Friday, December 12, 2014

The Jerusalem Theatre of Chamber Opera (Opera Aeterna) in two comic operas at the Jerusalem Khan

“Everlasting Love” was a tongue-in-cheek title for the Jerusalem Theatre of Chamber Opera’s latest
production at the Jerusalem Khan on December 8th, 2014, a production of “Art Rainbow”, a non-profit organization that receives support from the Center of Absorption of Immigrant Artists and Returning Residents and the Israeli Ministry for Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption. The concept of “Everlasting Love”, Opera Aeterna’s 12th annual production, was of Maestro Ilya Plotkin; Gera Sandler was stage director and narrator, with sets and costumes designed by Irina Tkachenko. All artists taking part were immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The program consisted of two small operas performed back to back. The first of the double-bill was Gaetano Donizetti’s (1797-1848) one-act opéra-comique “Rita”, written in 1841 to a libretto of Gustave Vaëz, the original text being in French. The only opera of Donizetti’s not to be performed in his lifetime, it was finally premiered posthumously on the stage of the Paris Opéra-Comique in 1860, with “Le mari battu” (the Battered Husband) as its subtitle, probably not the original, but one that would be a fitting description for the evening’s entertainment at hand! With so much talk of battered wives in today’s media, the Aeterna artists were about to present an evening focusing on cunning, scheming women and the unfortunate men in their clutches. Believing her husband Gasparo to be drowned, Rita (Galina Ziferblat) marries the not-too-bright Beppe (Dmitry Semenov). Their life is thrown into turmoil when Gasparo (Andrey Trifonov) appears at Rita’s inn, in the Aeterna production, as a pirate accompanied by a harem of pregnant women! Believing that Rita has died in a fire, Gasparo has returned to obtain her death certificate in order to marry another woman. Beppe sees her rightful husband’s return as his opportunity for him to break free of her tyranny and abuse. The question now is who is to be Rita’s husband and partner for life. The two men agree to a game in which whoever wins will have to stay with Rita. Both try to lose. Gasparo, the winner, pretending he has lost his hand, insists Beppe declare his love for Rita and takes his leave from the reconciled couple. With the opera performed here in Italian (Donizetti himself had had it translated) Gera Sandler, playing (in speech) the drunk servant in Rita’s inn, kept the audience informed as to the course of the plot. Soprano Galina Ziferblat was very well cast as the tough, saucy and wily innkeeper, her large voice and energy used well to show her dominance over the men, her stage personality savoring every moment of the role. Tenor Dmitry Semenov, sporting a black eye, offered a fine portrayal of the henpecked, gullible Beppe, singing through the constant movement and hi-jinks on stage. (In her aria, Rita had addressed the ladies of the audience, explaining that marital happiness might be attained by having a husband who was not especially bright.) Baritone Andrey Trifonov made for an imposing, charismatic and macho-oriented Gasparo, his singing always warm and fetching. Whether one sees the libretto as nonsensical or simply as fine distraction from the real world in which we live, the music in this small piece offers plenty of good melodic material. To Natalie Rotenberg’s very competent and informed piano accompaniment, we were treated to three arias (one sung by each character), two duets and a trio, with the men singing in patter in the latter. This operatic farce, boasting an economical score, was a fine vehicle for these Aeterna artists who are familiar to the Jerusalem opera audience from former productions.

With G.P. Telemann’s (1681-1767) “Pimpinone” about to begin, and the small ensemble (musical director: Ilya Plotkin) was tuning up, Ziferblat, Semenov and Trifonov took seats at the side of the stage, now assuming the role of audience members. “Pimpinone”, a witty intermezzo performed for comic relief between acts of Telemann’s adaption of Händel’s opera seria “Tamerlano”, was first performed in 1725 and remains Telemann’s best-known stage work. To a libretto of Johann Philipp Praetorius, there are two characters – the elderly merchant Pimpinone and Vespetta, his pretty, scheming chamber maid, her name in Italian actually meaning “little wasp”. We were in for another battle of the sexes, 18th century style, or could it not have been a situation familiar to us today? Vespetta, played delightfully by the vivacious Irina Mindlin, out to improve her station in life, lures her employer into marrying her. Bass Dmitry Lovzov, as Pimpinone, positively preening himself in blushing response to Vespetta’s flattery, falls straight into her trap. In the first scene (or intermezzo) the two come closer vocally and physically, dancing together and singing a duet that is not true harmony but cleverly made up of intertwined vocal lines. In Intermezzo II, the chamber maid threatens to leave the wealthy old bachelor if he does not marry her; Vespetta’s plea gives way to the couple’s first real performance in (musical) harmony in the love duet. By Intermezzo III, things have soured between them, with Pimpinone’s mockery and threats expressed in his outstanding aria as he skillfully shifts registers. The increasing dissonance between them is brilliantly reflected in the music, giving way to chaos on stage, with both singers in full throat simultaneously. In addition to its originality and involvement, Telemann’s vocal and instrumental score is a real treat. The instrumental ensemble did justice to its elegance and opulence. And the Aeterna production pulled out all the plugs, with constant action on stage and a good dose of risqué hilarity (Pimpinone resorts to taking Viagra; he also mutters in Yiddish!) as Mindlin and Lovzov moved, flirted, danced, beat each other and played out all the small opera’s developments vocally and visually. They used body language and much facial expression to provide fine entertainment in presenting ”Pimpinone”, also known as “The Unequal Marriage” or “The Domineering Chamber Maid”.

Once again, the Jerusalem Theatre of Chamber Opera’s unwavering devotion to the genre, its stagecraft and its fine singing and instrumental musicianship was a reminder that there is opera in Jerusalem and that Opera Aeterna’s annual production is always a delight.

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