Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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La nonna del pozzo

August 20, 2016

I had not planned to come to Pesaro this year for the annual Rossini Opera Festival.  I had seen all of the operas before, and one of them was to be directed by a stage director whose work I do not like.  But here we are, back again, drawn like homing pigeons to the atmosphere, the food, the friends and yes, the music.  The singers engaged for this year's operas were also exceptionally good, and that aided our decision.  Our first opera was La donna del lago (The Lady of the Lake), an opera I have seen a lot in recent years--at Santa Fe, the Met and Covent Garden, as well as here in Pesaro in concert.  All of these productions had a lady, but the stage directors and designers ignored the "lake" of the title, placing their productions in a museum (Covent Garden) or on arid hills (Santa Fe/the Met).  This year's Pesaro production had an old woman and a mud puddle.

The story of the Lady of the Lake, which I have detailed before in these random opera notes, comes from Walter Scott's poem, and is set in Scotland at the time of border wars between the King (James V/Giacomo in the opera) and the unruly Highland clansmen.  Elena (to use the opera's Italian names), the lady of the title, is the daughter of Douglas, one of the Highland clan leaders, who is allied with Rodrigo against the King.  She is in love with Malcolm, but is promised by her father to Rodrigo in order to solidify their alliance.  But at the beginning of the opera, she meets one "Uberto," who is really King Giacomo in disguise, and the two are obviously attracted to each other--she invites him to come to her home, on an island in Loch Katrine (thus Scott's title, "Lady of the Lake").  Eventually, Malcolm joins the clansmen, but they are defeated by the King's forces and Rodrigo is killed.  In the end, the King, having given up his love for Elena, unites her with Malcolm and forgives her father.  Cue the happy ending and Elena's great rondo finale, "Tanti affetti in tal momento."

Damiano Michieletto's production takes off from an idea of Alberto Zedda, the grand old man of the Festival, a great conductor and a formidable expert on Rossini.  Maestro Zedda believes that the libretto and particularly the music suggest that Elena really loves Uberto, who turns out to be the King, and not Malcolm.  Thus her final aria, while expressing her happiness, is really suggestive of hesitation.  It is true that "Uberto" and Elena fascinate each other, and there is probably a spark there; it is also true that the King expresses his great love for the girl in his major aria, "O fiamma soave" ("O sweet flame").  But personally, I think that while she is fascinated by Uberto/Giacomo, she really loves Malcolm.  They have a tender love duet ("Vivere io non potrò"--'I can't live without you'), they are united in the end, and she expresses her great joy, musically elaborating on the word "felicità" ("happiness") over and over.

Mr. Michieletto takes Zedda's idea and goes far beyond it in a "concept" production which often undercuts the music through distraction.  His production has nothing to do with Scotland, lakes, hunts, or the beauty of landscape that fill Scott's poem (and the opera) and which make Scott the first and best PR representative for the beauty of his native land.  Instead, when the curtain rises and before the music starts, we get a plain and ugly room in a drab apartment with an old woman in a baggy house dress and a bearded old man sitting forlornly alone in a chair.  There is a large picture on the table of King Giacomo wearing his royal crown (Juan Diego Florez).  In a dumb show, she brings flowers and a vase with water for the 'shrine' to the king, and the old man angrily tosses the water out and throws the flowers down.  These figures turn out to be Elena, our once beautiful young woman, grown old and shabby, and her husband, Malcolm, also old-- and angry and despairing that she still worships the King and feels that she has made an awful mistake by marrying Malcolm when she could have had handsome Juan Diego, er, the King.


When the music starts, the walls of the unhappy little room lift to reveal a huge set--a ruined Victorian mansion with broken windows, peeling paint and wallpaper, a caved-in ceiling and, curiously, weeds growing in the living room, which is filled with broken furniture full of holes.  In this devastated living room there is also a large mud puddle, with reeds growing around it.  Our Old Lady in the baggy dress is here too, and most of the time so is Grandpa Malcolm, but now it is time for the singers to sing, and they are young--the age they are supposed to be in the story.  But Granny and Grandpa shadow them throughout the opera, creating endless distraction from the characters who are actually supposed to be there.  At one point young Elena (Salome Jicia) is in an old fashioned bed with Uberto, and Granny is in bed with them too.  An unlikely threesome!  At another, Granny falls back into the big puddle, making a splash.  I guess she really is "of the lake."


I know it is all supposed to mean something profound, that the ruined house is Elena's ruined dreams, that the whole opera is Elena's nightmare of regret and grief.  But really, it is just stupid and pretentious--and very distracting.  The worst moment comes at the end when we are back in the one room flat for Elena's final aria.  As she sings, she strips down to her slip, pulls off her blond wig to reveal gray hair, and puts on the baggy house dress and a pair of thick-lens bifocals.  She becomes the Old Woman who has shadowed her, completely destroying and distracting from the wonderful aria she is singing.  If I were the singer, I would hate it; it ruins her big moment, and for me it ruined the opera's joyous climax.

