Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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Exeter Trio

May 30, 2016

Peggy and I are on one of our trips which includes a lot of opera going.  We started in Delaware with Opera Delaware's mini-festival based on Shakespeare.  On Monday we flew across the Atlantic and took the train down to Exeter, a pretty cathedral town that was heavily bombed in 1942 by a vindictive Hitler, who chose it as a target not because of any military importance but because it was of historic importance to the English.  While enjoying the sights of Exeter, including the wonderful cathedral, the first Norman building (a tower gate) in England still standing, the ancient Roman wall, and the narrowest street in the world--and eating Thai and French food--we also found time for three productions by English Touring Opera (ETO).  One was a standard, one was pretty unusual and one was really, really rare.  That one was...


The 1830's was the great decade for Donizetti, who wrote around 39 operas between 1830 and 1839, if you include revisions.  The first few years of the 1840's were good too, but then his syphilis-induced madness consumed him, leading to an early death in 1848.  Almost all of the operas of the 1830's are worth reviving (Lucia is at the midpoint in 1835) and most of the Donizetti works in the standard repertory come from that decade.  By 1830 Donizetti (with Anna Bolena) had learned to write those hummable, unforgettable melodies that we associate with his works.

One of the best of those operas from the point of view of endless melody is Pia de'Tolomei, dating from 1837, with major revisions for productions in other cities over the next few years.  Pia first appears in a mere seven lines in Canto V of Dante's Purgatorio, where we find her on the terrace of those expunging the sin of pride.  She must be nearly ready to move on, because she beautifully exhibits the virtue of humility, the opposite of pride.  She asks Dante to remember her when he is well rested from his journey, and identifies herself only as La Pia: "Siena made me and the Maremma undid me," she tells Dante's Pilgrim, "as he knows who gave me his ring."  That's it, and scholars ever after have been trying to figure out who this kind and retiring woman whose name means "the Pious One" really was.  Most early literary detective work centered around a certain Pia de'Tolomei, a woman from Siena who was married to a war captain named Nello della Pietra, who had her killed through defenestration: she was thrown from a tower in his castle in the Maremma, a then swampy region near the Tuscan coast, south of Siena.  (My wife and I once visited the romantic ruins of that castle and climbed to the tower where Pia may have been held captive.  It was a lonely place.)

The Romantic Italian imagination became obsessed with La Pia, and one Bartolomeo Sestini produced a verse novella about her; it is on this work that the opera is directly based.  Like Romeo and Juliet, this story involves the struggles between the Ghibellines and the Guelphs.  Pia, from a Guelph family, has been married off to Nello, a Ghibelline leader to help secure peace, but Pia's brother Rodrigo (a mezzo pants role in the opera), refuses to accept it.  He has been captured in battle and languishes in prison.  Meanwhile, Ghino, Nello's henchman, lusts after Pia, but she refuses to accept him.  When Rodrigo, freed from prison by Pia, comes to visit her secretly, Ghino, believing him to be her lover, tells Nello.  Nello bursts into Pia's rooms (Rodrigo having escaped through a convenient secret door) and in his fury condemns her to imprisonment in that tower in the Maremma.  In Act II, Ghino offers to free Pia if she will yield to him, but she chooses death.  Ghino is filled with remorse, and learning that the mysterious visitor was Pia's brother, vows to clear Pia with Nello.  He is subsequently wounded in battle, but manages to exonerate Pia before dying to a remarkably melodious arioso.  Nello rushes to the Maremma to save Pia, but too late, for she has already been poisoned by Ubaldo, acting on Nello's orders.  She dies forgiving Nello and reconciling him to her brother, but not before singing some spectacular cadenzas.

This libretto, by Salvadore Cammarano (author of Lucia and Il trovatore among many others), is almost entirely based on the aria/cabaletta formula of slow, retrospective aria followed by vigorous cabaletta.  Only the ensemble which ends act one fails to follow the pattern; instead it is a fast and furious stretta, without the adagio part that audiences had come to expect, and the audience at the premiere at Venice's Teatro Apollo did not like it.  Donizetti came to revise that ensemble three times, finally by writing a new one with the traditional slow part for a production in Rome.  Rome also demanded happy endings to its operas, so Donizetti changed the finale: Nello gets there in time, Pia is saved and there is a happy cabaletta to end the work.

