Thursday, July 28, 2016

“La Favorite” by Donizetti – performed at La Fenice in Venice.

Had the opportunity to go to the summer movie house in St. Louis again last night for a really remarkable performance of “La Favorite” by Donizetti.  The opera was originally composed for the Paris Operá and in French but later Donizetti created an Italian version which has been historically preferred.  Famously, Luciano Pavarotti championed this opera, but I think he only performed the Italian version.  I had seen it once before in Italian and had loved the music, but was not as enthusiastic about the plot and libretto – more about that below.

But first I have to say this was a top-notch performance musically and dramatically in every way.  The singing was spectacular and not just by the principals, but by everyone, including the chorus.  The work was also very well conducted and the orchestra was terrific. I really do not understand why the Met doesn’t engage John Osborn more often.  He has a gorgeous voice.  It is bright with a beautiful ring to it.  He is sensitive musically and able to spin the most delicate phrases and when necessary also able to effectively thunder out.  And not only that but he is a great actor! He completely inhabits his roles and always puts in a very committed performance.  I have seen him a lot – mostly in European productions – and I really like him. He is particularly good with these sort of angry, crazy tenor roles.  And in this opera he was especially outstanding as Fernand.  As his rival King, Alphonse, the baritone Vito Priante did a beautiful job. His is another gorgeous voice and he is also a baritone who can act!  And as their love interest Léonor de Guzman, mezzo-soprano Veronica Simeoni was also outstanding.  And then the supporting cast – all equally excellent: Pauline Rouillard as Inés, bass Simon Lim as Balthazar and a wonderful comprimario tenor, Ivan Ayon Rivas, as Don Gaspar.  During intermission Rivas was interviewed and struck me as being probably one of the nicest and sweetest guys ever and he must have struck the interviewer the same because he was asked how it was possible for him (of all people I suppose) to play such a terrible, evil character like Don Gaspar so effectively and he laughed and essentially said – “It’s called acting!”  And while the Met certainly has a number of terrific comprimari they really ought to take a look at this guy. He also had a beautiful voice.  The conductor, Donato Renzetti also was outstanding.  Have I made the point yet?  Musically this was a terrific, outstanding performance in my view.

The plot of this opera is, IMHO, a bit troubled and tiresome, especially for a 21st century audience. I do not think it is a particularly effective operatic plot.  In fact, I don’t much like it at all.  When I saw it a couple years ago in a musically fine production (which is still on YouTube) I found it to be tiresome and silly.  It is essentially a blame the female victim plot:  A beautiful woman, Léonor de Guzman (who is a historical character BTW, but whose life bore little to no resemblance to this plot) is promised that she will be queen by the King but, he is already married and so she becomes his mistress. She then meets and falls in love with the love of her life (Fernand) but is terrified that he will find out about her relationship with the King. She resolves to do the right thing and have her friend and associate Inés go to him and tell him everything.  But the jealous Don Gaspar prevents Inés from taking the information to Fernand.  This then leads to this major confrontation scene where the truth finally comes out and Fernand rebukes and brutally rejects Leonor out because her impurity is a stain on his honor (gag!).  In the last act she takes poison and finds him, now back in the monastery and begs for his forgiveness.  He is reluctant at first but eventually he is overcome with love and affection and he forgives her and wants to return to a life with her, but it is too late.  His honor is saved by her suicide. Leonor is a victim multiple times in this plot.

This brings me to the staging by director Rosetta Cucchi, which I found to be exceptionally engaging.  Not only that but was visually stunning. Lit softly the set and creative costumes were all in various shades of gray, blue, purple, white and black.  The only other color was from the dancers during the 2nd act ballet who were butterflies.  It worked.  I immediately could tell that this staging was an imagined futuristic world.  And at the intermission there was an extensive interview with her and she laid out her vision, for which I am grateful.  I was able to pick up some of it but I would not have gotten all of it were it not for this interview.  So the original she said takes place in the year 1398 (or something like that) and she turned the numbers around to 8931 and set the opera in a distant future.  In this world the monks are the keepers of the chemistry of life and it is they that have the secret to preserving life and sustaining life.  Their monastery is made to look like the periodic table – on purpose (the set designer said as much) – and that which is essential to life – water and various kinds of plants are carefully stewarded by the monks.  Balthasar therefore yields much power and he is, like many who have that kind of power, a despot.  In this world, women have become “incubators” – they are de-humanized and have no feelings at all, and this is symbolized by their long flowing white hair. Leonor is an anomaly as she is not yet completely de-humanized.  She is still capable of feelings and because of this she is both desperately desired and also feared and shunned.  This is symbolized by her long flowing blond hair which slowly starts to turn white (until she cuts it all off when she pretends to be a boy in the last act). So Alphonse desires her, Fernand desires her and Balthasar and Don Gaspar hate her.  In act 2 the ballet features two dancers as butterflies who emerge from their cocoon only to suffocate in the constriction of the confines of this harsh society, symbolized by a womb like clear structure which I cannot describe but was exceptionally effective and both beautiful and terrifying. But the de-humanization has an effect on the men as well.  Dehumanizing the women has resulted in the dehumanization and enslavement of the men as well.  None of them are able to strike out on their own, including the King.  Fernand does it and is harshly shamed until he returns to the fold. The arrest of Inés was particularly revealing as this arrest included a symbolic rape That further dehumanized the men (she was already dehumanized).  In this society “honor” becomes a meaningless word that stands for the highest value but really has been stripped of all meaning (see Shakespeare on this one – I think Cucchi was channeling the Bard here because I kept thinking of Marc Antony’s great speech about the “honorable men” who murdered Caesar and Falstaff’s terrific speech from Henry IV, part I.)  Ultimately we are all human together – or we can loose our humanity by giving in to the dictates of despots who promise us security but which results in objectifying violence and hate.

(Digression – Did Cucchi think at all about the American election, with the most dangerous despot attempting to become president by dehumanizing and objectifying other groups – including women?  She may not have, but this only speaks to the timeliness of her vision.)

So, I thought this production was brilliant!  She was able to take a rather misogynist plot and twist it around into something else entirely.  And that something else ended up being a production that was visually stunning, musically brilliant and exceptionally though-provoking.  Did it all work?  No. The English subtitles (for which I am grateful) were an exact translation of the libretto and not interpretive in any way.  Therefore sometimes what we saw on the stage was not consistent with the libretto.  And usually this bugs the heck out of me.  But in this case it didn’t.  I was fine with it and had no problem just reading past that and taking in the stage image.  This is the case because I find this libretto to be very poor on the whole.  Donizetti create incredibly beautiful music for it.  But otherwise there is nothing to redeem this libretto.  I cannot recommend this production more highly.  And I hope we see more of Rosetta Cucchi.  She is one brilliant visionary of a stage director.

1 comment:

  1. I have only previously heard one act from this piece, a gala for Pavarotti. This excellent review now makes me want to see the complete piece - well, the production you saw, anyway