Cyrano de Bergerac, Royal Opera House, London
Don Giovanni, Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Sadly this opera is just a one-man show
Sunday 14 May 2006
Viewed from the perspective of the leading man, Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac is a knock-out. The protagonist is a paradigm of unselfish love: a fighting, writing hero whose wit and bravery with pen and sword protect him from any pain except that inflicted by the woman he believes too beautiful to love him. Sympathetically orchestrated, with scenes that underline his intelligence, his kindness, and, of course, his prodigious proboscis, it is an irresistible role for a mature singing actor. Sadly, to all but that singing actor, it is a less than irresistible opera.
If any artist has earned the right to bring a rather duff work to Covent Garden, it is Placido Domingo: veteran of more than 20 roles at the Royal Opera House, and a passionate champion of Alfano's long-forgotten opera. One can understand why Alfano was asked to complete Turandot. Much of the orchestration is lovely, though the lovelier elements of his sequinned, faux-Impressionist instrumentation rarely combine to make a compelling dramatic exchange, or even a memorable melody.
Francesca Zambello's sugar-frosted Metropolitan Opera production - a bel epoque baroque confection that nods at the era of Edmond Rostand's play - conspires to make Domingo look spry and daring in every scene. There is nothing in Peter J Davison's designs to frighten the conservative Manhattan audience, though I fancy the bleached wood and copper pans of Ragueneau's Bakery will have inspired some costly home-improvements on the Upper East Side, and the spare elegance of the convent garden is a surprise after the heavy detailing of the first three acts.
Though the sword-fights are carefully choreographed and the balcony scene is somewhat brightly lit, Domingo's performance belies his age. Like Otello, the role might have been written for him: all baritonal bite and gleam, with soaring, well-cushioned high notes. His French is imperfect, but he is not alone. Among the supporting Scots, New Zealanders, Germans, Americans and Italians, Frances McCafferty's Duenna, Iain Paterson's Le Bret, and Sarah Pring's Lisa stand out for character, sound, and style. Raymond Very captures the innocence of Christian but gives little impression of his insecurity. As Roxane, the broad-toned Sondra Radvanovsky battles unsuccessfully with a horrid dress and a large yellow handkerchief, and acts in the style of Lina Lamont. As to Mark Elder, if he can't make a cohesive drama out of Alfano's fleetingly affecting score, I doubt anyone can.
It is unfortunate for Scottish Opera that Tim Albery's ultra-straight Don Giovanni, the company's first since the curse of The Ring was lifted, should follow Birmingham Opera Company's gripping site-specific production. That Graham Vick's Don Giovanni would have more dramatic impact could have been anticipated. That it was in several cases considerably better sung is surprising.
Despite the characterful fortepiano recitatives, Richard Armstrong's stop-start Mozart is chronically diffident. The string sound is metallic, the trumpets ugly and ill-tempered. The woodwind have some delicious moments in Il mio tesoro, which, when sung by Hilton Marlton's dishwater Ottavio, is otherwise far from delicious. I struggled to find a good argument for Maria Costanza Nocentini's pianissimo account of Or sai chi l'onore and failed. Floating top As and Bs is a useful talent in the C minor Mass but has little value here. As Elvira, Henriikka Gröndahl is likewise more concerned with producing a beautiful sound than she is in projecting her character's emotions. Both are outsung by Caitlin Hulcup's Zerlina.
Poor Matthew Best sounds like a stone monument even before the Commendatore is murdered. Darcy Bleiker's Masetto is appealing and intelligent, as is James Rutherford's Leporello, though it is unclear how complicit he is supposed to be in Albery's reading. Peter Savidge's vampiric Don is all slicked-back hair and white evening gloves, a pair of which are discarded after every attempted seduction. (Symbolic, I presume, but of what?) As the chap behind me predicted, the opera ends badly, with the Don disappearing into a steamy crack in the Seville pavement.
Cyrano de Bergerac, Royal Opera House, (020 7304 4000) to May 27; Don Giovanni, Theatre Royal (0141 332 3321) to June 1
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