DONIZETTIıS FIRST HIT, A HOME RUN
by John Carlin Ryan
"LıAjo NellıImbarazzo" [The Tutor in a Real Mess]. Music by Gaetano
Donizetti; book by Jacopo Ferretti. Performance of October 13, 2000 by the
Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia, conductor: John Edward Niles; Stage
Director, Maria Watson; cast:
Don Gregorio, the tutorEugene Galvin, bass
Don Giulio, father of two sonsLewis Freeman
Enrico, the older sonScott Priest, tenor
Gilda, secretly married to EnricoKatherine Osborne
Their infant sona doll
Pippetto, the younger sonDoug Bowles
Leonarda, the maid, Pippettoıs love interest Daria Gerwig
SimoneDon Phillip Bicoy
The Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia struck musical and dramatic gold last
Friday with a performance of "LıAjo NellıImbrazzo," composed by the 25-year
old Donizetti in 1824 to a book by the comic poet Jacopo Ferretti, the same
man who provided Rossini with the text for "La Centerella" [Cinderella].
The libretto is a knockout, a hysterically funny laughing comedy. The
emotionally engaged composer provided witty music, because his personal life
mirrored somewhat the operaıs plot. Donizettiıs future in-laws refused to
let him marry their daughter, until he wrote a hit opera that made money.
This work solved Donizettiıs emotional and financial problems, and it sounds
like he poured this young heart and soul into it. John Niles saw the opera
at Milanıs Piccola Scala, hardly an unknown provincial opera house, where it
is standard repertory. Why does this work remain unknown to American opera
The first word of the title spills the secret. "Ajo" [modern Italian, aio]
means tutor; "aglio," almost the same pronunciation, means garlic, a truly
treacherous cooking ingredient, whose under or overuse can ruin a tasty
Italian dish. The garlic in question must be used absolutely correctly to
flavor the title role of the tutor, Don Gregorio. The baritone or bass in
question must have the voice of a Robert Merrill or a Riccardo Stracciari
joined with the comic acting abilities of Zero Mostel and the delivery
abilities of a Jay Leno. Niles found such a magic creature, plus a
supporting cast to match, hence this rocket ship took off and quickly broke
the speed of light.
Eugene Galvin began began the first scene in pedant mode teaching Latin to
the householdıs stupid teenage son, Pippetto, sung and acted brilliantly by
Doug Boles. This boy comes across as a vindictive dunce, a hard part to
act, much less sing. He is also carrying on a less than Platonic affair
with a middle aged household servant. As the Latin lesson proceeds, the old
harpy herself serves tea. Teenaged boy and old woman proceed to paw each
other, and the tutor explodes into a bout of name calling at both of them.
By the end of this short scene, the Virginians were only laughing heartily;
later they would be rolling in the aisles.
Galvinıs genius became even more apparent, when the character has to change.
The befuddled tutor learns that nor only is the smart but stogy elder son,
Enrico, secretly married to Gilda, the daughter of an Army colonel, but they
recently have given the world a son. He decides to help them, becoming a
sympathetic clown, rather than a baboon. Don Georgioıs emotions change --
heıs got high IQ but low EQ, as we say in modern slang. Galvinıs way with
the part made this opera. His emotions ranged from befuddlement at the two
"love" plots to absolute terror of the boysı father, The Marchese Giulio,
who hates all women. Galvin as Gregorio stumbles across the young marriedıs
secret, when Gilda sneaks into the house, where she and Enrico further
fulfill their material contract in a back room. Then Gilda can not sneak
out of the house, and the fun really begins.
Galvin rose to his pinnacle in the "Baby Rescue Aria." The trapped Gilda
can not feed the baby -- this opera predated bottled formulas. Don
Gregorio alternates an epic of slinking through streets and alleys with his
self-proclaimed heroic status, savior of babies. As the audience merely
howled at the creeping, crawling hero, Galvin broke into a dance routine ala
Martin Green as Ko-Ko in the Mikado. Complete convulsive laughter erupted.
I was laughing so hard, I hardly had breath enough to scream a well deserved
"bravo," when the aria ended.
In comedies involving "the young lovers," the young couple usually escapes
ridicule. Thatıs not Italian. Scott Priest, who sang Enrico, resembles a
National Football League lineman -- tall, big, looks in shape. An amazing
clear, light tenor voice arises from this mountain of a man. Katherine
Osborne, who played Enricoıs wife, Gilda, can hardly stand five five, and
sheıs really tiny. She first bossed the huge lunk around the stage, She
then declared in an aria that a colonelıs daughter should certainly be able
to boss Enricoıs mean old father around too. Her voice reminds me of the
type of sound heard from La Scala recordings from the late 1920ıs and early
1930ıs, a real trip to bell canto land. Her rendition of Actıs final aria
elicited a screaming chorus of "brave" from the house.
Osborneıs true moment, however, arrived in an Act II, scene 1, duet, with
Daria Gerwig as Leonarda, the old fossil who has become the teenaged sonıs
mistress. Leonarda has assumed that Gilda is the tutorıs mistress, and
Leonarda hates and fears the tutor. There ensues an obvious homage to
Mozart, specifically the cat duet, "Via, resti servita." between Susanna and
Marcelina in Act 1 of "Le Nozze di Figaro" [The Marriage of Figaro]. In
"LıAjo" the two women staged a duel with fan and feather duster, then
engaged in a fight, which might be called an operatic version womenıs TV
wrestling. When the old woman lost the match, she tore up the feather
duster filling the stage with a blizzard of feathers. To everyoneıs
amazement, the stream of beautiful music did not stop once during all this
mayhem, and here we arrive at the nub.
The action never lagged, thanks to Maria Watsonıs stage direction. Hear,
hear, oh Washington Opera. Get this woman. More importantly, the music
bubbled from the pit and stage, like a champagne fountain that would not
stop. Keeping this opera on track must be a task for Hercules. This thing
has a fast motor -- conducting it must be like driving 100 miles an hour in
a convertible. Thatıs in the slow. Iım sure more American opera companies
will try this thing. My advice: Get a conductor like Niles who both
understands this music and can conduct it. Those who make music like
Furtwangler should not even dream of trying this thing.