Sunday, February 6, 2011

Opera Aeterna performs Boccherini's zarzuela "La Clementina"

On February 3rd 2011, the Jerusalem theatre chamber opera collective Opera Aeterna presented the Israeli premiere of Luigi Boccherini’s “La Clementina” at the Hirsch Theatre, Mercaz Shimshon (Jerusalem). Aeterna Opera was founded in 2003 by Ilya Plotkin (in Israel since 1992), who continues to direct the music. Ilya Plotkin also directs the Musica Aeterna vocal a cappella group. Producing an opera every year, most of Opera Aeterna’s singers are also from the former Soviet Union.

Luigi Boccherini’s (1743-1805) musical legacy of some 350 works includes 20 symphonies, 8 ‘cello concertos, 91 string quartets, 154 quintets, 60 trios, religious works, guitar arrangements and his one opera “La Clementina” (1786). His only work for stage, it was written when the composer was living in Spain, on request from the wealthy Benevente Osuna family, which kept its own private orchestra, the Duchess of Osuna having appointed Boccherini to conduct the orchestra at the Puerta de la Vega Palace in Madrid. “La Clementina” (bearing the name of the composer’s late wife) an opera in one act, was called a zarzuela - a Spanish lyric-dramatic genre constructed of spoken- and sung scenes. Most of the humor is in the spoken texts, there being no recitatives. The text was written by Ramon de la Cruz (1731-1794). The latter’s plots, based on contemporary Madrid life on various social levels and set to music mostly by Spanish composers, contributed much zest to Spanish musical theatre.

In the Aeterna production, “La Clementina” is presented as a “soap opera”, with Noam Rubinstein emceeing as a television announcer, comically filling audience members in on what has just happened, rather than informing them as to what is in store. He also plays the (non-singing) roles of both Don Clemente and the Marquis, demanding quick character- and costume changes. Musician, writer and actor, Rubinstein is a member of the Clipa Dance Theater Company and is a professional medical clown.

The setting is Don Clemente’s house, where we meet the housekeeper Dona Damiana (Helena Plotkin) and servant Cristeta (Julia Plakhin). Don Clemente has two daughters: the older being the sweet, demure Clementine (Shirelle Dashevsky) and the younger, the fickle Narcissa (Galina Zifferblat). They study music with Don Lasaro (Andrei Trifonov); he is frustrated with his two students and always eager to be off (to a moonlighting job, perhaps?) A young, rich nobleman, Urbano (Dmitry Semenov) comes to the house, falls in love with Clementine and composes a gentle romance in her honor. Urbano then receives a letter informing him that his father is seriously ill and, more importantly, that the father has a daughter who turns out to be no other than Clementine! As Urbano’s sister, she will now be rich. The opera ends with all eight characters paired off., the four new uncomely couples as unsuited and totally comical, Rubinstein comments, “as only happens in opera!”

With much of the work’s humor included in the spoken text, the music consists of few arias, some duets and mostly of through-composed vocal ensemble pieces. Perhaps more suitably called an “opera buffa” (it lacks the Spanish character of the typical zarzuela) the work is fresh and consistently dynamic. The Aeterna production makes the most of each character’s personality traits, from those of the childish and rebellious Cristeta and Narcissa, to the dutiful Dona Damiana and Clementine, to the doddery, grotesque Don Clemente, and so on. Noam Rubinstein’s wit, flexibility and command of the stage are outstanding.

Ilya Plotkin chooses his singers carefully; there is much fine blending in the various vocal ensembles. Shirelle Dashevsky shone as the pure-spirited Clementine; playing the cheeky Cristeta, Julia Plakhin’s large, richly-colored voice was, as ever, pleasing; Helena Plotkin (Dona Damiana) has good stage presence, supported by much vocal competence. Baritone Andrei Trifonov, his voice rich and dependable, took leave of dramatic operatic roles to join in the high jinks of Don Clemente’s household. Galina Zifferblat, in her first role with Opera Aeterna, performed with vocal ease, her voice fruity and rich; she was well cast as Narcissa and sparkled with feisty charm and coquettishness.

Coiffed in white wigs, Maestro Ilya Plotkin and his string orchestra, with Nataly Rotenberg at the harpsichord, were placed at the back of the stage. Their playing of Boccherini’s joyful instrumental score, bristling with dance rhythms, was tasteful and well attuned to the singers. The stage setting was simple but elegant in its lush brocade drapes. Effective props were artistically cut from white cardboard. Costumes were not only exquisite: each character was dressed in accordance with his or her character. Kudos to Irina Tkachenko for her attractive stage design and costumes. And three cheers to stage director Masha Nemirovsky for her creative and witty directing, infusing movement and a smile into the visual aspect and pace of the opera, keeping those on stage and the audience on their toes.

The driving force behind Opera Aeterna is Elinor Plotkin, a person of initiative and energy, without whose devotion and vision these wonderful musical projects would never become reality. Opera Aeterna enjoys the support of the Ministry of Absorption’s Program for Immigrant Artists, the Jerusalem Foundation and of the Sherover Foundation.

Opera Aeterna’s annual production is, indeed, a festive event in Jerusalem. Its performances are highly polished and professional. One performance of “La Clementina” is certainly not enough!

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