Don Pasquale, London, November 2004
Don Pasquale, The Guardian, 29 November 2004
Don Pasquale, The Times, 29 November 2004
Juan Diego, crudel mi vuoi veder morir!, Mundo Clásico, 29 November 2004
Perfect little opera lacks sparkle, The Telegraph, 29 November 2004
Don Pasquale, The Financial Times, 29 November 2004
Emocionó en Londres, EFE, 29 November 2004
Welcome to the doll's house, The Independent,1 December 2004
Unlocking the drama, The Sunday Times, 5 December 2004
Why do we shun this great director?, The Observer, 5 December 2004
Don Pasquale, Covent Garden, Stephen Cutler, Opera-L, 29 November 2004 [external link]
Tim Ashley, The Guardian, 29 November 2004
Operatic updatings are the norm nowadays, so the first shock on encountering Jonathan Miller's staging of Donizetti's Don Pasquale is the realisation that the action has been hauled backwards in time rather than forwards. At the premiere in 1843, Donizetti controversially insisted the opera be given in contemporary dress, and most traditional productions have placed it in the 19th century. Miller, however, firmly relocates the piece in the early 18th century, which brings us to the second jolt of the evening: this is an attempt to turn a comedy often seen as inconsequential into a Hogarthian satire of considerable viciousness.
Miller is right to remind us of the opera's unpleasantness. Pasquale, a crusty old bachelor, marries a seemingly demure convent girl, who mutates into a vituperative shrew the moment the ring is on her finger. This is an elaborate hoax, contrived by the conniving Doctor Malatesta so that Pasquale's parasitic nephew Ernesto can marry the penniless widow he loves and cop part of his uncle's fortune into the bargain. We're soon siding with the old curmudgeon, but his tormentors are unrepentant and at the end we are left only with the sarcastic moral that "old bridegrooms are ridiculous".
The production only works in part, however. The set displays three floors of the interior of Pasquale's house. We're constantly privy to a world of eavesdropping and backbiting, where Malatesta plots in Pasquale's study while Ernesto, who has already secreted Norina in his attic bedroom, manoeuvres her round the building to keep her out of his uncle's way. The problem is that the major confrontations can only take place in one room in this vast piece of architecture. Miller insists on filling up the remaining space with endless distractions as servants make beds, gossip, steal jewellery and so on.
The casting is also inconsistent. The principal drawback is Tatiana Lisnic's Norina, who slithers gracelessly round the coloratura. Alessandro Corbelli's Malatesta, flapping about in a scarlet coat, is very much the evil-minded creature his name implies, while Simone Alaimo's sympathetic Pasquale suggests an almost Falstaffian energy. The great performance comes from Juan Diego Florez as Ernesto, at once dandified, sincere and rapturously sung. In the pit, Bruno Campanella seems in tune with Miller's concept, his conducting veering between insidious suavity and hard-edged energy.
Robert Thicknesse, The Times, 29 November 2004
Jonathan Miller certainly has it in for Covent Garden. A few weeks ago he hilariously described the crowd here as "Harrods Food Hall gives up its dead", and to continue the metaphor he has served up the most culinary (as in pap) production of Donizetti's last opera buffa. This should be one of the most delightful evenings available in the opera house but somehow this tale of a curmudgeonly old man getting his comeuppance does not seem to have rung the doctor's bell odd, eh?
Well, good news first. Unlike most recent imported Covent Garden productions (this one comes from Florence) most of it is actually visible from everywhere in the house. Isabella Bywater provides a jolly, three-storey doll's house set, two rooms on each level and a stairwell going up the middle: nine spaces to fill with Miller's relentless business.
We are in his beloved 18th century, the references all commedia dell'arte, Meissen figurines, marionettes. The characters' movements are stylised. There can be no independent action, no ethical values, no hinterland to their behaviour.
It is just as well because otherwise the taunting of this harmless old man set up with a "bride" of nuclear shrewishness to get him to agree to his nephew's wedding would be fairly nasty. The librettist Giovanni Ruffini was no Molière and failed to produce characters of any moral stature, positive or negative, and the libretto needs all the help it can get. So it's a bad moment for Miller's inventiveness to quit: his old ENO Barber of Seville is blistering with inspiration compared to this.
