Posts Tagged ‘Gaetano Donizetti’

Great moments in opera: L’Elisir d’Amore

April 28, 2014

After a full year of focusing on the operas of Britten and Verdi, it was with some considerable relief that I turned this month to the Italian bel canto and Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love) for refreshment and relaxation. I had not heard the opera before, and it fell on my ears like dew upon the grass. There is really nothing like a bel canto comedy for effervescent loveliness. L’Elisir d’Amore has that in abundance, and is furthermore graced with at least one aria that has become a permanent part of the repertoire, but more on that below.

The story is ridiculous: Nemorino is a young man who, spurned by Adina, the young woman on whom his heart has fixed, seeks from a quack physician a love potion that will make him irresistable to her. The potion is worthless, of course, but his guileless and dogged efforts to obtain it convince Adina of his love, and win her heart in the end.

The opera is cast in just two acts. Right away in the first scene we have a lovely aria, Quanto e’ bella (How beautiful she is), in which Nemorino sings of his love for Adina. He laments the fact that she gives him no attention, and wonders how she can be brought around to return his love. Here is Luciano Pavarotti, though without subtitles [Translation]:

A little later in the same scene, Adina sings a nice little aria, Della crudele Isotta (Of the cruel Isolde), in which she reads to the assembled villagers the story of Tristan and Isolde, and of the love potion which drove them both mad with passion. Hearing the tale, which the somewhat rustic Nemorino takes for truth, he is inspired with the thought of obtaining the same potion for himself. Here is the aria, sung by Kathleen Battle, again without subtitles [Text]:

In the next scene we are introduced to Dr Dulcamara, a travelling salesman who pedals marvellous elixirs to gullible peasants. Dulcamara is a con-man and a buffoon, but a somewhat amiable one.

Nemorino approaches Dulcamara and asks for a bottle of Isolde’s love potion. At first Dulcamara doesn’t know what he is asking for, but he catches on quickly enough and sells him the “potion” he seeks (actually, diluted wine). Nemorino drinks it, and waits for its effects to manifest. (In his charming naivete, it doesn’t occur to him that he really ought to get Adina to drink the potion.) The first act closes with a lovely duet for Nemorino and Adina, Esulti pur la barbara (loosely, Let her mock me). Here are Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, with English subtitles:

The action of the second act is mainly concerned with bringing the story to a happy conclusion, albeit with a few bumps along the way. Nemorino is initially disappointed to find that the potion doesn’t seem to be working. His response? To get more of it, of course. To do so, he has to enrol in the army (to get some money), and on and on. There is a comical deus ex machina in the form of a windfall inheritance that comes to Nemorino, but, in a nice twist, neither he nor Adina know about it. The other village girls know, however, and in this chorus, Sara possibile? (Is it possible?), they each decide that they’d like to be his wife. Thus we get a funny sequence in which every village girl except Adina is falling all over Nemorino, much to his confusion and disgust.

Adina sees the affection which the other women are lavishing on Nemorino, and, to her surprise, finds herself feeling jealous. She realizes she loves him, and she turns away in sorrow. He sees her sadness, and with joy realizes the cause. Thus it is that we come to the biggest hit from this opera, the romanza Una furtiva lagrima (A secret tear), in which he gives full voice to his happiness, in glorious fashion. Here is Pavarotti [Translation]:

Needless to say, the two soon find one another’s arms, and the opera comes to a happy conclusion.

Great moments in opera: Anna Bolena

October 16, 2011

Yesterday I was able to attend, for the first time, one of the Met Live in HD broadcasts. (This is a programme whereby the Metropolitan Opera in New York broadcasts live via satellite to movie theatres around the world.) I saw Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, with Anna Netrebko singing the title role. I enjoyed myself thoroughly. It’s a good way to see an opera: you get the excitement of a live performance, but with close-up visuals of the singers, plus some backstage footage, including interviews with the principals. I’d like to go again someday.

Anna Bolena is not one of Donizetti’s most popular operas, though it does retain a toe-hold on the periphery of the repertory. He wrote 70-odd in total, so it is not surprising that not all are in wide circulation. Anna Bolena was his 35th, and was, I am told, his first big success. That’s resilience for you. The story is about the fateful last days of Anne Boleyn. There are five main roles: Anne, as the troubled Queen; Henry VIII, her (gratifyingly) villainous husband, who is looking for an excuse to rid himself of Anne in order to make room for Jane Seymour; then there is Jane, of course, a confidant of Anne but also secretly carrying on with Henry; Lord Percy, in love with Anne for many years and now returned from exile; and Smeaton, a royal page, also in love with Anne, whose fantasies become the occasion for her downfall.

