Fools on and off the bill

from the TLS

Gaetano Donizetti


English Touring Opera

The English word “idiot” is hard to sing. It’s difficult to say why, exactly, but there’s something, particularly about the last syllable, which goes against the grain of the voice. Admittedly the term doesn’t crop up very often in libretti and song texts, but this made its prominence in David Parry’s translation of Don Pasquale and Kelley Rourke’s translation of L’Elisir d’Amore even more striking. Donizetti himself, though his operas spiced with invective, tended to avoid the Italian word “idiota”, preferring terms of abuse with closer links to the world of commedia dell’arte such as “pazzo”, “babbeo”/”babbione” and “matto” (the latter his disparagement for the management of Naples’ Teatro San Carlo, whom he described as a “gabbia di matti” – cage of madmen.)

The idiots in question are in fact very different from each other. Nemorino, the love-sick primo uomo of L’Elisir, is a kind of village simpleton, simultaneously mocked and loved by one and all, whereas Don Pasquale’s idiotic qualities draw more on the ancient Greek origins of the term, where “idiotes” referred to one who, through excess of self-centredness or insufficiency of mental capability, opted out of the democratic process. Certainly, the premise of William Oldroyd’s new production of Don Pasquale for English Touring Opera is that Donizetti’s basso buffo is a serious idiot. To that effect, Oldroyd casts him – rather awkwardly at times, it must be said – as a flamboyant, antidemocratic maestro, bringing him on to conduct the overture with the kind of disdainful, dismissive and often distracted manner that orchestras dread.

If the device is problematic in itself, it does have the advantage of drawing attention to the idea that Donizetti’s plots are worth taking seriously for their dramatic as well as musical potential. Don Pasquale was composed for the Comédie Italienne in Paris, shortly after Donizetti’s appointment in 1842 as court composer to Ferdinand I of Austria. The composer’s stock was at an all-time international high. With more than sixty operas under his belt, and a firmly established reputation for professionalism and trustworthiness, Donizetti had finally reached a point where he expected the opera management to take him seriously. And yet during rehearsals for the opera’s 1843 premiere – with Giulia Grisi and Luigi Lablanche, the brightest vocal stars of the day, recruited to the roles of Norina and Pasquale – the management feared the project would fall flat on its face. Perhaps they had forgotten what comédies italiennes were supposed to be about, but even the librettist Giovanni Ruffini had lost faith with the project to such an extent that he removed his name from the posters. It was of course an instant hit, both in Paris and, very soon, all over the world, Ruffini’s virtuosic libretto finding itself translated into English, German, Bulgarian and even Finnish.

Donizetti’s rise from humble birth in 1797 to international fame by the time of his death in 1848 has been mirrored in recent years by the return of his operas to a prominence that today rivals Verdi and Puccini. In addition to the three productions under review, Don Pasquale and l’Elisir can be found in Berlin, at the Komische Oper and Staatsoper respectively, while new productions of Lucia, Maria Stuarda, and La Fille du Regiment can currently be found in preparation in theatres all over Britain and all over the world. The initial motivation behind this revival of interest came some half-century ago, with sopranos such as Maria Callas and, particularly, Joan Sutherland eager to include Donizetti in their recital and stage repertoire because his vocal writing displayed their finely tuned instruments to such advantage. Recently, however, the emphasis has shifted from Donizetti’s skill in writing for the voice to his more general theatrical gifts, such as his Mozartian command of dramatic pacing and Verdian ability to manipulate the limited formal resources of nineteenth-century Italian opera to profoundly subtle musico-dramatic effect.

Few productions demonstrate this dimension of Donizetti better than David Alden’s no-holds-barred Lucia for English National Opera. Lucia was of course the vehicle originally chosen in 1959 by Sutherland to acquaint Covent Garden audiences with the real meaning of the term “bel canto”. Most productions since then have tended to the glittering roulades of the mad scene. Alden’s production – which, strikingly, was ENO’s first ever Lucia when it opened in 2008 – centres on the heroine’s madness but from a more sociologically sophisticated perspective, ascribing the condition less to the traditional excess of feminine “nervousness” than to the litany of self-destructive pathologies – incest, infantilism, sado-masochism – that form the psychological corollary to the crumbling fabric and fortunes of the Ashton household. Thus Enrico’s attempts to convince his sister to marry Arturo culminate not in his storming angrily from her boudoir, but in his tying her to her bed preparatory to apparently routine sexual abuse. On this occasion, Enrico withdraws in self-disgust, flinging himself against his little sister’s bedroom wall. It is a devastatingly powerful scene, to which the music is of course fully equal with the ENO orchestra responding well to Anthony Walker’s impassioned direction.

