Rom-Com Opera: Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore

Three years already since my last opera review?!  I feel bad about that and intend to start making it right, firstly with this review of L’Elisir d’Amore (“The Elixir of Love”) by Gaetano Donizetti, of Lucia di Lammermoor fame.

Some backstory for newer readers: I’ve been enjoying operas at the local movie theater, streamed live from the Met, since 2012.  It’s a wonderful weekend “excursion” – my cousin, also an opera fan, has joined me in the last couple of years, and I’ve succeeded in getting my sister and brother interested as well.  Tickets run around $30, but for a 2-4 hour show and the quality of the productions, you definitely get your money’s worth.  (That said, I usually only go to 2-3 per season, for budgetary reasons.)

The story of L’Elisir d’Amore is a classic love triangle – a rich, carefree lady named Adina (sung by Pretty Yende) is being aggressively wooed by an arrogant but dashing sergeant, Belcore (baritone Davide Luciano).  Meanwhile, the young peasant Nemorino (Matthew Polenzani) is also pining after Adina and will do anything to get her attention.  A traveling salesman posing as a “Dr” Dulcamara (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo) sees an opportunity to sell Nemorino his special love potion, an elixir that is guaranteed to make all the ladies fall in love with him – including, of course, Adina.

Dramatic operas are more my cup of tea, so when L’Elisir d’Amore came up, I was drawn to it mainly because I loved Donizetti’s music in Lucia. I was not disappointed – Donizetti’s elegant bel canto melodies bring a level of class to a story that is otherwise pretty cheesy.  Most casual listeners will recognize Nemorino’s aria, “Una Furtiva Lagrima,” – in fact, I’d guess it’s many opera fans’ first favorite tenor aria.  Polenzani’s rendition is not virtuosic, yet it’s quite touching, in a way that fits the character very well.

In contrast, much of the humor of the story comes from Dulcamara, and D’Arcangelo stole the show at times with his suave fast-talking (er, singing).  Yende as the lead soprano did a fine job, though I was more impressed by her acting skills as the flirty yet affectionate Adina.  She is a natural for these Live in HD shows, where the close-up camera angles capture every emotion of the performer, something opera singers of the past did not need to think about.  (It used to be that over-exaggerated facial expressions were necessary to reach far into the auditorium – now, subtlety is imperative for televised or filmed productions.)

While not my favorite opera, L’Elisir d’Amore was pretty fun for a lighthearted story, and I would be open to going to more comedies in the future.

The Enchanted Island – an opera learning experience

Watching The Enchanted Island posed three firsts for me:

    1) Baroque
    2) English
    3) Getting my brother to watch opera (!!)

    The last one was a surprising success…the first two, not so much.

    I was intrigued by the concept when it came out in 2011, and it stayed in the back of my mind, till I finally got the DVD from the library.  The Enchanted Island is a so-called opera “pastiche” by Jeremy Sams – if his name rings a bell, he composed the score for Persuasion.  He collected different Baroque operatic pieces (mostly arias) and wrote English lyrics for them, basing the plot on a combination of The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

    This production gave me pretty mixed feelings.

    I’m a little – is disturbed the word? – that Sams took whatever Barqoue opera pieces he wanted and put completely new words to them.  Part of me is always a purist to the composer’s original intentions, and though their works have long since been in the public domain, at times it makes me uncomfortable to hear their music in someone else’s context.  This isn’t really limited to this opera; some movie scores do the same thing.  Mixed feelings all the way around.

    That said, I was pretty impressed by the creativity of this opera, the clarity of the singing (it is all in English, though I still used subs), and the overall design.  The steampunk elements were a nice touch.  Ariel’s feathery costume was fun, and both the forest and underwater scenes were beautifully vibrant and detailed.  The Shakespearean fantasy fits in well with the setting; it probably appeals to a broader audience than, say, a typical Verdi, and musically it may be more accessible to some people than Wagner (though my first opera was Lohengrin, and I loved it).

    I’ve discovered I really, really dislike Baroque opera.  I knew I disliked Mozart operas – this is only a tad better, but it’s in the same realm of stop-and-go, stop-and-go singing.  It is also highly repetitive; there was one aria the sorceress was singing, and it just went on and on with the same words.  So, there’s that.  Also, countertenor – don’t get me wrong, I know it’s Baroque, but it takes some getting used to.  (Case in point: whenever I listen to Che faro, I listen to Hvorostovsky, so I’m already biased.)

    I’d have to say the best character and performance was Danielle de Niese as Ariel.  She is a great actress and brought a lot of needed energy to the role, which helped move some scenes along.  I can’t overemphasize how important acting is in opera, and she went above and beyond and made the role her own.  Could be part of the reason the first disc was better than the second disc, actually.

    This is far from a must-see, in my book, and it seems to be overrated in general.  However, it is recommended by most other reviewers, so if you’re bored or looking for new operas to watch, you might give this one a try.

    Earthly Angels: Iolanta and Billy Budd

    Last month, I saw two excellent productions which I’ve been meaning (ever since) to talk about.  One was an opera – the Met’s new/first production of Iolanta, by Tchaikovsky, starring Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala.  The second was Billy Budd, a 1962 adaptation of Melville’s novella, with Peter Ustinov playing Captain Vere.

    Iolanta is about a princess who was born blind, and kept ignorant of the fact.  Her father, King René, insists she lives a sheltered, solitary life in the forest, hoping somehow that her betrothed, Robert, will also never learn of her blindness (until after they are married).  The king tries to enlist the help of a surgeon to give Iolanta her eyesight, though the outlook, he feels, is not promising.  Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, Iolanta has been found by the knight Vaudémont, who falls in love with her instantly…but is it also unconditionally?