The only scenes when we were given a brief respite from the banality of this concept were the ones with Rodrigo (Michael Spyres), depicted quite appropriately as a rough and tumble, uncouth clansman who treats everyone roughly including the woman he wants to marry.  For awhile the drama took off, only to fall back into deconstructive distancing with the return of the Granny in the housedress.


We live in an age when the musical values in opera are probably better than they have ever been, with scholarly work bringing back scores as they were first heard, with wonderful musicians and singers knowledgeable about the style of the work they are singing, while at the same time many contemporary stage directors try to do everything in their power to pervert the work, straying far from the era in which it is set and layering it with characters and ideas which were never part of it as conceived by the composer and librettist.  There is often an enormous difference between a wonderful musical performance and a dreadful staging.  That was certainly the case here.  I have never heard a better sung, a better played Donna del lago.  First comes the conductor Michele Mariotti and the superb orchestra of Bologna's Teatro Comunale.  Young Mr. Mariotti seems to have teethed on Rossini, and his orchestra respects the validity of the music, which is not always true of other orchestras.  They brought out nuances and offered dramatic emphases I have never heard before in the score.  It was very exciting, and better than the Santa Fe or Metropolitan orchestra played for their drab co-production.

The chorus was the best I have heard too, and there was an off-stage banda as required by the score that was super, providing great stereophonic effects with the main orchestra.

Then there were the singers.  Donna del lago demands the very best; Rossini had them in Naples in 1819.  It is doubtful that any generation since then has had better (or even as good) singers for this music.  There are two tenors (Giacomo and Rodrigo).  Rossini wrote for one voice that is lighter with high tessitura, contrasting that voice with a 'baritenor'--a tenor who can sing high notes, but can also drop into a lower, almost baritonal register.  Pesaro gave us Juan Diego Florez and Michael Spyres.  It was the battle of the tenors!!  They are pesero4rivals in the story (and did not suffer the indignity of being shadowed by their geriatric selves) and they are tenor rivals too.  Who won the battle?  To my mind, Spyres out-sang Florez, but the former also spurred the latter to sing even better than his usual high mark.  You won't find two tenors any better anywhere in the world today--what a treasure chest of riches that night brought for tenor singing.  Douglas, the bass, is usually an afterthought.  He gets an aria, but it is not by Rossini, and you can tell.  But this time Marko Mimica was a great Douglas, and he made his aria ("Taci, lo voglio") sound like Rossini's greatest creation.  His acting was great too, as was Spyres'.  The women were previously unknown to me, but they lived up to the difficult demands of their roles, and then some.  Salome Jicia is a sterling graduate of the Accademia Rossiniana in Pesaro, and she seems to be at the beginning of an important career.  Her Elena was excellent throughout, and she tried her best with "Tanti affetti," given the production concept.  Armenian mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan was a revelation as Malcolm, earning some of the biggest applause of the evening for her two arias.  She also acted the pants role better than any singer I have seen do it.  Even the minor roles of Albina (Ruth Iniesta) and Serano (Francisco Brito) were strongly cast.

In other words, musically, it was a wonderful evening.  I had not, however, bought a ticket to go back a second time (as I usually do in Pesaro), and I am glad.  The production is too awful, but I am glad I heard it.  But they should change the title from "La donna del lago" ('The Lady of the Lake') to "La nonna nella pozzanghera"--"The Granny in the Puddle."


Duetti Amorosi

Whether the operas pleased or not, this year gave us three extraordinary concert recitals in Pesaro.  The first was by the soprano Pretty Yende and the mezzo-soprano Aya Wakizono, whom we had recently heard in Martina Franca as Paolo in Francesca da Rimini.  The two sang a short program of three Rossini duets (from Zelmira, La gazza ladra, and Adelaide di Borgogna), one aria each, and there were three Rossini overtures. For an encore they sang the duet "Tutto mi ride intorno" from Mosé in Egitto.  These two young (and wonderful) singers blended beautifully; both are masters of the technique.  They were accompanied by Marco Alibrando leading the Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini.  I was struck once again by the great interconnected world we live in: a lovely black singer from South Africa and a singer from Japan, both schooled in the style of an Italian composer who lived in the nineteenth century, and flawlessly performing in his hometown.  There is a German Rossini Society, but there is also a Japanese Rossini Society, which publishes scholarly work.   Every year Japan sends a large contingent of aficionados to Pesaro.  There is the Amici della Rossini Opera Festival, but there is also an American Friends of the Festival organization that has a web site and promotes Rossini in America.  Rossini was always an international composer, but now more than ever.