Charles Edwards and Brigitte Rieffenstuel’s designs are approachably postmodern, the unhinged darkness of the Victorian setting reinforced by casting that is as much about look as sound. In the case of Brian Mulligan’s Enrico, this results in a faultless representation of brutish arrogance riven by despair and desire. Anna Christy’s occasional vocal limitations are overlooked in favour of a porcelain-doll appearance that plays perfectly to Alden’s vision of a young girl whose childish romantic dreams (her lover Edgardo is cast as a kilt-wearing fairytale hero) have been squeezed from her, leaving behind a husk of shattered sensibility. The production also makes use of Roger Parker and Gabrile Dotto’s critical edition of the score, which reintroduces the glass harmonica (played by Alexander Marguerre) to the mad scene and so gives back to the opera the other-worldy atmosphere Donizetti was aiming for.

Lucia adapts well to English, particularly in Amanda Holden's sleek version. This stops short of of translating the characters' names back to Scott's originals (i.e Enrico, Arturo and Normanno to Henry, Arthur and Norman) - something I'd love to hear done though it probably wouldn't work. Meanwhile, a linguistic collision of a more accidental nature is to be found working its magic in Jonathan Miller’s nearly-new production of the Elixir of Love, staged previously in Stockholm and New York but for the first time in London last month. On the night I attended the young Canadian tenor John Tessier was ill. More seriously, his understudy was also ill, forcing ENO’s casting director John McMurray to explain that as there were no other tenors in the world who knew Kelley Rourke’s English adaptation, the last minute replacement for Nemorino would sing in Italian, the rest of the course sticking to Rourke’s fast and very loose American dialect.

This has happened at the Coliseum before. In 1976 Lucia Popp rescued Idomeneo in this fashion, while Siegfried Jerusalem, rehearsing Erik in the Royal Opera’s Fliegende Holländer in 1985, crossed to Covent Garden’s western borders in order to fill in for Warren Ellsworth as Parsifal. Though present on neither of these occasions, I will wager that the effect didn’t quite have the serendipitous quality of the Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas standing in as Nemorino. The success derived not simply from Montvidas’s command of the role – which included a mouthwatering “Una furtive lagrima” – but from what it added to the drama in general.

Miller’s transferral of the Italian pastoral to America in the 1950s – in which David Kempster’s GI Joe Belcore plays Dean Martin to Sarah Tynan’s Monroe-esque Adina – works very well indeed. But rather like Miller’s now-legendary ENO Rigoletto, there are times when it all seems a bit too smooth. So the intrusion of an immigrant mechanic singing “Quanta e bella” before Adina’s nonplussed clientele is surprisingly welcome, and lends the staging some much-needed spontaneity, while endowing Nemorino with an allure and mystique that actually makes better sense of the story. Best of all it enables Andrew Shore, a seasoned Dulcamara in both Italian and English, to address Nemorino in Italian when feigning sympathy with his romantic plight, and in English when calling him, among other things, an idiot.

Like Alden’s Lucia, the production made heavy demands on the singers’ acting abilities, and reaps the rewards. The same is nearly true of Oldroyd’s Don Pasquale. But where Lucia and Elixir both frame the action so that the stage-movement freezes during the vocal fireworks, Oldroyd forces his actor-singers to dress, undress and generally rush about while delivering their crowded lines. Though both Mary O’Sullivan and Nicholas Sharrat as Norina and Ernesto produced some lovely sounds, and Dominic Wheeler’s musical direction was quite the equal of Walker’s in Lucia, the production seemed more about visual farce than vocal fantasy, which in the end is too hard on the singers.

Popular Posts