Dirty old man gets hots for sweet young thing, ends up with egg on face. A week that began with Der Rosenkavalier in Costa Mesa and moved on to Don Pasquale at the Music Center bore reminders of how much of the realm of operatic comedy rests on that one plot device, and of how many changes can, indeed, be rung on it. The Figaro operas, Verdi’s and Nicolai‘s Falstaff, Die Meistersinger . . . the list goes on.
It’s a treacherous repertory. Musical ensembles are difficult to balance, all the more so when the matter is a duet between a fat, loud basso profundo, tossing off torrents of words, and a chirpy soubrette kicking back, and when the action proceeds lickety-split. The ideal comic-opera audience is denied much time to breathe. I checked what I‘d written about the L.A. Opera’s first Don Pasquale — the same Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production, staged by the same Stephen Lawless — in March 1995: exquisite set, audiences limp with helpless laughter, no gimmicks, only the comic spirit at its most vibrant. Last week, six years later, I saw a dusty old set wobbling in every breeze, an audience (this member, at least) limp with helpless boredom, a production loaded with stage gadgetry — the Norina in a floor-length formal ball gown, inexplicably hanging out the wash on a rooftop — the comic spirit vibrating in its death throes. When all goes well, Don Pasquale is short, snappy and brilliantly to the point. All didn‘t go so well on opening night, however, when some of the scene changes took up almost as much time as the scenes themselves.
Oh yes, there were moments. One in particular, which I always wait for, sounds a sudden note of seriousness for about three and one-half memorable seconds. Foolish old Pasquale has been tricked into marriage with the disguised Norina, who quickly turns vixen. At the height of their squabbling she slaps him, but immediately realizes that perhaps she has gone too far. The music slows and drops into a minor key; there is a breath-catching moment of self-examination. Ruth Ann Swenson, the Norina this time, went through this small bit in winsome pantomime, a memory I was happy to take home. My other fave moment comes soon after, the hilarious patter duet between the bassos — first the one, then the other, then both in a prodigy of sync. Claudio Desderi and Rodney Gilfry had all but stopped the show in 1995, but Simone Alaimo and Thomas Allen barely got the words out, against the flabby backdrop of Emmanuel Joel’s orchestra. Greg Fedderly was the Ernesto as in 1995, sporting an announced sinus condition to no audible detriment. But I had to go home and restore my faith in this masterpiece: the complete 1932 performance with Tito Schipa heading an inspired cast, still listed in Schwann, one of the genuine wonders of recorded opera. They don‘t make ’em like that anymore.
Opera Pacific‘s Der Rosenkavalier cut no corners. Other productions of this wise and bittersweet comedy (the one self-indulgence my dietitian allows) have gotten by with a few judicious cuts here and there — the lecherous Baron Ochs’ interminable first-act disquisition on bedroom politics, for one. Artistic director John DeMain‘s decision was to ignore the time clock, both by opening all cuts and by opting for tempos so spacious that even the opera’s most caloric segments — which, let‘s face it, are numerous — seemed downright healthful. The opera’s defining moment, the final trio in which possession of the heart and soul of the young Rose-Cavalier passes from the aging Marschallin to the ardent adolescent Sophie, flowed like the purest Viennese Schlagobers under the star-studded sky of Bruno Schwengl‘s garden set.
Texas-born Helen Donath, a longtime Opera Pacific stalwart, was the wise if somewhat soft-spoken Marschallin; Patricia Risley, in her company debut, was an athletic, scene-stealing, thoroughly believable Octavian; Nancy Allen Lundy was the sweet-voiced if rather pallid Sophie. German bass Markus Hollop was the woolly-voiced Ochs. Best of all was James Maddalena — remembered as the Tricky Dick of Nixon in China when DeMain conducted the Houston world premiere — as the nouveau riche Faninal.
Above any of these individual contributions, the essence of this Rosenkavalier lay in the shaping force of DeMain’s musical leadership, plus the luminescence of his orchestra on an admirably good horn night. Jay Lesenger‘s direction was a further positive force; the last-act hijinks, the farce played on the hapless Ochs, unrolled with a rare antic wisdom. The many hours moved swiftly forward.
Onto another planet there came Harry Christophers’ vocal ensemble called The Sixteen, filling the acoustically splendid Precious Blood Church with Holy Week music by Tomas Luis de Victoria — presented, need I add, by the Da Camera Society‘s Chamber Music in Historic Sites. The Spanish-born Victoria (1549–1611) worked in Rome, at a time when the fabulous counterpoints of the High Renaissance music were becoming “polluted” with the dissonances and passionate melodic lines of the early baroque. A full evening of Victoria’s Lamentations for Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the dark days leading to Easter, became a stirring, heartrending experience — as would that other sublime masterwork meant for the same time of year, Bach‘s St. Matthew Passion (about which more next week), 150 years later. Christophers’ superb vocal group, like their compatriots the Tallis Scholars, have moved some distance from the oh-so-pure attitudes that bleached out the first years of Britain‘s early-music revival. They have corrupted their ranks by admitting (horror!) women. They sing with the awareness that their music is beautiful, which it overwhelmingly, powerfully is.
By interesting coincidence, the next night found the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at Royce Hall, under guest conductor and early-music authority Bernard Labadie of Quebec, performing the two early Haydn symphonies that bear subtitles relating to Holy Week observance (Nos. 26, “Lamentation,” and 49, “Passion”), vivid Sturm-und-Drang pieces teeming — as had the Victoria works — with dissonance and outcry. Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater shared the program, also appropriate for the season, but otherwise one of music‘s droopier landmarks.