The funniest this Don Pasquale gets is a servant having trouble making Pasquale's bed (having helped herself to his collection of nightcaps). But it takes place during Norina's cavatina (the most important moment in Italian opera) and completely distracts from it.
We are left with a so-so story, conventionally told but titivated to a maddening degree. No one escapes from Miller's one-dimensional straitjacket. Although listening to Juan Diego Flórez, the sweetest, silkiest, most effortless tenor on the scene, is never hard, he gets no deeper in his music than standard pathos.
It's more than the others: Tatiana Lisnic is an efficient but laboured Norina. The expert buffo double-act of Simone Alaimo and Alessandro Corbelli, as Pasquale and his treacherous doctor, is colourless and unfunny.
There are moments when Donizetti's irrepressible, sinuous music takes the evening to another plane, but Bruno Campanella conducts mostly as if this were a Number 73 bus, not one of opera's best orchestras.
Juan Diego, crudel mi vuoi veder morir!
Enrique Sacau, Mundo Clásico, 29 November 2004
Gran expectación en Covent Garden, todas las entradas vendidas y corrillos recordando el último Don Pasquale de la casa (catorce años atrás con Battle, Montarsolo y otros). La ocasión merecía el nerviosismo: varios cantantes de relumbrón en el escenario, una nueva producción de Jonathan Miller compartida con Florencia y un título que tiene tirón. Y la cosa no defraudó en términos generales.
La producción de Jonathan Miller tiene su virtud y su defecto en el mismo punto: la escena es como una casa de muñecas abierta en la que se pueden contemplar todas las habitaciones. Así, si un personaje está cantando en su dormitorio, podemos ver todavía a los demás moviéndose por la casa. A veces, resta capacidad de concentración (cuando 'Norina' iba por la mitad de su aria me di cuenta de que yo estaba mirando a Juan Diego Flórez escribiendo su carta en la planta baja), pero también da vida a lo que pasa en escena. Además, como Miller es un genio, se ocupa de dejar solo al tenor en el momento de cantar su serenata, rodeado de oscuridad, en el jardín de la casa (o sea, cerrando el frente de la caja de muñecas) y con toda la luz concentrada en él. La realización de la escenografía, así como la iluminación, resultaron muy adecuadas.
El elenco vocal no desmereció un ápice. Tatiana Lisnic debutaba en Covent Garden y si bien comenzó con la voz algo descolocada, ganó prestancia en la escena en que toma el mando de la casa e hizo un segundo acto muy solvente. También fue de menos a más Simone Alaimo quien, sin embargo, no lució su voz poderosa y broncínea, sino una por momentos algo carrasposa. Hizo un buen 'Don Pasquale' desde el punto de vista dramático, con su mejor momento en el dúo con el 'Dottore Malatesta'. Éste fue cantado de maravilla por 'Alessandro Corbelli', uno de los dos triunfadores de la noche.
El otro, que merece párrafo aparte, fue Juan Diego Flórez. Lo mejor que hace es frasear con calma, articulando cuidadosamente y fiándose de su sobrado fiato. Y luego afina, emite, proyecta, controla la intensidad, es flexible y un etcétera interminable que lo convierten en uno de los mejores tenores de su tipo de los que se tiene memoria (no conocemos a los del XIX; qué le vamos a hacer si no grababan discos). No se echa de menos a nadie cuando se le escucha y sólo se siente el privilegio de estar ante algo único, algo que no pasa a menudo. Me gustó todo, pero si tengo que quedarme con algo es con la serenata 'Com'è gentil', premiada con un prolongado aplauso del público. ¡Cincuenta veces bravo!
Bruno Campanella distó de ser sutil como director durante la ópera y se pasó de sutil durante la obertura. O sea, en vez de exponerla de forma vivaz y animada, se perdió en incontables rallentandi que lo hicieron caer en un innecesario amaneramiento. Luego pasó sin pena ni gloria, acompañando lo normal y contando, eso sí, con una orquesta y un coro (preparado por Renato Baldasona) de grandísima altura.