Pia is a remarkable work for anyone interested in Verdi.  The vigor of some of the cabalettas are certainly sources for Verdi's early operas, but the writing also offers wonderful forecasts of middle period Verdi that any opera lover knows.  The Ghino/Pia duet "Per sempre dai viventi" in Act II would not be out of place in Ballo or La forza del destino, or as a model for the Germont/Violetta duet in La traviata.  There is even a melody at the beginning of the opera that is identical to Violetta's famous "Amami, Alfredo" plea in Act II of Traviata.  In Pia, it is almost a throw-away phrase that Ghino sings, but Verdi develops it into a passionate outburst.  Coincidence?  I doubt it, since Verdi's future mistress and wife Giuseppina Strepponi sang Pia in the production in Rome and was thoroughly familiar with the opera.

The production we saw, in the pretty cathedral town of Exeter, England, was by English Touring Opera, a company which takes its productions on tour to some 20+ towns around the U.K.  For this Spring season, the company offered Pia, Don Giovanni and Gluck's Iphigènie en Tauride.  The company has had previous success with rare Donizetti works, including L'assedio di Calais (which we saw a few years ago in Coventry) and Il furioso all'isola di San Domingo, which English Touring Opera called The Wild Man of the West Indies


Because it is a touring company and because of barebones finances, the productions of ETO tend to be, well--barebones.  For Pia there was not a set, really, just the bare backs of the scenery flats used for Don Giovanni.  The only concession to scenery (or props for that matter) was towards the end of the opera, when a door was opened which had the lines from Dante written on it in Italian.  Otherwise, everything was conjured from a bare stage.  There were vaguely period  costumes via some medieval thrift shop.  The production thrived because of excellent stage direction by James Conway, effective lighting by Guy Hoare, vigorous conducting by John Andrews (who also gave one of the best pre-opera talks I have heard), and a committed cast.


Elena Xanthoudakis seemed a bit strident in the title role, but she handled the coloratura well.  Catherine Carby was stunning in the mezzo pants role of Pia's brother Rodrigo.  She has a wonderfully deep and flexible mezzo voice.  (Carby was an excellent Aurelio in the Company's Assedio di Calais.)  Donizetti originally conceived of the role as a minor comprimaria, but the theater director at the premiere in Venice had a young mezzo in his company that he wanted to feature, so the composer grudgingly wrote two aria/cabaletta combinations for her.  Later, in revisions, he returned the role to its minor status.  Thank heaven that the ETO preserved at least one of the arias with cabaletta, because it was a highlight.  Grant Doyle as Nello della Pietra was very good vocally, and superb in his rage--and repentance.  We saw John-Colyn Gyeantey as Ghino, a tenor role.  He started off slowly, but soon he was vocally very good in the taxing role, which lies very high.  Especially to note, in fact, were his ringing high notes.  (Gyeantey is something of a specialist in bel canto roles with high tessitura, and he has studied with Alberto Zedda in Pesaro.)  Simon Gfeller was also good as Ubaldo

Since this opera has many variants, ETO decided to use the original end of Act I, the reduced stretta without a slow part that the original audience did not like.  It worked.  The whole impulse of the production was quick movement, fury and vigor.  The orchestra under the young Andrews was driving, one scene followed the next without any break, and that experimental stretta (another forecast of Verdi) was just right.  As I wrote, one of Rodrigo's arias from the original was retained, and of course the original, tragic finale was too.  All of the cabaletta repeats were preserved too, thanks be to God, Donizetti and the Company.

Altogether this was a satisfying revival of a very rarely done opera, and proves once again how much a man of the theater Donizetti was, and what a superb melodist. 


We returned to the uncomfortable seats in the Northcott Theater in Exeter the next night for Don Giovanni. That theater has an orchestra pit that is so deep that it could serve as the hell that is the Don's destination at the end of the opera.  It is so deep that the audience can't see the conductor and it evidently would take too long for him to get to the stage at the end for a curtain call, so the cast acknowledged him, staying put in the pit, from the stage.

English Touring Opera's Don Giovanni did come with sets.  The reverse side of Pia's non-sets gave us what purported to be Underground Vienna in the Victorian era.  The two-level set with fire escape had brick tunnels and grey walls.  Costumes seemed to set the era (vaguely) around 1900-1910, with Klimt-ish graffiti on the walls.  Peasants were peasanty; women's dresses were floor length; Don Giovanni was in a frock coat.  The Commendatore's statue was reduced to a small portrait at a corner underground shrine; the picture nodded when invited to dinner.  Don Giovanni was played as definitely a bad guy who deserves to go to hell (a sewer grate with flames).  When he gets his just due, we are glad.

