Opera buffa doesn’t get good PR. Amongst scholars, the genre is often overshadowed by the grandiose or serious (read: academically legitimate) themes so well communicated by its looming cousin opera seria--even after a renewed interest in some of the nineteenth century’s more innovative gems. More interesting is the lack of interest amongst the opera-going public, to a certain extent instigated by the lack of information about obscure or even popular opera buffas beyond Rossini and Mozart available outside the Ivory Towers. Is opera buffa too distanced historically from the subjectivity of twenty-first century realities? Is the lack of appeal diminished by the power of other media—like film—that tell the human narrative through action and music? Or does opera seria (here not limited to operas of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) offer a more sadistic emotional experience that is indicative of the subjectivity buried deep within the human mind?
Perhaps the situation is not as intellectually deep—serious, one might say—as all that. Perhaps opera buffa’s image problem is about charm, or lack thereof. This is less oxymoronic than it sounds, although seemingly so at first glance. Charm is actually an elusive quality in any opera whether serious or comic, but when it exists in opera buffa especially it can mean the difference between success and failure. Music can be charming in a rhetorical sense by virtue of repetition and style; performers can be charismatic in their interpretations; a production can use attractive stage direction and sets to win audiences over. All these are mutually exclusive yet also work together to create an holistic effect: charming opera.
Opera Holland Park’s new production of L’elisir d’amore is surprisingly charming opera. It opens in a greenhouse or flower factory—the most elaborate sets I’ve seen the company produce, courtesy of Leslie Travers--where the steel trays full of dirt and spray cans moved creatively to facilitate the action at hand against a background of strong reds and yellows. Levels where used imaginatively, most notably for Adina’s Act I aria, where she sang depreciatively the story of Tristan and Isolde from the top of a flower truck. The clear direction of Pia Furtado was evident in the small but clever details: characters moved with motivation and precision, and the sudden opening of truck doors to reveal Belcore’s posse in flagrante en masse with some of the town girls was a nice touch.
Aldo di Toro sang a charismatic and lyrically strong Nemorino, though he did start off on somewhat shaky terms. This was probably vocal pacing at its best; he sang with admirable verve throughout and played the disarming village idiot rather well. Naturally, he was at his best in Act II for “Una furtiva lagrima,” and it was clear that di Toro was bringing a subtler, more nuanced approach than most tenors who sing the aria. His suggests confused displacement: a searching soul that yearns and cries for acceptance and tender, intimate love.
The chemistry between di Toro and Sarah Tynan was lukewarm at best, but the temperatures did rise slightly during their Act I duet, where Tynan committed further to her bold n’ brash Adina, rightly so. Tynan has a smooth legato that both excites and pleasures while still remaining agile enough to play with the faster sections of her role. She also has a clear sound that rides on her excellent diction and consistent vibrato. In other words, Tynan exceled (but must be occasionally wary of pushing high notes) and firmly solidified her already growing reputation a solid interpreter of the role.
Disappointingly and unequally matched with di Toro and Tynan was George von Bergen’s Belcore. His approach to the arrogant, cocky, and singularly linear role was to restrict the general to the confines of the modern “brodude:” there were unmotivated and supposedly “hip” arm gestures aplenty coupled with a lack of vocal confidence that was uneven at best and forced at worst. His “Come Paride Vezzoso”—an aria dripping with conceited self-congratulation and rampant sexism—could’ve have been simply about the little table in the corner.
The baritone that did redeem the lower end of the vocal spectrum was Geoffery Dolton, who took over the role for an indisposed Richard Burkhard. Dolton’s Dulcamara is idiosyncratic in the extreme: there are sudden jerks of the head and strange but evocative facial expressions characteristic of a strung-out Vauxhaller looking for a fix. This was a rather creative and effective way to play the role, since, after all, the modern equivalent of man who peddles elixirs is probably a drug dealer. Of course, his pingy baritone that cuts through the orchestra and superb diction certainly helps his interpretation shine. Rosalind Coad, as Giannetta, and her claque of girls made for a legitimately funny (another elusive operatic experience) Act II; she receives kudos not only for singing with a sultry tone but also having the most well-defined character in the production.
Stephen Higgens conducted a standard rendition of the opera: tempi were well chosen so the performance didn’t drag and sped up when necessary (though the Act I trio could have been ever-so-slightly faster). The chorus, although they can be forgiven for not rejecting Furtado’s choreography, sang well throughout and did their best to move beyond the stock shock-and-awe expressions normally expected of them.
Opera Holland Park’s production of L’elisir d’amore drips with creative and emotional gravitas. Its excessive charm is a rarity for opera in general and for London; dare to see it and don’t worry: sadistic, serious opera will be back come autumn.
Photos: Opera Holland Park