Fue una noche de ópera estupenda que nos deja el buen sabor de boca de haber visto a un tenor fabuloso.
Perfect little opera lacks sparkle
Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph, 29 November 2004
Jonathan Miller has been bewailing in an interview that no opera house wants to employ him any more and that the critics are beastly. We've heard this already, and it's not very dignified.
More to the point, Dr Miller could usefully consider shortcomings in his craft which could explain this dearth of offers. He may be brilliant at inventing interpretative concepts (the Mafia Rigoletto and the madcap Mikado at ENO are deservedly classics) and charming the pants off everybody in rehearsal with his wit and wisdom. But he is not much cop at the nuts and bolts of putting a show on stage effectively.
Take, for instance, this limp production of Donizetti's comedy Don Pasquale. Isabella Bywater has designed a magnificent set in the form of a giant doll's house. Furnishings and costumes suggest a Dickensian fantasy world.
It's a wonderful notion in theory, turning crusty old Pasquale's household into a warren of farcical intrigue. But Miller seems to have stopped here and gone home. The story is not well told. Not even the transformation of the demure Sofronia into the wife from hell got a decent laugh. Downstairs goings-on among three mute servants distracted attention from singers delivering beautiful arias (notably Norina's Quel guardo) upstairs.
Characterisations were bland, cues were slack and there was no interaction between the soloists. This slackness was mirrored in the inept conducting of Bruno Campanella, whose reputation as "an expert" in the bel canto field was belied by his plodding tempi and failure to secure the crisp ensemble that is the essential element in the music's effervescence.
These two dire influences cast a pall over the singers. Simone Alaimo made a hoarse, coarse and unsympathetic Pasquale, for whom one felt no sympathy.
Tatiana Lisnic made an unexciting debut as Norina: an ordinary voice, sketchy in coloratura, no stylish malice.
As Ernesto, Juan Diego Florez showed off his phenomenal technique and produced some lovely mezza-voce, but seemed disengaged. Only that great buffo Alessandro Corbelli as Malatesta - sharply understated in his comic timing - gave signs of understanding how this perfect little opera should sparkle.
Andrew Clark, The Financial Times, 29 November 2004
It is hard to feel sorry for Jonathan Miller - especially when you see a show as wide of the mark as this. The man who made his name more than 40 years ago in Beyond the Fringe seems to think the world owes him a living. In the run-up to the Royal Opera's new Donizetti production, Miller went public on his declining profile, berating us all for not recognising him as a national treasure. He talked like an ecclesiastical potentate of the ancien régime, but it was the cry of someone who has run out of ideas and influence.
When you read what he says about everyone, it's not surprising the world should regard him as passé. He resents the power of prima donnas. He loathes critics (and one can forgive him that). He likens the Covent Garden audience to the "dead" from Harrods' food halls. These are not the words of an angry old man. They are the mark of someone who is arrogant and conceited.
That is why Miller's opera diary has begun to look empty. The problem with being a polymath is that you never establish a power-base in any of your chosen disciplines, and there are too many young voices coming up with something fresh to say who do not bite the hand that feeds them. Miller's heyday was a generation ago when he directed Rigoletto and The Mikado for English National Opera. He never really made the transition to Covent Garden. His productions were always professional and thoughtful but, increasingly, they skirted core truths in favour of surface decoration. Miller's Achilles heel was sentiment and passion: he just didn't do them.
It is impossible to believe any of the feelings expressed in this Don Pasquale, and it failed to stir any feelings in me. The production was first staged three years ago in Florence where the audience evidently took delight in Isabella Bywater's single set, inspired by an English doll's house from the period of the opera's creation. The first scene is indeed a coup de théâtre, as the house advances front of stage and opens its doors. But the effect is that of a magician who reveals all his secrets at the start. The rest is anticlimax - until the act three garden scene, when the characters finally, to our immense relief, step out of the set and become real people. But it is too little, too late.
Up to then they are marionettes, cooped up in little boxrooms, dressed like wooden soldiers, surrounded by a warren of unscripted household activity that is at best irrelevant and at worst distracting. The doll's house is an unfortunate metaphor for everything that is miniaturist and heartless about Miller's approach. It sucks out any personality the performers have, and kills the comedy.
