Wednesday, 22 May 2013

La donna del largo

Royal Opera House
20 May 2013

Juan Diego Flórez, Joyce DiDonato and Colin Lee give some idea of the merits of this opera in their previous collaboration, in Paris 2010. 
From here.

Unbelievable singing and a thoughtful, striking production still cannot salvage a weak drama.

Quiz question: what opera features a woman singer who has to wear a skirt in order to be convincing as a man? Less a trouser role, then, than a kilt role. Is this a Rossinian joke?

John Fulljames' production employs a framing device: the work is apparently being created in the imaginations of early nineteenth century contemporaries of Scott, so that it takes place in an oak-panelled museum and culminates in a version of the British King George IV’s ceremonial visit to Scotland in 1822, which had genuinely been stage managed by Scott himself and concluded his invention of a romanticised Highland-focussed, tartan-and-kilt tradition of Scotland.

It’s probably useful to be reminded of Scott’s contribution to this nationalism, but it is confusing, and introducing peculiar anachronisms to the opera actually weaken the reference. There is little gained by turning the (Scottish) King and his soldiers into English redcoats. The Scottish tradition may have been invented after England had become the dominating force in the United Kingdom, but surely Scott intended his countrymen to be proud of their independent monarchical heritage?

What any of this has to do with Rossini and his librettists, and so with the opera, is a mystery. It seems to me the opera could plausibly be set anywhere, and while it is mildly concerned with patriotism, its real interest is in the tangled love story of its central character.

The production is handsome, and in general the stars look good. Ah, yes, the stars. Rather like Il Trovatore, this appears to require four of the best singers in the world, so it was just as well it got them.

It needs great singers because while some of the music is very beautiful, this tends to be the quieter, slower arias. Yet every aria, it seems, threatens to outstay its welcome, then proceeds to do exactly what it threatened by turning into a formidable cabaletta. The lack of variety made the evening something of a chore, though the voices were astonishing, and this was just about enough to maintain interest.

Rossini’s dramatic intentions coincide well with his style. His works, with almost any librettist, portray people as puppets, not really motivated by any inner sense. It’s as if we get the external show of emotion, but that as everyone gets the same musical treatment, that emotion is generalised.

This distinctive approach defines Rossinian comedy, a form of zany farce with pessimistic undertones. His comedies are near-masterpieces, but I think the approach is less special in the serious works, with only some parts of Guillaume Tell achieving a distinctive effect.

Perhaps this is because it is too easy to make melodrama a collection of generalised emotions, and Rossini doesn’t have anything new to add to the large number of eighteenth century opera seria in a similar mould.

Or does he? The ‘kilt role’ version of the trouser role may have been intentionally zany, and Fulljames only increases this factor with some very kitsch jarring effects such as rugged highlanders rum-ti-tumming on their shields, or the two male heroes heaving outsized swords for their duel.

Probably Rossini didn’t intend his beautiful harp ‘bardic’ music to be accompanied by the disembowelment of a sheep, but the effect gets the eyes rolling, and these are just the most obvious outlandish touches in this production.

That these peculiar effects didn’t seem to mar my experience of the opera may be the most effective criticism I can make of it. But the evening was enjoyable, just about, due to the voices. I can’t imagine the piece obtaining a better performance.

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