Michael Spyres: Hommage a Nourrit

Adolphe Nourrit was the greatest tenor at the Paris Opéra in the 1820's and early 1830's.  He not only sang in the premieres of Rossini's French operas and works by Meyerbeer and Halèvy, he even helped in composing some of the arias--and he wrote the scenario for the famous ballet La Sylphide.  In other words, he was one of the greatest singers/musicians of the early nineteenth century.  However, as fashions changed, Nourrit was superseded in Paris by Gilbert Duprez, who had perfected the art of singing high notes from the chest instead of with a head voice.  Nourrit left France and went to Naples to try and learn the art of singing in this fashion, and he studied there with Donizetti.  He asked Donizetti to write an opera for his Naples debut, and Donizetti complied, composing Poliuto.  But the censors in Naples  forbade the performance (Poliuto is on a religious subject).  Depressed and in bad health, Nourrit killed himself by leaping from an upper story of the place where he was staying at the age of 37 in 1839.

pesaro5There is a fashion these days for singers to offer concerts or CDs in "honor" of some great singer of the past: Bartoli did Maria Malibran; Di Donato did Isabella Colbran; we just heard this summer Maxim Miranov channel Rubini.  Now Michael Spyres is singing Nourrit.  The entire concert was composed of (mostly) little known or unknown arias (and two overtures) from operas that Nourrit performed.  The only well known pieces were Count Ory's aria "Que les destins prospères" and Arnold's aria from William Tell.  Otherwise, we heard arias from Cherubini's Ali Baba, Auber's Gustave III (the same subject as Verdi's later Ballo in maschera), Auber's Le Philtre (same subject as Donizetti's later Elisir d'amore), Auber's La muette de Portici, Halévy's La Juive, Donizetti's Poliuto, and Niedermeyer's Stradella.

Needless to say, all of these arias were extremely difficult from the exquisite piano singing of the beautiful lullaby from La Muette de Portici to the full-throated singing in most of the other arias.  We can't know exactly what Nourrit sounded like, but Mr. Spyres is perhaps the greatest tenor singing in the bel canto repertory today.  His ringing high notes, his drops into the baritone register, his legato and knowledge of the style made this very exciting sold out concert in the Teatro Rossini the high point of the Festival for me.  I have to add that Spyres sang almost all of this mostly obscure music without recourse to sheet music, the only exception being the final (and most obscure) number from Niedermeyer's opera.

David Parry led the Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini--and he knows the style.  There were also overtures from Auber's Le Philtre and Pacini's La stella del nord, the latter one particularly rousing.

To hear such lovely and unknown music was a treat; to hear it sung so well was a great gift.

Juan Diego Florez and Friends: Florez 20

Twenty years ago a completely unknown Juan Diego Florez made an unexpected and astonishing debut in Rossini's Matilde di Shabran at the Rossini Opera Festival.  The projected tenor, Bruce Ford,  had fallen sick at the last moment.  This opera was virtually unknown at the time, and other than Ford there was no tenor in the world who knew the music and could step in.  The Festival turned to Florez, who was a student in the Accademia Rossiniana.  Florez learned the long and taxing role almost overnight and made his debut in it on opening night.  I was there.  It was one of those unforgettable evenings in the theater that you will tell your grandchildren about.  That night launched a career that has made Florez the most celebrated tenor in the bel canto repertory, certainly in Rossini.

Mr. Florez has been faithful to the Festival ever since too, appearing in ten different operas over the last twenty years.  He has now bought a house near Pesaro; one of his children was born here; and last night he was made a citizen officially by the mayor in a little ceremony in the middle of the concert.  The Festival has benefited enormously from the Florez connection too.  As the tenor has gone on to sing in all the major opera houses in the world, he has brought renown and publicity to the city and its Festival.  Amid all the hoopla and thanks delivered in Italian and English, I was touched by Florez, who thanked Rossini.  Without him, none of us would be here.


The concert included pieces from the ten operas that Florez has appeared in at the Rossini Opera Festival.  While the singers sang, pictures of Florez in the productions were projected on a large screen above the stage.  There were four duets, a trio, a quintet, a sextet, two finales, and only one solo aria ("Cessa di più resistere" from The Barber of Seville).  A lot of singers assisted in the homage to Florez, including Chiara Amaru, Ruth Iniesta, Salome Jicia, Cecilia Molinari, Marina Monzo, Pretty Yende, Nicola Alaimo, Marko Mimica, Pietro Spagnoli and Michael Spyres.  The choral and orchestral forces from Bologna were conducted by Christopher Franklin, who also led the orchestra in five Rossini overtures.

At the end, after the glorious finale to Guillaume Tell, Florez came back for one encore--a repeat of Almaviva's "Cessa di più resistere."  I thought he should have left it with the magisterial Tell finale, but I think I was a minority of one.  The applause and foot stomping and shouting went on and on, and deservedly.  The singing was glorious.  For two weeks in August there is no better place on earth to be if you love the sound of the unamplified human voice in all its glory, and of course the wonderful music of Rossini.  Florez knows that better than most.

Charles Jernigan

Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network