile as Donna Elvira. On the other hand I found Carlo Malinverno a disappointment as the Commendatore. He looked scary enough but his undistinguished and occasionally  wobbly bass voice didn’t have the necessary menace for climactic scene with Don Giovanni near the end. For me it has to be a voice that really reverberates with doom. Few can really pull it off, and Carlo Malinverno isn’t one of them.

A special mention, however, must be made of Samantha Hay, who stepped in at short notice to sing the part of Zerlina owing to the indisposition of Claire Ormshaw. She was absolutely wonderful, with a beautifully crystal-clear voice and engaging stage presence. Well done to her for a performance that was very warmly received by the audience.

Watching the opera last night it struck me again, as it always does listening to Don Giovanni,  just how many great pieces of music there are in it. Whereas most operas can offer at most a few set-pieces, in Don Giovanni they keep coming one after the other for well over three hours. This is Mozart at the very peak of his powers, and  a few blemishes don’t even come close to taking the magic away.

Cosi fan tutte

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on May 21, 2011 by telescoper

It’s been a long time since I posted an opera review. That’s because neither of the operas offered by Welsh National Opera earlier this year appealed to me very much and since then I’ve been too busy doing other things to take in an opera anywhere else. However, the summer season of WNO has now started so now at last there’s something of an operatic nature to write about. In fact, I was lucky enough to get tickets for the first night of WNO’s new production of Così fan tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and duly went along yesterday evening. The Millennium Centre was pretty full – as you’d expect for a first night of an enduringly popular opera.

In case you weren’t aware, Così fan tutte is a masterpiece of comic opera (or, technically speaking, opera buffa) written in collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte who also wrote the libretti for Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. The title can be loosely translated as “That’s how all women behave”; the -e on “tutte” indicates a feminine plural. The plot -such as it is – revolves around two pays of lovers: Guglielmo, who is engaged to Fiordiligi, and Ferrando, who is engaged to Fiordiligi’s sister, Dorabella. Both Guglielmo and Ferrando are sailors. All four are friends with the scheming Don Alfonso, who orchestrates the unfolding events, presumably for his own amusement.

Don Alfonso suggests to Ferrando and Guglielmo that their beloved fiancées are not as faithful as they seem to imagine and the three agree a wager. Ferrando and Guglielmo pretend that they’ve been called up for active service. Don Alfonso joins Fiordiligi and Dorabella in the sumptuous trio Soave sia il vento as the men appear to sail off for battle. The ladies are heartbroken and pledge fidelity to their departed lovers. However, the two sailors soon return in disguise in order to attempt their seduction. After various goings-on the men succeed in seducing each others fiancees and a mock wedding is staged. The marriage is interrupted by the sound of the sailors’ return. After the quickest of quick changes the two men re-appear without their disguises and confront their unfaithful women. Don Alfonso has won his bet.

Like all opera buffa the plot sounds faintly ridiculous – which it is – but of course the key to its success as a piece is not just the comic action, but also the gorgeous music which carries it along. In this particular opera there’s almost no end to the musical loveliness as Mozart has each principal singing alone, and in combinations of twos and threes. Mozart’s writing for two, three or four voices is truly wonderful to listen to, and there are many fine examples of such in this opera.

In this production Guglielmo and Ferrando are sailors who are stationed in a British seaside resort, complete with promenade, pier, Punch & Judy show and Italian ice-cream parlour (named Botticelli‘s). This setting takes  it quite a long way downmarket  compared to the original location of Naples, especially when the Butlins-style redcoats appear, and this is carried through to the much coarser way the comedy is handled than you find in many productions of this piece. This approach does provide enjoyable moments of slapstick hilarity but also causes some difficulties.

For example, it is key to this opera that the character of Don Alfonso has to have some sort of power over the four main protagonists. In other words, it has to be credible that they believe what he says and go along with his suggestions. In this production, however, Don Alfonso is meant to be a “local pier entertainer” – in fact he actually looks more like Flash Harry. I found it hard to accept that anyone would believe anything that this particularly dodgy spiv had to say, and his interaction with the two ladies in particular lacked all credibility.

Another thing I didn’t like was the way the opening of the piece was handled. Like most of Mozart’s operas, Così fan tutte is blessed with a splendid overture, perhaps not as brilliant the other Da Ponte operas but full of playful exuberance and very much worth listening to. You can call me old-fashioned, but I do like to hear the overture, preferably with an empty stage or with the curtain down. In this production, however, as soon as the overture started, the stage began to fill with various extras doing various (admittedly comic) things. A particularly funny sequence of people walking dogs backwards and forwards got a huge laugh, but which drowned out the music entirely. What a waste.

I suppose the overall point I’m trying to make is that this production tried too hard to get cheap laughs. It’s just not necessary to milk it like that – it’s funny enough anyway!

However, these are relatively small objections. I’ll temper them by adding that some of the comedy in this production is inspired. Ferrando wore a false nose that made him look like Barry Manilow and Guglielmo’s false moustache gave him the appearance of Comrade Stalin. The latter looked particularly louche in white tennis shorts and ghastly red blazer.

Neal Davies (baritone) was Don Alfonso, amusingly played but lacking the deep sonority in his voice really needed to carry the role off. Ferrando was played by Robin Tritschler (tenor), whose light agile voice is ideal.  Gary Griffiths (baritone) as Guglielmo was outstanding, with an excellent voice and obvious flair for the comic touches. Fiordiligi (Camilla Roberts) and Dorabella (Helen Lepalaan) were also good. Despina – a waitress in Botticelli’s ice-cream parlour and Don Alfonso’s accomplice (often in disguise) – was pert and feisty but her voice lacked projection; at times she was barely audible.

Anyway, in view of the fact that the comedy dog-walking interfered with last night’s overture I thought I’d end  by posting a version here. I love the way that little phrase is thrown around among the wind instruments!

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