Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 June 2010
Issue No. 1003
Culture
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Love's labour gained

Ati Metwaly rediscovers Tristan and Isolde

photo: Sherif Sonbol Click to view caption
photo: Sherif Sonbol

Donizetti: Opera L'elisir d'amore, Cairo Opera Company, Cairo Opera Orchestra, Cairo Opera Ballet Company, Cairo Opera Choir, Children's Choir of the Talents Development Centre, conductor: Nayer Nagui, director: Abdalla Saad, choir master: Aldo Magnato, sets & costumes: Vera Bertinetti, Cairo Opera House Main Hall, 8-10 June

The opera is set around the year 1830. Nemorino, a young peasant, is in love with a beautiful landowner's daughter, Adina, who he reciprocates his love. But when he listens to Adina reading Tristan and Isolde he is convinced that only by drinking a magic potion can he win her heart. Doctor Dulcamara, a travelling quack, sells him a bottle of wine, convincing him that it contains just such a potion. At the same time Sergeant Belcore, who has recently arrived at the village, asks for Adina's hand in marriage; he is in a great hurry to complete the procedures. But the magic potion has the opposite effect to what Nemorino was expecting of it: he now sees everything in beautiful colours but treats Adina coldly, showing his lack of interest in her. Adina is convinced that he no longer loves her; she accepts Belcore's proposal.

Dulcamara advises Nemorino to drink one more bottle, and to obtain the money necessary for buying it, Nemorino enlists in Belcore's army. In the meantime news spreads of Nemorino's rich uncle, who has now arrived, and the peasant's newfound wealth attracts the ladies to him. Naïve and still unaware of the real reason for this, Nemorino thinks the potion has finally worked. Adina is jealous but when she learns that it was his love for her that drove Nemorino to enlist in the army, her feelings rekindle and in the last scene she confesses her love to Nemorino.

L'elisir d'amore (The Elixir of Love) is the first of Donizetti's works that brought him fame in Europe. Composed in 1832 to the libretto by Felice Romani (based on Eugene Scribe's Le Philtre ), the storyline intersects with Tristan and Isolde, in which a magical drink joins two Middle Age lovers. Donizetti's opera transports the theme into 19th-century Italy. L'elisire d'amor is an operatic comedy, a melodramma giocosa in two acts, written in a bel ca nto style -- literally meaning beautiful song or singing, which is the style mastered by Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini -- and it underlines the vocal power of the singers and brings out their ability to hit the highest notes with the utmost clarity, emphasising the beauty of both tone and phrasings.

In L'elisir d'amore a combination of intrigue and creative freshness. Melodic beauty is inventively expressed through operatic compositional elements which provide beautifully structured dialogues between the soloists, and between the soloists and the choir, along with the series of fascinating orchestral counterpoints. When topped with several lovely Italian dances and folk motifs, the opera becomes a delight for the listener and an engaging performance both dramaturgically and musically.

Bel canto is all about the beauty of the human voice. L'elisir d'amore offers a variety of beautiful arias, among which "Una furtiva lagrima" (A furtive tear), from Act II, Scene VII is among the best known ever composed, and understandably one of the jewels of all opera gala concerts. The deeply touching melody opens with a warm and tender bassoon accompanied by soft harp strokes, and string pizzicato introduces the motif which is soon repeated by the singer. Nemorino notices a tear in Adina's eye and believes -- or maybe hopes -- that she has fallen in love with him at last. This touching weakness of a desperate lover entwined with a splendid melody brings tears to listeners' eyes.

Nemorino (Mario Alves , the Portugese guest tenor) sung the aria with great sensitivity. Alves's voice is not big but it is definitely charming, and the singer's technical ease allowed him to shape every note with perfection. Alves fit the role adequately, which was noticeable throughout the opera, starting with his opening aria "Quanto é bella" (How lovely she is) from Act I, Scene I, which he sung exquisitely.

