February brings two Donizetti productions to the London Coliseum. English National Opera will present the composer's most famous tragedy and comedy so that audiences can compare them side by side. Next week brings the return of David Alden's production of Lucia di Lammermoor, with a similar cast as on its unveiling (Anna Christy and Barry Banks return), and the following week will see ENO's first presentation of the New York City Opera production of L'elisir d'amore.
Though it's not an ENO production, the director of Elisir (here performed as The Elixir of Love) is none other than Jonathan Miller, whose association with the company goes back several decades now, and he's here to revive the piece in person. Heading the cast are two rising stars, Sarah Tynan and John Tessier, as the central lovers, with veteran Andrew Shore as the quack Dulcamara.
Tessier's turn as Nemorino is particularly welcome, following his outstanding debut at ENO a couple of years ago in The Barber of Seville (another Jonathan Miller production co-starring Shore, incidentally). I met up with the young tenor during rehearsals to ask him about his take on the role, details of the production (in which he has performed at Covent Garden) and his plans for the future.
Of performing at ENO, he comments: 'It's great, actually – I enjoy it very much. It's a challenge to sing these pieces in English, because I usually do them in Italian. You have to really stick with the English instead of remembering the Italian, but it's very rewarding. It's good for the audience because they get immediate understanding, instead of reading the translation on the supertitles. And the company's very nice to work for – they take good care of me.'
Why is Elixir so popular? 'There are elements in the story that touch all of us, especially the idea that unrequited love can be overcome. It's a hopeless situation for Nemorino, but he ultimately ends up with the girl. And I think in some way, we all want those sorts of dreams and thoughts to be fulfilled. It doesn't happen for a lot of people, and to have any kind of dream fulfilled, especially a romantic one, is really touching. That being said, one needs to look at the music, too. Moments in this score are absolutely brilliant and glorious, so that's also a contributing factor.'
I ask Tessier whether he thinks Donizetti is underrated as a composer, but he doesn't seem convinced. 'I like to sing Donizetti's music – I like the lyric quality, the beauty in it, the way it feels to sing it. As for being underrated, who knows? In each period of time, different people's music is considered more important.'
The character of Nemorino is a favourite of his, as Tessier says: 'He's a simple guy that loves the girl, works hard, and has dreams, as many of us do. He goes through a journey and a bit of transformation that he thinks helps him achieve this goal in the end. He's an everyday person, really – not very complex.'
Does that bother the tenor? 'Not at all, because he's simple in a charming way, not simple like someone who flicks a cigarette butt on the ground and doesn't think about the effects that has. He's simple in the sense that he's idealistic still – he's young, and doesn't have all the things put on him that people start to carry as they grow older. I don't think that's all that easy to play, and I find it exciting!'
Tessier seems to love Miller's production. 'It's brought forward in time period to the 1950s, and the design is based on the Hopper painting of the diner [entitled Nighthawks]. So both the time and place are updated. Jonathan's take on opera is a more sincere view of things. He's not so much interested in a standard operatic form and gesture, or the garishness that a lot of people think opera is about. He's more interested in the characters and the story, and being true to that. And he's interested in creating an atmosphere or image that draws you into it and makes you think about it.'
The tenor continues: 'He really makes you think. He never dictates what to do – he more gives you a framework by telling you what he's after, and lets you find it yourself. I think it's a great thing because then you actually try and find something that's sincere, and he helps you to shape that into something that reads that way. It's a lot better than being told "Stand here and move your arm this way". There are points in music theatre where choreography is great, and some choreographic numbers are really clever, but we don't want that in everything. So it's a really good process with Jonathan. He makes me think about what I do onstage in a different way.'
And the conductor, Pablo Heras-Casado? 'Fantastic – he's great,' says the tenor. 'He's Spanish, and we've had some very productive rehearsals with the orchestra.' Tessier also speaks enthusiastically about his co-stars. 'I haven't worked with Sarah or David [Kempster, who plays Belcore] before, so that's a new experience, but both of them are excellent. I've worked with Andrew Shore before, and we all know what a great comedic person he is. His timing and his creativity are second to none. Anytime you can be in a scene with someone like that, you want to be a part of what he does and contribute to it, because it's really a great thing.'
Why should people come and see the show? 'They will feel like they are almost seeing a musical – it's not a musical, obviously, but it's far closer to a musical than a standard opera piece. It's a piece of music theatre now, instead of a static operatic gesture. I think the whole aesthetic of it is quite cool, in the way it's based on the painting – America in the 1950s is so interesting. People stopped being so reserved and started to break out in order to establish their own identity.'
From early childhood, Tessier's musical interest was apparent, but nobody had a clue that he'd end up singing opera. 'I was very young and I learnt how to whistle. We all took piano lessons when we were younger, but I used to whistle all the time. My parents would know when I was coming down the street because they would hear me whistling! From that point, just hearing the music that my sisters played – I'm the youngest of five children – influenced me. Apparently, I would sing and whistle all round the house, so my parents decided to put me in a choir, and that was the start.
'I turned to opera at university. When I was there, I met a mentor who invited me to do a solo in a choral piece they were doing. Then I was encouraged to develop the voice.
'I left that university when I decided I wanted to be a singer, and I went to the University of Colorado, which has a great voice programme. I also did a Master's degree at the University of Western Ontario, which is where I live now, and I did three courses at the Britten-Pears School, which were excellent. To become a singer, it takes time.
'You have a lot to learn – I've even learnt a lot being here in this production. The training teaches you how to read music and study character and learn languages, but it doesn't prepare you for being away for ten months of the year or living in a hotel. I call home two or three times a day to talk to my children and wife. It's really important to have good communication.'
'I don't think there was a definitive moment where I really launched my career. Once I finished university, I moved to Toronto and got a few little things here and there. And I just built it up from there – every year I got new gigs and better gigs. Some people manage to win a competition and launch their careers from there, but for most of us it's a gradual process. Sometimes I wake up and think, "I can't believe I'm going to sing an opera tonight!"'
What have been his personal highlights? 'I've done some concerts with John Nelson which have been out-of-this-world experiences. Music always touches me, but some of those concerts have had really special moments. I'll remember them always.'
Last year, Tessier also made his Covent Garden debut, as the Steuersmann in The Flying Dutchman alongside Bryn Terfel. 'It was very exciting. I was in a Wagner opera, and they're so well crafted that it's always exciting to do them. Making my debut at Covent Garden was thrilling. The set was an unbelievably giant ship, and I felt like a very small person on it!'
The rest of season is a busy time for him, too. 'I'm doing a recital, then Carmina Burana. Then I'm off to Washington to do Laertes in Hamlet with Placido Domingo conducting. I'm off to Buenos Aires to do Don Giovanni at the Teatro Colon, and then I have Salome at the Verbier Festival and The Barber of Seville in Geneva.
'Beyond that, I'm singing at the Vienna State Opera in La fille du regiment. There are lots of other things, too, which I can't talk about, but the new roles include Cherubini's Medée in French. And I still do a bit of teaching, which is very rewarding and exciting.' He also says he'd love to play Tom Rakewell and to sing some of the lyric French repertoire. But in the meantime, London opera goers can look forward to nine superb performances of The Elixir of Love at the Coliseum.
John Tessier appears in The Elixir of Love at English National Opera from 12 February to 23 March.
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