Don Juan, along with Faust,  is probably the most influential literary figure in literature after the ancient era, from Tirso de Molina's seventeenth century play El burlador de Sevilla to Moliere, Shaw, da Ponte, commedia dell'arte: a half a dozen great and many lesser writers and composers have been intrigued by the great seducer (who in Mozart/da Ponte is successful in seducing no one and who doesn't even have a full scale aria--only a quick drinking song and a serenade, "Deh, vieni alla finestra."  Ironically, he is impotent, obviously in a spiritual sense, but even sexually and musically).


ETO's production used an English translation by Jeremy Sams.  It was a little disconcerting, and tended to make the Don seem more like an operetta villain.  Sams is noted (to me, anyway) primarily as a translator of comedies and operettas, and his text seemed operettish sometimes, more suited to Gilbert and Sullivan than to Mozart and da Ponte. It sometimes had a disconcerting effect on the great opera seria type arias of the ladies.  Nonetheless, everyone pronounced the text clearly and no titles were needed, although they were there.

The only major cut in the music was Ottavio's "Dalla sua pace."  Technically this is because ETO followed the original 1787 Prague version and "Dalla sua pace" was added for the Viennese premiere in 1788 because the tenor had trouble with the original aria, "Il mio tesoro."  This production was admirably paced for speed, and no matter how clever the director, Don Ottavio slows things down whenever he opens his mouth.  Still, we got "Il mio tesoro," sort of. 


Best of the singers was the Leporello, Matthew Stiff; he was funny and vocally very fine.  Nicholas Lester's Don was also good--handsome, caddish, active.  Susanna Fairbairn as Anna and Ania Jeruc as Elvira were fine.  Poor Elvira wore a crazy tight dress covered with spades (as on cards).  It didn't increase her luck with Giovanni.  Lucy Hall was a pert, sexy Zerlina and Bradley Travis a comic Masetto.  John Andrews conducted, I think (I couldn't see him).  Lloyd Wood kept things moving right along.  Not the best Giovanni I have ever seen, but hardly the worst, this one was notable for its youth, vigor, and clever staging, especially given the constraints of the set.  The band music in the last act was "played" on an old gramophone.  Clever.  On the other hand, the provincial (however modern) Northcott theater couldn't contain the smoke from the smoke machine needed in the last act, so the entire production was beset with "fog."


The last opera in the Exeter series was Gluck's noble Iphigénie en Tauride.  Gluck, the great reformer of baroque opera, was fascinated by Graeco-Roman mythology, and several of his operas reflect that, including his most famous, Orfeo ed Euridice.  Two of his operas which were ultimately based on tragedies by Euripides were Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride.  Both of the Euripides plays stem from one of the great Greek myth cycles, the House of Atreus.  Iphigenia is one of the daughters of King Agamemnon of Mycenae (the other is Electra), who is chosen to lead the Greek forces in the Trojan War.  The Goddess Artemis (or Diana to the Romans) is furious that so many people will be slaughtered in the coming war (don't ask why; it has to do with a beauty contest), so she demands that Agamemnon sacrifice his own daughter first or the Greek fleet won't be allowed to sail for Troy.  He agrees, infuriating his wife Clytemnestra, a factor which will lead to his murder and Strauss' opera Elektra, but we won't get into that.  In the earliest versions of the myth, Iphigenia is indeed sacrificed, but a later variant, used by Euripides, has her saved at the last moment by the Goddess, who snatches her away and substitutes a simulacrum or a deer (the subject of Iphigénie en Aulide).  Artemis (Diana) spirits her and her attendants away to Tauris (Tauride), a fierce land controlled by barbaric Scythians (present day Crimea), where she is put in charge of a temple dedicated to the Goddess.  There she and her attendants are forced to perform human sacrifices at the behest of the Scythians to propitiate the gods.  That is where the opera starts.

Gluck's music opens with a passage reflecting calm, but that suddenly turns to the furious depiction of a raging storm, as the priestesses pray for salvation from the winds.  In ETO's production this music is accompanied by a realistically depicted human sacrifice where the women surround a poor victim (we see his arm and hand thrust up as they surround him).  They stab and hack away, and take his body parts, now in a sack, up to a platform where they squeeze the severed neck; we see the blood flowing out and falling in a bloody waterfall onto a plane inclined towards the "sea" in the background.  The blue-clad priestesses all wear long white aprons, now blood-covered, like butchers in a slaughter house.  It is a powerful, shocking image, these women-butchers, and fully fitting the tempestuous music.  As the storm subsides, the women attempt to wash the blood from the sacrificial altar (the inclined plane), but a lot of red stains are left there for the rest of the opera to remind us of the human sacrifice theme.


