Met Opera/Levine: Don Pasquale

Date: October 29, 2010
Conductor: James Levine
Production: Otto Schenk
Location: The Metropolitan Opera, New York.

After spending 17 hours on a plane, nothing relaxes me more than a light-hearted comic opera where the villain gets punk’d and the boy and the girl live happily ever after.

The above crudely, if not slightly irresponsibly, summarizes the story framework of Don Pasquale, and says nothing about Don Pasquale’s essence: Donizetti’s bubbly, effervescent music. Without any famed arias (like Elixir’s romanza or Lucia’s mad scenes), this work is nevertheless infused with plenty of honeyed passages that, altogether, form one coherent magnum opus, and the enactment of such would require nothing less than a stellar cast with a mastery of Donizetti’s written coloratura and of the piece’s buffo dramaturgy.

In that respect, Jon del Carlo delivered. His Don Pasquale was funny: his fine acting made it easy to believe that he was this wealthy old man whose farcical compulsion to get married was evidenced by the maniacal grin on his face, especially when he sang about his imaginary future children in Un foco insolito. His voice was slightly small for the house, but he made up for it by his outsized theatrical movements and broad-stroked physical comedy.

Anna Netrebko, playing Pasquale’s faux wife “Sofronia”, clearly had quite a bit of fun on stage. She was bouncing on and off the bed (in Pasquale’s house), and dancing, hopping, and two-stepping across the stage even as she was delivering her difficult bel canto lines. Voice-wise, she was not, on the surface, perfect for the role, as the lyrical power of her voice seemed to overwhelm the feathery lightness of Norina’s lines. But Netrebko treaded carefully, reserving power in the more exquisite lines while unleashing her vocal potency when the libretto’s emotional arch demanded it. Her impeccable vocal agility was precisely why she was able to effortlessly switch back and forth between a lovesick Norina and her meaner, fake alter-ego, “Sofronia”.

Matthew Polenzani, as Ernesto, Norina’s true love, was meticulous in his phrasings and precise in his delivery. His voice seemed to morph into whatever characteristics he so chose: he would project with a tinge of melancholic sadness in the heart-breaking song of Cherchero lontana terra, and with an aura of unmistakable mischievousness in the serenade. Mariusz Kwiecien delivered a masterminding but believable Dr. Malatesta, and together with del Carlo’s Pasquale, the pair delivered a massively fun dueling patter, at a breakneck speed that effused plenty of playfulness and none of the fast passage’s vulgarities. At the scene change curtain call, James Levine was gracious enough to let Kwiecien and del Carlo do an encore. Amazingly, after 40 years at the MET, this was Levine’s first time conducting Don Pasquale. Levine meticulously phrased Donizetti’s melodic arches with a caressing care, and drew a refined and fresh performance by the excellent MET Orchestra.

Otto Schenk came out of retirement a few years ago to create this production at the urge of ex-Met GM Joe Volpe. According to the lore, the signing of Netrebko onto the production was the deal clincher that compelled Schenk to do one more production. At the final curtain call, when Schenk appeared on stage amidst rapturous applause, he beamed with a big smile and a towering satisfaction, probably realizing that despite a movement towards a more avant-garde, cerebral stage design, the Met audience was still quite receptive to the classical realism that he so represented for a better half of the past century.

Netrebko, in Otto Schenk's Don Pasquale.


NCPA/Lü: Elixir of Love

Date: June 26, 2010
Conductor: Lü Jia
Director: Franco Ripa di Meana
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Production imagery, Elixir of Love.

Closing out this year’s NCPA Opera Festival was Elixir of Love, Donizetti’s opera about a poor peasant falling in love with a beautiful landowner.

Brilliantly crafted by stage director Edoardo Sanchi, the set provided a cheery platform on which Donizetti’s comic elements were realized. Dulcamara’s entrance was faithful to the script, as the comic quack was descended in a keg-like wicker basket – figuratively attached to a painted cardboard balloon, and hung spectacularly in mid air via the stage’s fly system. Props and set pieces moved across the stage in parallel to the proscenium front, and often times without masking. But such nakedness allowed the music to flow while allowing the audience to keep abreast of the changing set. This was especially evident in the Act I sequences in which the drama switched between the peasantry public and Adina’s more privileged abode.

Huang Ying, having previously sung Giannetta at the Met opposite Angela Gheorghiu’s Adina, debuted as Adina, the beautiful landowner with which Nemorino the poor peasant fell in love. Her acting was cute but never corny, as many Adina would tend to be. Vocally, the Chinese soprano held beautiful trills, while her tonal voice beamed with an Italianate brightness and mellowness. Her rendition of Prendi, per me sei libero, was simply sublime, for which she received handily the most enthusiastic audience applause of the evening.

Guan Zhijing, whose fine acting made his Dulcamara quite lovable, also delivered plenty of nice, aggressive vocal lines. Belcore was sung by Yang Xiaoyong, whose strong, powerful voice provided much gravity and anchor weight to the evening’s music. Rounding out the supporting cast was Ma Min, whose Giannetta was cute and mischievous, and whose singing was supple, infused with an adorable, quintessentially bel canto beauty.

Nemorino was sung by Fan Jingma, who sounded nervous during his first big number, Quanto è bella, quanto è cara. His delivery was throaty and weak, and didn’t really pick up substance until, perhaps sensing some urgency, Una furtiva lagrima, which was solid but nevertheless uninspiring. After the famous romanza, his voice was set ablaze, as if the burden of that big aria was finally out of the way, and proceeded to show hints of what I believe to be his real forte – a lirico spinto voice that is more suitable for heavier roles in the repertoire.

Giuseppe di Iorio’s lighting was a highlight of the evening, especially during Nemorino’s big Act II aria, where a melancholic shade of violet purple provided the background to a white light-lid, art deco moon backdrop. That shade of purple slowly turned into a more lively maroon blue, just as Adina began her confession aria, as if breathing life to Nemorino’s deflated ego.

The biggest trouble of the evening remained in the pit. There were multiple times when Lü Jia had a rough time trying to synchronize what was sung on stage and what was played in the pit. In Che vuol dire codesta suonata, the opera’s main chorus number, the conductor was basically scrambling to put together coherence, which was clearly absent as the orchestra was at least a full beat slower than the chorus. Nevertheless, there were pockets of brilliance, including the bassoon solo during Nemorino’s Act II aria, which handed in a solemn, measured rendition that was as delicious as anything I’ve witnessed for that piece of music. There were some fantastic oboe and flute lines, too, but they were small consolations to what sounded like a train wreck from the pit.

Elixir of Love, final scene.