Donizetti, L’Elisir d’Amore

To get to the Staatsoper tonight required crossing a line of riot police manning barricades.  Apparently this was not a good night to venture into the center of Vienna – the neo-Nazi “Akademiker Ball” was going on down the street, attracting thugs from all over Europe (and not just Hitler Youth, but equally-thuggish counter-demonstrators also looking for trouble).  The police locked down the entire section of Vienna from Schwarzenbergplatz to Heldenplatz, and we had to talk our way in (funneled through a passageway inside a building rather than being allowed to enter the closed-off area from the street – underground passages from the subway were also sealed off).

Probably better, then, that the Hitler Youth did not know that tonight’s lead tenor was black and the lead soprano was Israeli, or maybe they would not have left the opera house alone.

The Staatsoper presented a charmingly no-frills Otto Schenk-directed production of Donizetti’L’Elisir d’Amore that will never get old.  The staging, first produced in 1980, contained no gimmicks: it had just a single honest set and enough details to allow the characters to play up the comedy.  And this they did.

As Nemorino, Lawrence Brownlee provided an intelligent characterization of the dim-witted peasant, who is not so quick at understanding what is going on around him but ends up doing just fine for himself.  Brownlee’s beautiful voice also perfectly matched the role, more reminiscent of Tito Schipa than some of the bigger voices who often sing the part these days.  Still, his instrument was big enough to fill the hall – a little sotto voce in the first act to save up for the big arie in the second, but always audible and with perfect Italian diction.

The portrayal of Adina by Chen Reiss was frigid towards poor Nemorino, warming in the end.  There may have been a lack of chemistry between the two lead singers, although both were excellent in their own parts.  I do not know how often they may have performed together before, and this may have impacted their acting relationship.  Either that, or Reiss wanted to portray Adina as particularly cold (although it did not seem this way, since she did make the character somewhat flirtatious).

Alfred Šramek as Dulcamara and Mario Cassi as Belcore provided a humorous supporting cast.  Guillermo García Calvo kept the orchestra light and on cue.  From my seat, I could see that he had taken his mother’s name (Calvo, meaning “bald”) rather literally for someone in his mid-30s.

Russian National Philharmonic Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall (Yerevan)

Rachmaninov, Chopin, Bizet, Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, Saint-Saëns, Puccini, Cilea, Sorozábal, Giménez, Khachaturian

The Russian National Philharmonic Orchestra under music director Vladimir Spivakov dropped into the Khachaturian Hall this evening, as part of its tenth anniversary season celebrations.  This orchestra was created essentially as the house orchestra of Moscow’s International House of Music, that bizarre Escher-esque building with the awful acoustics where I attended one concert (not this orchestra) and never went back again.  So, since I completely managed to miss hearing this orchestra (not to be confused with orchestras having similar names) during my time in Moscow, I finally got to hear them now in a different hall.

Incidentally, it seems that in Moscow they no longer perform exclusively in the International House of Music, but schedule a significant minority of their concerts in the Moscow Conservatory Great Hall, with its top-notch acoustics.  I suppose they too regret their link with their home venue.

According to the orchestra’s website, they were supposed to do two concerts in Yerevan, followed by one in Gyumri (Armenia’s second-largest city).  The posted programs for Yerevan were an exclusively-Rachmaninov concert and an opera gala.  In the end, they combined the concerts into a single one in each venue (abridging the Rachmaninov to a single work).  This produced a bi-polar evening.

Before the intermission, the young Ukrainian pianist Aleksandr Romanovsky joined the orchestra for the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto.  While dexterously maneauvering through Rachmaninov’s score, he also tried his best to get a sweet sound out of the Khachaturian Hall’s sour Steinway.  In this, the orchestra assisted him with some exceptionally warm playing, particularly from the woodwinds.  Afterwards, Romanovsky treated us to a moving encore rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne opus 20.

After a long intermission, the orchestra returned for a full 90-minutes-worth of opera excerpts (from operas by Bizet, Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, Saint-SaënsPuccini, and Cilea, and from zarzuelas by Pablo Sorozábal and Gerónimo Giménez), joined by mezzo Juliette Galstian and soprano Hasmik Papian (both Armenian stars), and by baritone Vasily Ladyuk (a dynamic Russian).  The second portion of the concert had a spontaneous feel, in part because they did not keep to the printed program but added or subtracted arias or orchestral pieces independently of what was on the page.  Clearly they were having fun.  All three of the soloists demonstrated a sense of drama – or at least as much drama as they could muster with the arias taken out of context (and considering that the solo parts were all individual arias, so the program never allowed the three singers to interact with each other, which was unfortunate).  The orchestra, too, gave spirited accompaniment for the soloists, while also demonstrated its own spirit for the Carmen overture and intermezzi from Manon Lescaut and La Tabernera del Puerto, culminating in – as an encore – the Lezghinka from Khachaturian’s ballet Gayaneh.

