Funny how "formulaic" has become a dirty word. Think of the Gershwin brothers' songs, the misadventures of Bertie Wooster, the catchphrase, the chaconne, the sandwich, the sonnet. Now think of a Laurent Pelly production: tongue-in-cheek, tender-hearted, silly, sweet, and unashamedly formulaic.
Now playing at the Royal Opera House, Pelly's Opéra National de Paris staging of Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore adheres to the mad-cap model of La fille du Régiment, La belle Hélène and La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein. Be they Trojans or Tyroleans, Gérolsteiners or Italian agricultural workers, Pelly's merry extras are routinely afflicted by an acute lack of gorm, his lovers with hyperactive haplessness. Where La fille was played out on a wrinkled terrain of military maps, L'elisir, also designed by Chantal Thomas, is dominated by a sky-scraping haystack, and decorated with a baler, a tractor, a lorry, several slow-moving scooters, and a speeding Jack Russell.
Between the dog, the haystack and the collage of amusing advertisements for Doctor Dulcamara's cure-all for "costipazione", "impotenza", "flatulenza" and other embarrassing ailments, it is fair to say that this is not a production for sourpusses or soul-searchers. Pelly's world is one of playful exaggeration and push-up bras, little madams and love-struck loons, high-jinks and happy endings. We know it's only a matter of time before proud Adina (Aleksandra Kurzak) and humble Nemorino (Stefano Secco) emerge from the bales with rings on their fingers and ear-to-ear grins. But just as Dulcamara's country customers are happy to pretend his magical potion will bring them health, wealth and irresistible sexual allure, we are content to be taken along for the ride.
If the cast is a little more vin ordinaire than vintage Bordeaux, L'elisir works handsomely enough without its original Nemorino, Rolando Villazon, whose starriness may well have unbalanced an unusually fresh-faced ensemble. As the will-they-won't-they lovers, Secco and Kurzak move with the uninhibited physicality of sparring siblings. Though Glyndebourne on Tour's current Nemorino, Peter Auty, delivers the superior account of "Una furtiva lagrima", Secco has charm aplenty, and Ludovic Tézier's snake-hipped Belcore and Paolo Gavanelli's sleazy Dulcamara lend generous support. The chorus sings and acts stylishly, while Mikko Franck coaxes an attractive performance from the Royal Opera House Orchestra, with supple strings and a honeyed solo from bassoonist Andrea de Flammineis.
While the sun shines on Covent Garden's Parisian haystack, English National Opera has drawn yet another short straw with Houston Grand Opera's Zandra Rhodes-designed Aida. With wobbly sets, jotter-pad hieroglyphs, acrobats, Indian dancers, a silk elephant, more quivering man-breasts than the British naturists' annual darts championship, and an arresting, if improbable, reading of Amneris (Jane Dutton) as a camp comedienne in a Cleopatra wig, this is am-dram opera on an Ab-Fab budget: garish, dated, embarrassing.
Verdi was no slouch at spectacle, but there's more to Aida than the Triumphal March, and a production that does not try to explore 19th-century attitudes to colonialism, orientalism, fatalism and patriotism is little more than a panto with an unhappy ending. Here passion, texture and atmosphere are confined to the pit, where Edward Gardner's spacious, focused reading of the score is vividly realised by the orchestra. What a waste. Trapped in an overstuffed Egyptian walk-in wardrobe, the singers stand and deliver in what little space is left. Claire Rutter (Aida) and John Hudson (Radames) balance pathos and heft, while Iain Paterson offers an Amonasro as noble as his costume – think 1930s comic-book cannibal – is silly.
Remembrance Sunday saw the first performance of John Foulds's A World Requiem since 1926. Written in memory of the fallen of the First World War and tailored to the Royal Albert Hall's acoustics, this harmonically conservative, unhurried, pacific work was created for an age almost unthinkably different from our own, one in which every member of the audience would have known someone maimed or killed in "the war to end all wars", be they husband, brother, father or son.
Few Foulds fanatics would argue that A World Requiem is a lost masterpiece worthy of annual performance. Like John Adams's "memory space", On the Transmigration of Souls, this "Cenotaph in Sound" is dated by its very purpose as much as by its theosophical lyrics and its invocation of forgotten nations. Yet listening to Leon Botstein's smooth, sincere account of the score with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Trinity Boys Choir, BBC Symphony Chorus, Crouch End Festival Chorus and Philharmonia Chorus only four days after listening to Stephen Wyatt's harrowing play Memorials to the Missing on Radio 4, it seemed to me that this was much more than a musicological exercise. It was, in fact, an act of remembrance. For those who missed it, Chandos will be issuing a live recording early next year.
'L'elisir d'amore': Royal Opera House (020 7304 4000) to 29 November
'Aida': English National Opera (0870 145 0200) to 7 December
Further reading Edward W Said's excoriating critique of 'Aida' in 'Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient' (Penguin Modern Classics)Reuse content