It is also an excuse for the most outrageous product-placement at the start of the final act, when Norina's spending spree clutters the stage with the cream of today's fashion brands in a setting that is otherwise meticulously in period. This is worse than the Armani Così.
Deprived of real stage direction, the principals fall back on the stock gestures of buffo tradition. None has a big enough voice or stage presence to surmount the surroundings - though Simone Alaimo's Pasquale and Alessandro Corbelli's Malatesta at least give us the authentic sound of Italian vocal colouring, and their patter duet works well. For bel canto pleasure, the performance relies exclusively on Juan Diego Flórez whose neat, pint-sized tenor goes through all the right moves without adding the lustre or bloom that should draw us into the beauty of Ernesto's act two lament. His Norina is Tatiana Lisnic, a diligent soprano who lacks the wit, sparkle and vulnerability to win the audience's heart.
With his singers recessed in their toy boxes, Bruno Campanella could have done with a much smaller orchestra: the sound was never quite delicate enough. But the pulse he set for Donizetti's brilliant overture was ideal, whetting the appetite for a performance that promised so much and delivered so little.
Emocionó en Londres
EFE, 29 November 2004
Londres. El peruano Juan Diego Flórez triunfó la noche del sábado en Londres, en su debut como Ernesto en la ópera de Donizetti "Don Pasquale", papel en el que se especializaron famosos tenores desde Tito Schipa hasta Alfredo Kraus.
Rodeado de un grupo de excelentes voces como el veterano barítono-bajo Simone Alaimo, en el papel del mísero solterón protagonista, el también barítono Alessandro Corbelli (Doctor Malatesta), y la joven moldava Tatiana Lisnic (Norina), Flórez suscitó largas ovaciones tras cada una de sus arias.
Su "Povero Ernesto", del acto primero, cantada con una voz dulce y un sentimiento extraordinario, provocó gritos de "bravo" de algunos de sus más entusiastas seguidores que se encontraban entre el público que llenaba la Royal Opera House del Covent Garden londinense.
La parte de Ernesto, aunque relativamente breve, es, sin embargo, muy exigente para la voz de un tenor por el carácter insistente de sus agudos, que no da descanso al cantante, y la importancia del fraseo.
A ello se suma el hecho de que, como él mismo explicó, Flórez interprete ese aria de forma integral, sin cortarla a la mitad, tras la parte rápida, y todo ello con una sorprende facilidad, con "leggerezza".
Un momento absolutamente mágico fue el de la serenata del acto final, donde Flórez supo aunar su dominico de la técnica belcantista a la sensibilidad para lograr una ejecución de una belleza melancólica extraordinaria.
Es un aria hecha para el lucimiento de un tenor lírico de timbre tan limpio como el del peruano. A Flórez se le nota sobre todo cómodo con su parte, que se ajusta perfectamente a su voz, rica en texturas, y que, como él mismo ha explicado, se distingue más por su agilidad, tan apropiada para el belcanto, que por la pesadez que requeriría, por ejemplo, un Verdi.
En los duetos, Flórez se compenetró además extraordinariamente con la soprano moldava, excelente en su papel de la joven viuda que enamora a Ernesto, y a la que el doctor Malatesta hace pasar por una hermana suya salida del convento y dispuesta a casarse con Don Pasquale, al que acabará llevando a la desesperación.
Al igual que Flórez, Tatiana Lisnic, que debutó en la Royal Opera como Norina, papel que había hecho ya en el Maggio Musicale de Florencia (Italia) en 2001, es una consumada belcantista.
El excelente trabajo de los intérpretes se vio además facilitado por la puesta en escena divertida y dinámica del inglés Jonathan Miller, y el decorado de Isabella Bywater, utilizado ya en la producción original de Florencia, a modo de sección de una casa de muñecas en tres niveles.
