Snake oil and sick sopranos

It was one of those cinematic nights at the opera. The soprano is ill; her understudy gets, and makes the most of, her chance of a lifetime - and a star is born. In this case she wasn't the cover; in fact she was on holiday in Leipzig (Leipzig?) when the call came that Ekaterina Siurina had a throat infection, and would she come to Glyndebourne and sing the lead role of Adina in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore that very evening? She was good - very good. How did she do it? 
Auty.elisir-gly-000109- 72-lr.jpg

(photo of Peter Auty by  Simon Annand)

Annabel Arden's production is highly choreographed by Leah Hausman. Shortly after Adina enters she has roll up the bottoms of her trousers, stand in a fountain, pump out a gush of water and wash her feet - without wetting her slacks, which were not a brilliant fit for the Basque singer Ainhoa Garmendia, and, indeed, made her look much plumper than she did later in a frock. She carried on in the same vein, collapsing in the arms of admirers, being hoisted aloft by them, and generally cutting a pretty and pretty complicated caper - without missing or fluffing a note, even in her coloratura passages. Her acting was precise and confident. She knew exactly where she needed to be at every moment, and her ensembles were perfect. Though she's sung the role before at Leipzig, I could not believe she was performing it for the first time at Glyndebourne that night. 
How on earth did she manage to learn all this in a few hours, after what I was told was a single walk-through in a different location? Born in the lovely town of San Sebastian in Spain, says the addendum to the programme, "she studied accordion and piano and attended the Universities of Music in Madrid and Vienna, and the Opera Studio CNIPAL in Marseilles." Gosh. How did Glyndebourne know about her? The answer is she sang Despina there last year. She's scheduled to sing Micaëla in Carmen at the Liceu - maybe the production will allow her to demonstrate her proficiency on the accordion.
Elixir is a strange opera. The worst production I've seen of any opera was the Met's old Elixir, which looked like a tatty school production and had zero direction. The Glyndebourne production I saw first when they toured it in 2007. It has a simple permanent set by Lez Brotherston, being the façade of Adina's house, set diagonally over part of the back of the stage, plus an electricity pole downstage. The costumes are rural Italian post-War, not quite Italian Straw Hat. Maurizio Benini contributed hugely to the success of the show; his conducting of the London Philharmonic was sparkling, but hawk-alert to Ms Garmendia's needs. He made Donizetti's repetitions seem natural, even necessary.
If you know the piece, you'll be asking "and what about the tenor?"  I heard Peter Auty sing Nemorino first two years ago, when he was quite good. He is now sensationally good, his tone warm and beautiful, with just enough tear in his voice to make us aware that Nemorino, though gullible, has a big, genuine heart. The flaw in the plot is that Nemorino has to be stupid enough to fall for Dr Dulcamara's snake-oil patter and buy the elixir off him, but clever enough to win the heart of Adina, who, when the opera opens, is reading the tale of Tristan and Isolde (and is thus a cultured lady). This credibility gap has to be bridged by the tenor's performance - we somehow have to believe he deserves to win her because he's capable of singing a sustained top C with his natural, chest voice. No, it doesn't make much sense - but give me another explanation of how this piece works. In any case, Mr. Auty's got it and he flaunts it.
Glyndebourne's really been on a roll this season. First the Fairy Queen, then a splendid Rusalka, and now this dramatically rescued production to join the short list of nights at the opera you want to remember to tell your future grandchildren about.

July 27, 2009 4:22 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on July 27, 2009 4:22 PM.

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