From "Quanto é bella", the listeners are taken to Adina singing "Della crudele Isotta" (Of the cruel Isolda) against the choir;s refrain lines. Amira Selim's lyrical soprano and brilliant coloratura runs emphasised the essence of bel canto. The aria "Prendi, per me sei libero" (Take it, I have freed you) was but one of several showcases of her exceptional technique. Even if vocal technique prevails over acting skill, listening to to Selim in the role of Adina was an indisputable pleasure.

L'elisir d'amore is an opera that adapts characters typical of the commedia dell'arte. This is especially obvious with the less emotional but more expressive characters such as Belcore and the highly comic Dulcamara, both of whom became paradigms of opera buffa. Belcore's entry is announced with a drum roll. In his cavatina -- a simple song -- "Come Paride vezzoso" (As charming Paris), Belcore demonstrates his snobbery. Moustafa Mohamed captured the character in a convincing manner as his strong voice carried melodious lines: "I am gallant, I'm a sergeant; there is no beauty who can resist the sight of military uniform".

Dulcamara's strong character is the key to the success of this unpleasant personality. Giancarlo Tosi, the Italian guest singer, literally stole the show with his stage presence. In his entry aria "Udite, udite, o rustici" ("Listen, listen, country folk"), filled with buffo gestures and tenure, Tosi puts everything he has in the role. He does not only act it well but displays a truly captivating range of vocal expressions despite the slight wobble in his voice -- a result of his advanced age.

The confusing part was a carriage pulled by a real donkey which brought Dulcamara onto the stage. The introduction of a live animal is a brilliant idea especially in opera buffa, where the director -- in this case: Abdalla Saad -- is invited to use various comedic elements for emphasis. Early this year, the Lyric Opera of Chicago introduced a real horse in their adaptation of L'elisir d'amore. The white horse accentuated the pretentious character of Dulcamara whose entry as well as the horse presentation drew attention immediately. The idea was particularly intriguing for the audience. And a real donkey on the Cairo Opera stage would have proven equally successful had there been enough attention to the animal's situational aspect. Sadly the poor donkey turned into a crude image, hardly seen from behind the actors' backs.

L'elisir d'amore offers several wonderful duets which add much gaiety to the whole dramaturgy. In the first act "Obbligato! obbligato!" (Thank you kindly! Or: I'm obliged!) Nemorino's naivety and musical lyricism is juxtaposed and hence ridiculed by Dulcamara's wit and pattered phrasings as he offers a false love potion to the protagonist. "Quanto amore!" (What affection!), a second act aria, with Adina and Dulcamara, has a cheering spirit and was sung neatly, this time without coquetry; it was perfect.

It was especially in the second act that Saad effectively sketched several small scenes -- duets for instance -- and his ideas helped the singers add wonderful flavours to their performance. Sarah Enany singing the role of Giannetta finally came to light in the second act, when her interesting acting abilities were not diluted by an overwhelming crowd. The touches the director gave to smaller number of singers were noticeable and compensated for insufficient control over many details in the group scenes of the first act. In a few cases, small inserts of ballet did manage to visually improve the aesthetics of the aforementioned group scenes. In Preludio (opera overture), the ballet inserted some creative lines without imposing their work.

The comedy lifts the spirit. But many intercalating musical elements can become a challenge for the orchestra and conductor. With L'elisir d'amore the Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Nayer Nagui gave one of their most remarkable performances this season. The dialogue between diverse facets presented in the opera, its lyrical and comic elements, were beautifully accentuated by the orchestra. Various phrasings and diverse rhythms ran parallel to sensible musical slapsticks, always balanced and without haste.

A waltz like 3/4 melody to Adina's reading scene was delightful while the uplifting emotion of the last scene was perfectly expressed in all orchestral crescendos. Nagui is one of the most active talents in the musical field in Egypt. His commitment and preparation for each concert are always obvious. Not only is he conducting operatic events, he also proves his expertise in the symphonic field. Looking at Nagui's passion and dedication, we can only hope that more people in the field will share this attitude.

L'elisir d'amore was, once again, a real joy for the audience.

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