COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD

Opera season explores one-way love affairs

A theme for San Diego Opera’s 2014 season is not hard to identify when looking over the repertory: it's unrequited love. Three of the operas dwell on love affairs gone wrong; the fourth production actually has a happy ending, despite tribulations along the way.

The season begins with “Pagliacci.” It is easy to spot the obsessive jealousy of Canio for his flirtatious wife, Nedda, who is carrying on with a local village youth. As his anger blows up, the unhappy clown is driven to kill his partner while acting out a comedy scene for the locals. Score one for unrequited love.

Seeking a magic potion to attract an indifferent lover, a young suitor is duped by the quack Doctor Dulcamara in the second production, “The Elixir of Love.” That begins a comical romp with plenty of Gaetano Donizetti’s perky tunes to enhance the romantic stage play and to overcome the heroine’s reluctance to love the smitten tenor. A triumph over unrequited love.

The third production, Giuseppe Verdi’s “The Masked Ball,” focuses on an assassination, but a secret love affair contributes to the death of the Gustav, King of Sweden. The action happens at a masked ball when the king’s best friend, Count Anckarström, joins assassins in a political conspiracy against Gustav’s reign and to avenge the honor of his wife, Amelia. The story is based on a historic event, but Verdi had make substitutions for people and places at the premiere to satisfy the censors of his day. Definitely an affair ending with unrequited love.

The return of the 2009 season hit, “Don Quixote,” probably best fits the 2014 season’s theme of unrequited love. The deranged Spanish make-believe knight sees the image of an idealized woman in Dulcinea, a village tease who rejects his adoration. While wandering the countryside and fighting windmills to protect his lady, the chivalrous Don tries to see the good in all people as his impossible dream.

In addition to the four performances of each of the above operas, SDO offers a concert of Verdi’s “Requiem.” Four top international artists will be the principal singers with the SDO chorus and San Diego Master Chorale. There will be only one performance, March 20 at the Civic Theatre.

“Pagliacci” composer Ruggero Leoncavallo wrote several operas during the era of verismo productions, that is, a down-to-earth drama about ordinary people with none of the gods, kings or fantasy that was so popular in the Baroque period. Only one composition other than “Pagliacci” has survived, but it was overwhelmed by a more popular version of “La Bohème” by Puccini.

The premiere of “Pagliacci” at Milan in 1892 was conducted by a young Arturo Toscanini, who did not care for the score. The audience had a different opinion, making the opera an instant success. Leoncavallo’s “La Bohème” premiered a year after Puccini’s and was a serious competitor for a few years before being lost to the opera world.

Donizetti was famous for his ability to compose operas in brief periods of time, accounting for his colossal output of 75 operas and 16 symphonies before he died at 51 years. His composition of “The Elixir of Love” was the product of a commission to be ready in six weeks for its 1832 premiere in Milan.

Legend suggests that the libretto is semi-autobiographical, except it is hard to believe the talented composer could be fooled by a bottle of cheap Bordeaux to attract his lady love.

Verdi was at the peak of his career when he composed “A Masked Ball” in 1859. Despite his popularity, relations with Austrian censors occupying Italy were suspect. Earlier operas had hidden references to his personal commitment to end the monarchy.

The libretto for “A Masked Ball” was based on a historical event depicting the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden. A public display of a royal murder was not permitted, so for the 1859 premiere in Rome, Verdi moved the scene to colonial America and an assassination of the governor of Massachusetts. Apparently that didn’t bother the censors.

SDO will present the more popular original version played out in Sweden in a production full of powdered wigs, fancy ball gowns and elegant courtiers. The cast of international artists includes tenor Piotr Beczala as Gustav, sopranos Krassimira Stoyanova as Amelia, Kathleen Kim in the pants role of Oscar, and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe as Madam Arvidson, all regulars at the Metropolitan Opera.

The final opera of the 2014 season is Jules Massenet’s “Don Quixote.” The popular production of 2009 returns with the great basso Ferruccio Furlanetto repeating the title role.

The character of the man from La Mancha was described in a review of the New York premiere in 1914 as real pathos by portraying a grotesque old man who exudes fanaticism, blind impulsiveness, true chivalry and kindness as he wanders the countryside with his sidekick, Sancho.

Tickets for all performances at the Civic Theatre are available online at www.sdopera.com or by calling 619-533-7000.

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University

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