I am not a connoisseur of bel canto opera; though I may listen for ever so long, I cannot really tell my Donizettis from my Bellinis and my Rossinis. There is certainly something formulaic about the music of Anna Bolena, but it’s a winning formula, and I am not complaining. Donizetti wrote the entire thing in about a month. It falls easily on the ear, is full of beautiful lines and brilliant high notes, and includes a smattering of dramatic duets and trios. At just under three hours in performance, the argument could be made that it goes on longer than it needs to, and the second act (of two) in particular could be profitably edited for brevity.

The relative rarity of this opera translates into few available video clips, and none (as far as I can find) with English subtitles. Here is a duet, called Va’, infelice (Go, unhappy one), for Anne and Jane, from Act II. Anne, condemned by Henry and awaiting her fate, offers forgiveness to Jane for her betrayal, but Jane receives the forgiveness like a burden. “Your pardon is worse than the scorn which I feared.” The two roles are sung here by Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca, from a Viennese production staged earlier this year. It would be hard to imagine two more glamorous sopranos in these regal roles!

The most famous scene in the opera is probably the ‘mad scene’ from near the end of Act II. It is not so famous as Donizetti’s other mad scene, from Lucia di Lammermoor, but it is fair to say that it is Anna Bolena‘s big hit. Anne is in prison, and has gone mad. She sings about how her wedding day has finally arrived, the king awaits her, and so forth. A chorus of ladies comments on how sad is her plight. Then she thinks of Percy, and of death, and imagines a scene of pastoral beauty: a quiet river, and green trees, where she can forget her troubles. Anna Netrebko sings again, from the same Viennese production.

Finally, here is the last scene in the opera, in which Anne, facing execution, and in response to pitying comments from the crowd, asks God’s mercy on those who are taking her life. It’s a moment of heroic magnanimity, played rather too vengefully by Anna Netrebko here. But I like the final gesture. The closing moments of the Met production were even better: Anna exposed her neck, and then began to rise, on a platform, toward the menacing figure of the executioner, high above the stage, as the curtain fell. Terrific.

Great moments in opera: La Fille du Régiment

March 24, 2011

Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment is one of those diverting comedies that the Italian bel canto did so well. (Don’t let the fact that it is sung in French confuse you; this is Italian all the way down.) It is full of beautiful melodies and virtuoso showpieces, requiring two top-shelf talents in the lead roles.

The story, very briefly, is as follows. A young woman, Marie, abandoned as an infant and discovered by a military regiment, has been brought up in their care as the “daughter of the regiment”. She cooks and cleans for her “fathers”, and sings their regimental song with great virtuosity, to their paternal delight. It is intended that she should eventually marry one of the members of the regiment, though exactly who shall be her husband has not been decided. Enter Tonio, a handsome young man who falls in love with her, and, learning of the marriage arrangement, joins the regiment in order to qualify for her hand. It’s a love story, in other words. There is a sub-plot that brings a surprise at the end, but for me the heart of the opera is the romance.

All of the clips below are from a recent production starring Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez. That is a dream team the likes of which does not come around very often. I am sometimes not enthusiastic about Dessay, but in this role she is terrific. Flórez, for his part, — well, more about him in a few moments.

Here is Marie singing the regimental song, an aria called Chacun le sait, chacun le dit. I have seen a few different productions, and in this scene the soprano is apparently encouraged to improvise quite extensively. Dessay’s is the best that I have seen; she is very funny and has plenty of spunk. English subtitles included.

At the end of Act I comes a sad song, sung again by Marie, lamenting the fact that she must leave both her beloved regiment and her beloved Tonio — for reasons related to the sub-plot. The aria, called Il faut partir, is incredibly lovely, and I can tell you that when I was watching this opera on DVD at home I began to applaud, there, in the middle of the kitchen, when the aria was finished. It’s a fine, fine performance. (A higher quality version, though without subtitles, is here.)

Now for Juan Diego Flórez. There is a very famous aria called Ah, mes amis that puts the fear of God into any tenor who sings this role. During the course of the aria he is required to sing not one, and not two, but nine high Cs. Pavarotti did it, with room to spare, in a famous Metropolitan Opera performance opposite Joan Sutherland, and it made him a star. And now Juan Diego Flórez is doing it too. Here he is, making it seem easy:

Before I sat down to watch La Fille du Regiment this week, I didn’t know much about it apart from a few famous arias. I was very pleasantly surprised. It’s a good-natured, very amusing story with a sweet romance at its center, and the music cheers the heart. I could imagine taking my teenaged daughter — not now, you understand, but later, when I have one — to see it at the opera house. It is made to please.