Rarely Performed Donizetti Farce Introduces Fine Young Voices

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Donizetti, I pazzi per progetto: Soloists, Aimi Sugo (piano), Gerald Karni (viola), Rosamund van der Westhuizen (cello), Raul Castro Estévez (clarinet), Karin Yamaguchi (horn), / Caspar Deichmann (conductor), Opernverein Zürich, Theater im Seefeld, Zurich, 14.6.2018 (JR)

Photo credit: Rémy Bourgeois
Donizetti’s I pazzi per progetto (c) Rémy Bourgeois

Darlemont – Rafal Pawnuk
Norina – Eva Fiechter
Blinval – Jorge Martinez
Cristina – Helen Sherman
Venanzio – Pascal Ganz
Eustachio – Akseli Vanamo
Frank – Christoph Engel
First madman – Ivan Georgiev
Madwoman – Alexandra Gentile
Second madman – Yan Juillerat

Producer – Christian Seiler
Set – Anna Wohlgemuth
Costumes – Isabel Schumacher
Lighting – Michael Omlin
Musical assistant – Peter Bachmann
Choreography – Bruno Catalano
Production Director – Dorothy Yeung
Production assistants – Daniel Riniker, Theresa Manz

The Opernverein (Opera Association) of Zurich has, as its admirable aim, the promotion on stage of talented young singers, both Swiss and international. After putting out a tender, they are carefully selected and then trained, both musically and theatrically. Their first project, a few years ago, as part of the now biennial Zurich Festival, was to put on Mozart’s La finta giardiniera, and now they turned their attention to some rare Donizetti. The Zurich Festival’s theme this year is ‘Beauty and Madness. and the Opera Association worked hard to find (and succeeded in finding) a suitable opera for this ‘fringe’ event.

Donizetti’s I pazzi per progetto (which translates as Madmen by Design) is a one-act operatic farce (farsa). The first performance took place in Naples in 1830. The work features two sopranos along with no fewer than five basses and baritones and is divided into seven numbers linked by recitatives. It was performed a few times in Naples and Palermo up until 1845 and then completely forgotten until 1977, when a new revision, edited by Maestro Bruno Rigacci of Florence and using the original score which had been preserved in Naples, was successfully presented as part of the Opera Barga Festival.

The action takes place in a hospital for the insane in 19th century Paris, hardly – one would have thought – the ideal location for a farce. The plot is fairly simple. Darlemont, the asylum’s  director, has a niece (Norina), married to Blinval, an Army colonel, whose absences on military duties are the causes of a series of incidents when the two meet again. Since the meeting takes place in the asylum, the two alternately pose as lunatics to discover each other’s true feelings, causing frantic deceptions and misunderstandings.

Add to the mix a babbling servant (Frank), a deserter trumpeter who pretends to be a doctor (Eustace), and a beautiful young girl (Christina), the former lover of the colonel, who is trying to escape from her old guardian (Venanzio), who, in turn, tries to make Christina go mad so that he can acquire her dowry.

The production team have worked exceptionally hard to find the singers (especially the male voices), to train not only the singers theatrically but also the conductor and musicians (they play an active part in the ‘show’), come up with an attractive and ingenious set and generally do everything expected of the major opera house up the road.

Let’s start with the theatrics before we come to the voices: the musicians in the reduced ensemble all act as if mad. This comes more naturally to some than to others but they all try hard. The singers have less difficulty but again there are some more gifted than others (I was especially taken by Finnish baritone Akseli Vanama, who is a natural, and sultry Australian mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman – and the shuffling gait and facial expressions of Polish bass Rafal Pawnuk). Three actors played mad inmates of the asylum: they spoke in their native tongues – this being Switzerland that meant French, German and Italian. Yan Juillerat delivered some mellifluous lines in French (I found his acting, though, nauseatingly smarmy especially when circulating among the audience), Alexandra Gentile was best when loudly mimicking a chicken whilst Ivan Georgiev pretended to be Donizetti. Donizetti died in a state of mental derangement due to neurosyphilis and of course created some of opera’s greatest ‘mad’ scenes, notably in Lucia di Lammermoor and Anna Bolena. Before Donizetti’s funeral, a doctor stole his skull for medical examination, later found in a butcher’s shop as a money-bowl!  We saw the skull being wheeled during the opera around by the hospital director.

Eva Fiechter as Norina has a sparkling voice and secure trills but tends to shriek uncomfortably (for the listener) at the top. Powerhouse mezzo Helen Sherman’s vocal gifts are lower down, in the middle and lower register, where she is attractively husky. Rafal Dawnuk has a resonant bass, Jorge Alberto Martinez gained in confidence (and volume) as the evening progressed, Akseli Vanama was not only fine in voice but acrobatic to boot. Christoph Engel’s more lyrical baritone was often drowned out by his male colleagues. The same applied to Pascal Ganz whose deeper notes were usually covered by others.

The musicians had fun, adding nervous twitching, yawns and general horse-play to their musical skills. Even the conductor removed his shoes (he wore no socks) and joined in the general shenanigans. The music in the opera is rather insubstantial, so well-known themes of some other composers were added, such as Verdi and even Wagner. It was all supposed to be part of the comedy.

I was particularly impressed by young Gerald Karni’s viola (his father, Gilad, is one the viola Principals at the Tonhalle Orchestra) and by the clarinet playing of Raul Castro Etévez.

The set was intricate and allowed the usual comings and goings and appearances at windows that most farces require. Make-up, lighting and costumes were as professional as could be. The British are good at farce (mostly), but the continentals quickly descend into slapstick (falling trousers, sexual innuendo) resulting in a few embarrassed giggles in the audience but never raucous laughter.

Full marks though to the Opernverein for presenting this rarity in a quirky, riotous production.

John Rhodes

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