Donizetti’s ‘The Elixir of Love’ and Janácek’s ‘Katya Kabanova’ at the English National Opera
Both the delightful comedy and gloomy tragedy are unqualified successes
Jonathan Miller’s entertaining production of Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love” originally premiered in Stockholm, was seen subsequently at New York City Opera, and has now arrived at the English National Opera. In an innovative twist, stage designer Isabella Bywater has moved the setting from an Italian village to the 1950s American Midwest. The action is played out on a revolving stage centered on Adina’s Diner in the open prairie. In keeping with the staging, Miller also commissioned an adaptation of Felice Romani’s libretto by Kelley Rourke, who successfully succeeded in updating the dialog commensurate with the staging. Locating the action to a diner in itself, though, is not unprecedented, since Peter Sellars staged Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” in the 1980s in a similar setting. Alteration of the composer’s intentions by updating the action to modern times often comes under heavy criticism. However this production, like Jonathan Miller’s previous “Rigoletto” and the updating of the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy by Peter Sellars, really works well.
As the proprietress of the diner, soprano Sarah Tynan, dolled up as a blonde to mimic Marilyn Monroe, sang the role of Adina sweetly and effectively. While managing the cash register, she flirted with all the men. She was the center of attention with all eyes on her, including those of the hapless Nemorino. The latter is completely infatuated with her yet feels unworthy of her affection. The rather stupid but beloved Nemorino is one of opera’s great tenor roles. At the performance I attended, Nemorino was sung by Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas, the only cast member not singing in English. He gave a creditable performance, although I missed the true Italianate lyric tone that Nicolai Gedda, Carlo Bergonzi, Luciano Pavarotti and Juan Diego Florez, four tenors whom I have been privileged to hear, managed to infuse into the role.
Full marks to baritone Andrew Shore, who played the role of the quack doctor Dulcamara with great aplomb. Making his stage entrance in a ’50s Cadillac convertible, he successfully managed to hoodwink not only the simpleton Nemorino, but also the other gullible country bumpkins into buying his supposed aphrodisiac. Baritone David Kempster as Belcore portrayed the role as a typical swaggering, gum-chewing American GI and was also in great form. Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, in his English National Opera debut, was rather heavy-handed with the orchestra, which often sounded a little too loud. I prefer a much lighter approach to Donizetti’s masterpiece.
This comic opera fully lived up to its expectations. Most amusing was the use of a toilet by the girls in the scene where it was revealed to them that Nemorino has inherited a fortune following the death of his uncle. All in all, this was a most delightful, enjoyable and memorable performance.
In an entirely different vein was Leos Janácek’s brooding tragedy, “Katya Kabanova,” in a new production for the English National Opera by David Alden. The minimal sets by Charles Edwards were dominated by a large rotating wall. Large parts of the stage were left empty, in keeping with the action of the opera, which is played out in a provincial village on the Volga River inhabited for the most part by narrow-minded and parochial individuals. Particularly effective in the production was Adam Silverman’s startling lighting, which projected dark shadows suggestive of the bleak atmosphere of the opera. I found the billboard with Russian symbols in Act 3 a little disconcerting. This seemed out of place in an English-speaking production. The three-act opera was performed without an intermission, which helped to build up the dramatic tension.
The tragic character Katya Kabanova is trapped between her spineless husband, Tikhon, who is totally dominated by his mother and her equally cowardly and weak-willed lover, Boris, who in turn is completely subjugated by his overpowering uncle, Dikoy. After revealing her infidelity, Katya commits suicide by jumping into the icy Volga.
American soprano Patricia Racette, in her English National Opera debut, brought a searing and dramatic portrayal of the doomed heroine. She injected real pathos and misery into the role. Her performance was a real tour de force. Mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley took on the role of Kabanicha, the cruel mother-in-law who successfully breaks up Katya’s marriage and, more than anyone else, drives Katya to eventual suicide. Bass Clive Bayley succeeded in bringing out the true character of the repulsive Dikoy. Tenors John Graham-Hall and Stuart Skelton were both effective as the miserable hen-pecked husband and lover, respectively. Mark Wigglesworth led the Orchestra in a masterful performance and succeeded in capturing all the subtle nuances of Janácek’s complex yet beautiful score.
Both these productions, “The Elixir of Love” and “Katya Kabanova,” earn full marks for the English National Opera and represent a real triumph for the company. #