Decididamente, Flórez está de suerte con el Covent Garden, donde debutó precisamente con otra partitura de Donizetti en "Elisabetta", en 1977 [sic. actually 1997], tras sustituir al tenor que debía hacer la parte de Potoski, que tuvo que aprender en cinco días, y donde ha interpretado también a Rossini ("La Cenerentola"), a Verdi ("Otello") [sic. actually Rossini's "Otello"] y a Bellini ("La Sonámbula")
Welcome to the doll's house
Edward Seckerson, The Independent,1 December 2004
Jonathan Miller unlocks the door to his doll's house at the start of his 2001 staging of Donizetti's last comedy (mounted originally for the Maggio Musicale in Florence), and the old bachelor - that's Don Pasquale, not Miller - conveniently loses the key until the Don has finally got his life (and his house) back.
If at first you wonder how or why Miller and his designer Isabella Bywater happened upon this concept for the piece, all is soon revealed. Don Pasquale is an opera full of counterpoint, musical and physical. To be able to play that counterpoint, to be able to show cause and effect, action and reaction, without altogether suspending disbelief is extremely cunning. Miller can play out duetting characters' "asides" in different rooms; conversations can be overheard and characters eavesdrop with credibility; Pasquale's nephew Ernesto, the young hero of the piece, can be bedding his true love Norina in one part of the house while his uncle plots to dislodge him from another. And there's always some drama playing out "below stairs", where the kitchen is the engine-room of intrigue. It's a busy concept for a busy opera.
If there is a downside - and I think there is - it's that focus is so easily deflected from where it needs to be. Upstaging - unintentional and intentional - is inevitable. The household staff can, and do, create major dramas without singing a note. It's amazing how much knitting and cooking can be done in three hours, and where you've a diminutive (and very elderly) chambermaid making up a very large bed you honestly can't expect the audience to be looking anywhere else.
Besides, I had problems with this most intimate and claustrophobic of comedies being quite so far-flung. Its larger-than-life characters seemed belittled by the scale of the set. Or maybe that was intentional?
At any rate, it took a little longer to start cooking than the servants did. The conductor Bruno Campanella was the genuine article all right, but in the prelude the orchestra were already making heavy weather of his "knowing" rubatos. They were reading him better as the evening progressed. And my ears were adjusting to the lack of immediacy in the voices, particularly in scenes played out on the upper levels. There were big personalities in this cast, but there were times when you wouldn't have known it.
Simone Alaimo is a seasoned Don Pasquale. He has performed the role more than 300 times so far and, for better or worse, it shows. I enjoyed him most in act three where his impending demise promised, but never quite delivered, a massive heart attack.
Alessandro Corbelli's Doctor Malatesta, meanwhile, engaged in his sadistic machinations with some relish. Their breathless duet - one of the great buffo set-pieces - brought them both into sharp relief.
Which brings me to the precarious love interest. The Moldavian soprano Tatiana Lisnic made an impressive house debut as Norina. She has all the vocal equipment necessary to flirt outrageously with her voice - which is precisely what her first aria requires of her. Later, as the "convent girl" turned "big spender", she took the plunge from defiant top notes to decisive bottom ones as efficiently as she spent the Don's money. And, as she did so, boxes labelled "Prada", "La Perla", and "Escada" magically arrived from the next century.
Her Ernesto (for those who may have spent the last year or so in Shangri-la) was Juan Diego Florez, the young tenore di grazia sensation, in a very unflattering blond wig. His first aria "Cerchero lontana terra" was graceful and personal, sweet and true. But audiences (like this one) are now in danger of hearing the publicity not the voice. It's a bantam-weight voice, and narrow, like the very specific repertoire he sings. Sure, he can spin out the coloratura and pop the top Cs (only one here), but let's keep a sense of proportion.
Unlocking the drama
Stephen Pettitt, The Sunday Times, 5 December 2004
A sinister Don Pasquale underlines Jonathan Miller's key strengths as a director
So, according to a recent interview with an outspoken Jonathan Miller, this is it. Donizetti's Don Pasquale, first seen at the Florence Maggio Musicale in 2001 and now forming only the second Royal Opera production by Miller, is his operatic Schwanengesang.
While English National Opera continues to stage his old productions his mafioso Rigoletto has enjoyed a Lloyd Webberish longevity, though Miller, who has always stood for the highest artistic values rather than commercial interests, would hate the comparison nobody has commissioned something new from him for quite a long time. He feels it's now too late, that he has been rejected by the operatic establishment and that, at 70, he can no longer be bothered with the hassle and constant fights with bureaucrats and money men.
