November 14, 2008
A Perfect First Opera
It's an ideal choice to introduce yourself or someone else to opera. Relatively short, at two hours and 40 with a single intermission, the tunes follow one after the other, most of the humor still works 176 years later, there's romance and intrigue, love and money, and it presents a sufficient range of human behavior and motivation without being heavy on message.
The opera is written in aria and recitative, alternating between songs and a semi-spoken patter. It's similar to a Broadway musical in that the speaking moves the plot along and the songs present the characters' thoughts and feelings.
There is something about recitative that stilts opera for many people, particularly with the harpsichord as instrumental accompaniment. I hardly noticed the transitions between speaking and singing in this score. What did register often were the duets, trios and quartets, all of them lovely with harmonies that showed Mozart's broad influence on Donizetti as well as his Italian compatriots Rossini and Bellini.
Operas and musicals are best when everything comes together, particularly the singing and acting. It's always a disappointment when a character who is supposed to bound across the stage or collapse into a chair labors to do so. It jerks you from that sweet spot where opera is most compelling, when you have the faintest awareness that lighting and direction and orchestra and voice and movement and text are stewing to transport you from your seat to a place of pure pleasure (as with this opera) or transcendent meaning, as with Wagner's marathons.
Each of the four major performers knew how to act and how to move their bodies while singing. They projected mood and tone with more than just their voices. The lead, tenor Ramon Vargas, was particularly natural and likeable.
The opera also plays to the strengths of the SF Opera company and hall. According to Opera America it's one of the twenty most-performed operas in the country, and only Puccini, Mozart and Verdi have more operas than Donizetti in this list. I've seen most of the repertoire but not this one, and it goes alongside Carmen and the most successful operas of Mozart and Puccini as perfect introductions to the form.
The Chronicle has a full review if you're interested. There are five more performances. Go get happy.
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