Although the playing was quite beautiful, the second half of the concert had the feel of a long set of encores, one after another, never really going anywhere.  By the time of the real encore, the orchestra’s playing had simply lost much of its spontaneity.  Yes, they played all the notes well, but no they were no longer showcasing themselves despite the boisterous music.  For a brief visit on tour, Spivakov and his orchestra should have selected their program more wisely.

National Opera of Albania

Donizetti, L’Elisir d’Amore

The National Opera of Albania hit the stage of the Palace of Culture of Tirana this evening with Donizetti’L’Elisir d’Amore.  Almost everything screamed “high school” theater about this production.  The auditorium is the same one used for orchestra concerts, and even with the stage retracted partly to open an orchestra pit, the space is just not that large and the acoustics are not so great.  But sitting directly in front, I could hear (friends sitting a few rows back said they could not hear).

More importantly, I could see (well, I did have to shield my eyes from some of the stage lights pointing at wrong angles): this cast had fun.  What they lacked in talent they more than made up for in enthusiasm, and that counts for a lot to make a performance enjoyable.  I did not expect much, so just having a fun night at the opera hit the spot.

The Adina, Eriola Gjyzeli Dragoicea, was actually rather good.  Vladimir Sazdovsky as Dulcamara had a lively, if not large, baritone voice and Elson Braha as Nemorino had a very pleasant tenor voice as long as he did not try to project it (every time he tried to project, his voice cracked, but when singing softly he sounded very nice indeed).  Everyone else on stage clearly had a good time, and the stage director allowed them to do so.  I think he went to the market to buy the props, and told the cast to just bring odd clothes from their own closets to use as costumes, so there was no logic to the staging other than giving the singers the chance to ham it up, which they did.

The orchestra, under Eddi de Nadai, provided a useful accompaniment when playing underneath the singers, although the exposed orchestral parts were less pleasant.

A colleague from work brought her not-quite-five-year-old daughter, who also had fun.  So it was clearly contagious.

Novaya Opera

Donizetti, L’Elisir d’Amore

Donizetti’l’Elisir d’Amore is in the repertory of two different Moscow houses at the moment.  I do not believe I have seen it live in person since I saw it at the Lowell House Opera thirty years ago, so I figured I would pick one.  According to the newspaper, the version at the Stanislavsky was being performed in a confused mix of Russian and Italian, so I opted instead for the Novaya Opera, which stuck with a single language (Italian).

If I thought this might allow me to avoid confusion, I was wrong.  The director, Yury Alexandrov, was not German, nor did his bio in the program indicate that he trained in Germany, but must have studied enough German Regietheater, since he decided not to stage the opera but rather to demonstrate that, since he was the boss, the cast had to do whatever he told them to do on stage.  The only Regietheater convention he left out was the homoerotic scene, but everything else was there up to and including the Chassidic Jew, who appeared in two scenes to inspect the stage, generally look disgusted, and to taste the (hopefully kosher) food at the banquet.

The opera opened and closed at what appeared to be a Renaissance costume party gone haywire.  Nemorino seems to have been a tourist guide dressed in a track suit, leading a group of Japanese tourists, including an old lady in a wheelchair, all of whom annoyingly kept taking flash photos (which can be blinding in a dark theater).  Once Dulcamara appeared, and until almost the very end of the opera, most of the cast turned into stereotypical Russians – the men were the sort of drunken slobs I see all over the sidewalks in Moscow, and the women were all dressed like the lowest class of prostitutes (not all Russian women are whores, they just seem to think it is appropriate to dress that way in public).  Dulcamara dressed like a Russian oligarch – indeed, until his first cue, he was seated (in costume) in the middle of the audience, and I do not think anyone noticed him looking out of place there.  Although he sang the role, he left the dispensing of quack potions up to some other mute character in a red bowtie and glasses.

Meanwhile, a lot of extraneous action was going on on stage, which had nothing to do with anything but was very distracting.  Aside from the aforementioned Chassid, the old Japanese woman who opened and closed the opera in the wheelchair pranced around all over the stage (not in her wheelchair), doing everything from reading pornography to trying to eat leftovers using her hairpieces as chopsticks.  One man stood in the window of a house overlooking the square and watched all of the action through a telescope.  A little kid practiced violin in an open window.  Everyone else scurried about, drawing attention away from the people trying to sing.  As if to claim the spotlight back, the main members of the cast started contorting their bodies to move around the stage unnaturally.

All of this was a great shame, because musically it was a fine performance.  Dmitry Volosnikov, in the pit, kept the music light, spritely, and fun – as Donizetti meant it – and the orchestra responded.  The cast sounded great, particularly Tatyana Pechnikova as Adina and Oleg Shagotsky as Dulcamara.  Only the Nemorino, Georgy Faradzhev, did not meet the standard set by everyone else – his tenor was thin, dry, and not overly pleasant.  However, the staging was such a distraction that I left this performance feeling unsatisfied.

The director Alexandrov should be deported to East Berlin, or else at least to somewhere that still has a big wall around it.