The Goddess (Diane in the French text) demanded the human sacrifice of Iphigènie; the Scythians demand that anyone shipwrecked on their shores be sacrificed to the gods.  In the greater myth, Orestes has killed his mother Clytemnestra at the order of the gods, and the Furies now demand his sacrifice in vengeance for his matricide.  This primitive world is full of bloody human sacrifice (not unlike our own world, but the production, thankfully, leaves it up to the audience to make that connection if they wish), and this brilliant opening scene brings that home in a powerful way. 

Iphigènie and the priestesses spend a lot of the opera lamenting their lost homeland (and Iphigènie herself longs for her brother Oreste), and soon Oreste and his bosom friend Pylade (Pylades) show up, shipwrecked, and prisoners of the Scythians and the Scythian King Thoas, who deliver them over to the priestesses for sacrifice.  These scenes too, in this production, are filled with violence as the Scythian male chorus kick and torture the two prisoners.  All of these actions, probably not envisioned by Gluck and his librettist Nicolas-François Guillard, worked very well in relaying the violence that underlies the story and contrasting to the restrained, dignified "classical" passages in many of the arias and choruses.  It is a production (by Director James Conway) which works and highlights many of the musical moments.  The simple set, a raised 'balcony' platform with stairs, the inclined plane and a large light box with changing colors (set by Anna Fleischle), and the lighting by Guy Hoare, all work to create a mood and atmosphere which matches the moods in the music.  One slightly jarring note was the passionate kiss on the mouth between Oreste and Pylade.  The Greek (and later) ideal of close friendship between fellow warriors cannot but be seen in sexual terms in our day.


Gluck's reform operas intentionally move away from the secco recitative punctuated by display arias on set themes so typical of baroque opera (think Handel).  Iphigénie has arias, but they exist within a through-composed context of accompanied recitative and few have pauses which invite audience applause.  Florid coloratura is virtually banished.  Dances (common in earlier French opera) are few and appropriate to the story: they are not divertissement for divertissement's sake.  Seldom has music reached such beautiful, noble heights as in this opera, especially in the music for the women's chorus.  The highlight of highlights was the wrenching end of Act II (Part One in this production), Iphigénie's "O malhereuse Iphigénie" followed by a ritual burial for Oreste, who at this point is believed by the women to be dead.  This was so beautifully done by the eight women here plus Iphigènie that it was breathtaking, the blending of these voices. 

The Iphigénie was Catherine Carby, the superb mezzo who had sung the secondary role of Rodrigo in Pia de'Tolomei and Aurelio a few years ago in L'assedio di Calais.  Here she expressed the dignity, the nobility and the tragedy of her character beautifully.  She is a world class singer.  In keeping with the ensemble nature of the ETO company, the other singers had also been heard in Pia.  Grant Doyle was a moving Oreste, and his Pylade was John-Colyn Gyeantey (Nello and Ghino respectively in Pia).  Craig Smith was a stentorian one-note Thoas and Simon Gfeller was here too (both were in Pia).  Susanna Fairbairn and Samantha Hay (Anna and an Elvira in Don Giovanni) were here in the chorus of priestesses.  These singers, leads all, alternate in major and minor roles, and even in the chorus.  It was all gorgeously sung.  Jonathan Peter Kenny conducted with feeling and depth.  Following a long tradition, the Goddess Diane, who descends as a dea ex machina in the end to bring a joyous ending and to make sure that Oreste and Pylade are not sacrificed, was played by a young girl, in this case the 10-year old Kyra Stout.  Ms. Stout did herself proud in her lines of French recitative, and it was lovely to see the Greeks and Scythians bow down to her.  It takes a child to teach that the ways of blood sacrifice and war must stop.

One of Gluck's ideas of operatic reform held that he would not compose in a "national" (i.e. Italian, French or German) style.  His operas were meant to transcend national styles and to be "portable."  Thus this Iphigènie, composed to a French text for Paris, was also set to an Italian text by none other than Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart's librettist.  It was also set in German at least twice, once in a version by Richard Strauss, whose score was used at the Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1916.  Wagner, a great admirer, completed a version of the other Iphigenia opera, Iphigénie en Aulide, with additional music.  It is still occasionally heard today.  It is astonishing that this once enormously popular opera, so well travelled and so beautiful, is so rarely heard today.  And it is highly appropriate that a "traveling" opera  company, one whose motto is "opera that moves," would program it.   It is opera that travels well.  As for trips, it alone was worth the trip to Exeter.

Charles Jernigan

Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network


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