Which is a pity. In the interval of this staging, colleagues (whom he memorably labelled in that interview as tsetse flies) buzzed around the Floral Hall bar decrying Miller's spectacularly different conception of the piece. In my view, however, the wizened polymath did well. This is an opera whose familiarity and rather workaday story demand an arresting vision. So the big idea this time is to have it take place in a huge dolls' house, three storeys tall and three rooms wide. The style of both dress and house is that of early-18th-century Hogarthian caricature, and the production has a darker, more incisive air than most, though it probably doesn't go as far as satire.
What does come across is a degree of nastiness that Miller's vision brings to all four protagonists. Pasquale is at first a ruthless, vain old man, so much so that it's hard to feel sorry for him as Norina teaches him a lesson by taking him to the cleaners after, apparently, marrying him.
Norina may be a charmer, but she's also a manipulator, perhaps as much of Pasquale's lazy nephew Ernesto as of Pasquale himself. The slap she gives Pasquale is thoroughly shocking. Ernesto is seen as preening and shallow, almost sadistically delighting in his uncle Pasquale's discomfort, for all the ardency of his love. Malatesta is the dark magician of the piece, happy to manipulate situations and sensibilities. Opera buffa was never more sinister than this. The fact that it's peopled by dolls only exaggerates that feeling. There's something grotesque at work here.
The singing and acting is mostly impressive. Undoubtedly, the star of the evening is Juan Diego Flórez as Ernesto. His beautiful liquid tenor is applied to a performance of convincing presence, fluid movement and graceful phrasing. This is just his kind of music, and the ease of the voice in all registers is something miraculous.
The Norina of Tatiana Lisnic, making her house debut, is also assured. Simone Alaimo's Don Pasquale descends cleverly from bumptiousness through exasperation to pathos, while Alessandro Corbelli's Doctor Malatesta goes about his machinations efficiently enough. Bryan Secombe's brief appearance as the Notary is an endearing piece of character acting. In the pit, Bruno Campanella conducts a purposeful yet expressive orchestral performance.
Yes, Miller's detractors would say, but visually this production is so very busy. Those sitting anywhere near the action risk severe eyestrain, for, while the singing is happening in one place, there's bustling domestic activity beds being made, gossiping enjoyed elsewhere. Only in the final garden scene, when the doors of the dolls' house are nearly closed and the action moves to the front of the stage, is there no distraction from Flórez and Lisnic's lovely duet and from the denouement (which ends, slightly puzzlingly, with the newly enlightened Pasquale brandishing a giant key at the house).
Some may suspect that, prior to this point, Miller doesn't trust the music enough not to have all those other things going on. Others would suggest that he's simply anxious to ensure that the work comes across not merely as a showcase for fine singing, but as theatre. That's a thread that runs through all his productions whether one thinks them successful or not. And it is something for which the world of opera, tsetse flies and all, should be eternally grateful.
Why do we shun this great director?
Anthony Holden, The Observer, 5 December 2004
Jonathan Miller's witty, inventive Don Pasquale is a triumph for the Royal Opera House. But his contributions should be treasured more
Late last millennium, when English National Opera began planning its current stab at Wagner's Ring, why on earth did it choose the director of the West End hit Mamma Mia!, a musical about Abba?
Despite high musical standards achieved over several years of private and public rehearsals, Phyllida Lloyd's muddled, misconceived staging has turned out to be an artistic and commercial disaster of such proportions that it is hard to see how it can ever be mounted as an authentically Wagnerian cycle.
Why didn't ENO offer the job to Jonathan Miller, director of countless Coliseum hits over several decades, including productions of Rigoletto, The Mikado, Carmen, Der Rosenkavalier and The Barber of Seville - still getting desperately-needed bums on seats (without incurring more fees to Miller) in these otherwise dark days at St Martin's Lane? How ENO must also rue dumping his magisterial, long-running Don Giovanni for its juvenile replacement by Calixto Bieito, for which they couldn't even give away seats this last time around.