    This is such a beautiful story that it’s amazing the Met waited so long.  The plotline, surprisingly deep, poses a dilemma to the audience – would you tell someone the truth about herself, at the risk of ruining her life?  Iolanta is innocent, sweet-natured, and, for the most part, content; a Cinderella whose happy ending seems ambiguous.  I didn’t have to try to connect with this story; really, it was incredibly moving.

    And, of course, who better to debut this opera than Netrebko and Beczala, adding, to their splendid voices, their thoughtful acting which goes a long way in “Live in HD” (I watched this at the movie theater).  I was also really impressed with the supporting cast, and King René’s aria, sung by Ilya Bannik, was one of the best parts.

    One quibble – it can’t be denied that this production (by Mariusz Trelinski) is aesthetically beautiful, with sort of a gothic French Alps vibe going on.  However, I think it was ill-advised to make it so dark…he made all the supporting characters (except Robert) to appear sinister, and that made the buildup fizzle out at the ending.  The king may be an antagonist, but there’s a difference between that and a villain.  Anyways, you can tell by Tchaikovsky’s lyrics that the story isn’t intended to have this theme, and that adds a layer of incongruity that often got in the way of the story.

    You’ll remember I rated highly the story Billy Budd.  Subsequently, I became curious to know if there were any good adaptations of it.  I actually found an extraordinary YouTube clip of a production starring – brace yourselves – William Shatner and Basil Rathbone.  Then I watched about twenty minutes of the opera, which was both fascinating and gave me the creeps (and I do intend to finish it one day).  The next thing was this 60s movie, with Terence Stamp as Billy.

    It far exceeded my expectations.  I felt like this two-hour film was way too long for such a short story, but, apart from the filler (which, in spirit, was still true to the book), it was a first-rate adaptation.  I was watching it with some of my family members, and it kept their interest as well…I was so glad it was true to the book, and kept you guessing until the end what the outcome would be.

    Stamp was perfect as Billy, not only for looking like the “Handsome Sailor,” but for portraying Billy’s character – innocent, yet human, and in some ways wiser than his years.  As with Iolanta, you feel there’s a fine line he’s walking on, and something terrible could happen to make it all fall apart for him.  That’s good casting and good acting.

    It was odd that Claggart was played by an American (Robert Ryan).  (I had to keep telling myself he must have been impressed from a U.S. ship, though that might be an historical stretch.)  However, he came across fairly convincing as Billy’s self-appointed nemesis.  Ustinov was excellent as Vere, encompassing the captain’s nervousness, sense of justice, and pervading paranoia/wish to exert authority…amazing he was able to portray Vere so accurately (maybe the two hours are partly to thank).

    As in Iolanta, the filmmaker decided to add a dark twist to the end of this plotline.  I’m not sure what to think about it.  Though it seems reasonable this way, I can’t help but imagine that perhaps Melville more accurately described the crew mentality.  Unsure.

    Both of these – highly recommended!

    ‘Lucia’, Your First Best Worst Opera

    Romeo and Juliet in Scotland.  That is the easiest way to sum up Gaetano Donizetti’s dramatic opera, Lucia di Lammermoor.

    It is, perhaps, unfair to summarize this opera so succinctly, when it is so famous, so much a “classic” of the opera genre.  Following the links on Wikipedia, I learned that Lucia was based on a Waverly novel by Sir Walter Scott – The Bride of Lammermoor – which in turn was apparently based on true events.  That might explain why it is somewhat more credible, and more compelling, than Romeo and Juliet, even though the plot runs nearly parallel.

    The Ashton family is archenemies with the Ravenswood family (what a splendid name!).  As these things go, Lucia Ashton (Anna Netrebko) falls in love with Edgardo Ravenswood (Piotr Beczala).  She happens to have a brother, Enrico (Mariusz Kwiecien), and because he is a baritone, we know whose side he’s not on.  Taking her love for Edgardo as a betrayal, Enrico schemes to force his sister into a marriage to Lord Arturo Bucklaw, a political ally.  It does not get better from there.

    The story is dreadful in every way, while the music is wonderful.  Unfortunately, I had watched all the best clips before watching the whole opera, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have.  The themes are stirringly beautiful, from the most well-known group number “Chi mi frena in tal momento” to the duet
    “O sole, più ratto,” with its bloodthirsty lyrics and (oddly) cheerful melody.  I was constantly torn between shuddering at the storyline and savoring the beautiful music.  Maybe if Romeo and Juliet had been a bel canto opera, I would have liked it, too.

    I’m no opera critic.  I thought the performances, by the same trio that starred in Eugene Onegin, were great.  Kwiecien played an absolutely sinister, psycho brother, and Beczala again sang the well-intentioned hero character with sincerity and emotion.  I’m not sure Lucia is Netrebko’s role, but she did an excellent job as far as I could tell, lending some reality to a role that would be hard to portray.  I always like her heartfelt interpretations, and I’m looking forward to seeing her in Iolanta in February.

    The costumes and setting were well done.  It did bother me that they were historically impossible – that is, this production is set well after the historical events that are supposed to coincide with it.  However, this is a common fault of modern productions and can (kind of) be overlooked.

    Honestly, Lucia is as dramatic, dark, and dreary as 19th century operas get, and yet if that doesn’t phase you, I would recommend it as a first opera.  It’s the most fast-paced opera I have seen; it feels shorter than most, even though it isn’t.  The music is great and the performances are great.  It’s a staple of opera repertoire, and you’ll want to see it eventually if you get into opera at all.  Zero stars for the plot, five stars for everything else.