Much the same goes for the Royal Opera, whose stellar new Ring cycle opens this month. No disrespect to Covent Garden's chosen director, the gifted Keith Warner, but why not invite the uniquely imaginative Miller, who brings such intelligence and stagecraft to everything he touches, to take on the Ring as a fittingly grand climax to his distinguished life between the theatre and the opera house?
Instead, in recent years, Covent Garden has only imported Miller productions originally commissioned by foreign houses, as is true of his latest (and, he fears, last) show there (or, indeed, anywhere beyond Zurich) Don Pasquale. Even Miller's Così fan tutte, which recently filled the house night after night in its umpteenth stylish update, would never have existed if Covent Garden's insulting terms hadn't obliged the director to design his own set and lighting - at no extra charge.
'I'd like to have had a crack at the Ring,' mused Miller during a Radio 3 discussion, as outspoken as a recent newspaper interview in which he concluded that a peculiarly British version of ageism had seen him, now 70 but still 'at the height of my powers', direct his last production here. Towards the end of a long and luminous career, why should this multi-talented man have to resort to moaning publicly about his casting as a prophet without honour in his own country? Why has his distinguished service to our two main houses not been rewarded with more home wins?
Miller is not a difficult director to work with, as I can personally vouch from two collaborations with him at ENO in the 1980s. Quite the reverse. He brings rare excitement, laughter and insight into the rehearsal room from day one. Singers love him, with the notorious exception of Cecilia Bartoli, whose diva tantrums cost him more work at New York's Metropolitan Opera, whom he has also bequeathed a clutch of long-running hits, not least a magical version of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande which Covent Garden would do well to import.
Miller's trademarks are inventiveness, good taste and (where appropriate) wit. A seasoned man of the theatre, well aware that many operas have absurd plots, he freely admits that he would not wish to direct such stage clunkers as Il trovatore or La Forza del Destino . Confronted by a thin piece with possibilities, such as Don Pasquale, he responds with as much theatrical ingenuity as musical awareness.
The naivety of the plot and its central character - a rich old man duped by a venal young bride - persuaded Miller to set the opera in a doll's house, exquisitely realised by his designer, Isabella Bywater. Nine rooms visible at all times (the central three comprising a stairwell) enable him to have different things going on in different spaces at the same time - servants gossiping bottom-left while wronged lover emotes top-right - as entirely befits its Upstairs, Downstair s scenario.
This has led some of my colleagues to snort that the eye is at times distracted from the soloists, supposedly a cardinal sin in opera production. Occupational tunnel vision has them forgetting that opera is supposed to be theatre as much as periwigged music-making. Miller's approach is informed by his love of Auden's touching poem, 'Musée des Beaux Arts', in which the poet commends 'the Old Masters' for divining the elemental truth that suffering 'takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along'.
No insight could be more appropriate to this particular work, turning a limp piece of late Donizetti, usually played for even limper laughs, into an affecting, at times unsparing study of a deluded man's folly. The portrait of the Don's mother on the wall, to which he constantly defers, is a typical Miller touch, aptly suggesting that this foolish, fond old man is a lifelong mummy's boy ill-equipped to cope with the adult world of love and lust, deceit and intrigue.
Sicilian bass-baritone Simone Alaimo brings to the role a world-weariness inevitable after performing it more than 300 times, matched buffo for buffo by Alessandro Corbelli's devious Doctor Malatesta. The stars of the show, visibly lifted by Miller's approach, are the beguiling Moldavian soprano Tatiana Lisnic and the thrilling Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez.
The one sings enchantingly while perfectly enacting the china doll from hell; the other makes the most of Ernesto's bravura vocal heroics despite one of the silliest wigs in operatic history. Bruno Campanella conducts with as much Italianate wit as vigour. Thanks to them and Miller, Covent Garden has a Christmas hit on its hands.
Packed, enthusiastic houses suggest that the Royal Opera's audience has forgiven Miller for referring to it as 'chalk-striped aubergines' or 'Harrods food hall gives up its dead'. Do the critics grant him similar indulgence for calling them 'parasitic invertebrates' and 'midgets talking into a loudspeaker'? This one simply smiles as he comes to praise Miller, not to bury him.
This page was last updated on: December 6, 2004