Dutch National Opera Academy 2023 Review: L’Isola Disabitata, Arianna a Naxos & What Price Confidence?

Dijkema’s Expert Direction Brings Alive an Imaginative Triple Bill

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: DNOA, Amare, Renout Bos)

The Hague’s state-of-the-art Amare Arts complex recently hosted the Dutch National Opera Academy’s imaginative triple bill performed by its final-year students of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam in partnership with the Royal Conservatoire The Hague. The main opera, Hadyn’s “L’Isola Disabitata,” was preceded by two short works: Krenek’s chamber opera “What Price Confidence?“ and “Arianna a Naxos,” a cantata also by Hadyn.

The performances took place in Amare’s Concertzaal, in which the stage was placed in the center of the auditorium with the audience seated on either side. The orchestra and piano were positioned to one side. The upper tier, which circles the auditorium, was closed to the public and occasionally used as part of the staging area, with singers climbing a ladder and singing while looking down onto the stage.

All three works were directed by Michiel Dijkema, who was also responsible for the staging of all three works. Costumes were designed by Mattijs van Bergen and the lighting was by Jasper Nijholt.

Arianna a Naxos

The cantata, written by Haydn in 1790 for a female voice and pianoforte and lasting approximately 20 minutes, relates Arianna’s reaction to her abandonment by her lover, Teseo, on the island of Naxos. The work consists of two recitatives alternating with two arias. In the opening recitative, Arianna awakes from a troubled dream, longing for Teseo, but is quickly overcome by fear and grief as she realizes that he has abandoned her, to which she gave voice in her first aria, “Dove sei, il mio bel tesoro?” This soon gives way to anger and then in the second aria, “Al! che morir vorrei,” she yearns for death.

Arianna was played by mezzo-soprano Sterre Decru, who put in a dramatically impressive performance in which her acting and singing were sensitive to the textual and musical nuances. She molded her voice convincingly to highlight Arianna’s changing emotional state through the use of strong dynamic contrasts, well-placed accents, and impressive coloring with a pleasing chiaroscuro effect. The role has limited opportunities for showing off her vocal versatility in ornamenting the vocal line, but she made the most of the opportunities.

Dijkema decided to produce the cantata in its wider context by having Bacchus, played by Alexander Oliver, on the stage. After all, it was not by chance that Arianna found herself alone on the island; this was Bacchus’ doing! He coveted her for himself, and so in the introduction, we watch on as Bacchus casts his eye lustfully over the sleeping Arianna. He is, however, no longer the young athletic god of our imagination but an unkempt old man. Although Bacchus has an unspoken role, he is ever-present and reacts to Arianna’s words by beating and caressing her. He is often enraged by feelings of rejection and is aggressive and lustful toward her.

The disheveled Arianna is chained by her feet to prevent her escape. She has not only lost her lover; she is also a prisoner. Thus, her reactions are seen not only in terms of her abandonment and the loss of the man she loves, but also in terms of the psychological and physical abuse she is experiencing at the hands of Bacchus. It was an idea that worked exceptionally well and magnified the effect of the drama. Its conclusion also added a convincing twist, so that Arianna, suffering the effects of Stockholm syndrome, eventually falls in love with her captor, and the cantata ends with them kissing each other. This tied in perfectly with the myth: Arianna went on to bare Bacchus 13 children.

Peter Nilsson on the pianoforte produced a compelling dramatic accompaniment that aligned itself perfectly with the onstage drama.

What Price Confidence?

Krenek’s rarely performed 1945 opera, “What Price Confidence?” came as a real surprise and was undoubtedly the standout work of the evening, due in no small part to Dijkema’s direction and the excellent singing of the young, talented cast, who engaged so imaginatively and enthusiastically with their characters. Reading through the libretto does not exactly fill the reader with high expectations, yet in Dijkema’s hands, this was turned into a riotously funny piece, reminiscent of a Rossini farce, that kept the audience fully entertained. The time flew by!

The work is a simple tale of two couples, both of whom are suffering marital problems that undermine the confidence that holds their relationships together. Obviously, the root cause of the marital distress is infidelity. Gloria, who despises her husband Edwin’s lack of confidence, is planning an affair with Richard, whose wife Vivian feels saddened by the fact she can no longer inspire confidence in her husband. Although Edwin and Vivian do not know each other, by pure chance they meet as Edwin is about to commit suicide. Quickly realizing what their spouses are up to, they plan their revenge.

Dijkema’s staging was very simple, consisting of no more than one or two items on a bare stage, which were changed for each of the nine scenes. So for the scene on Westminster Bridge in which Erwin is about to end it all by throwing himself into the Thames, a yellow street light was attached to the edge of the stage, lighting up its edge and hinting at the darkness below. The scene in the British Museum was dominated by the dinosaur’s skeletal head and so on. Not only were they very effective in defining the scene, but they also allowed for the props to be moved very quickly without disrupting the dramatic flow. Moreover, they were excellent for promoting the comedy. In the first scene, Edwin is on his hands and knees scrubbing the toilet while Gloria rails against his lack of confidence. Later, in the scene set in Richard and Vivian’s apartment, a red chaise lounge is positioned in the centre of the stage, upon which Edwin and Vivian get to know each other more intimately, but under which Richard is hiding, squirming in embarrassment.

Likewise, van Bergen’s costumes were equally successful in highlighting the comedy and defining the characters. The extravagant, self-centered, superficial Gloria, for example, was brilliantly attired in zebra skin shoes and silvery white and black clothing, while Edwin’s costume was suitably forgettable.

However, much of the credit must also lie with the excellent performances of the singers, who worked exceptionally well as a team to bring out the full dramatic and comedic potential of the work. Each couple acted as a comedy duo: one singer played the straight actor, while the other concentrated on exaggerating and hamming up their behavior, precipitating the usual comedic dynamic. It was not, however, allowed to disrupt the underlying drama, which always remained the central focus.

Baritone Jitze van der Land in the role of Edwin played him as a weak, apologetic man who was prepared to suffer at the hands of his wife, the demanding Gloria. At least, he was until his confidence was bolstered by Vivian’s love. He possesses a voice with a pleasing timbre and sang clearly with a well-grounded voice, in which his emotions were always kept in check. He was a real Mr. Average!

At the opposite extreme was his wife Gloria, played by soprano Hannah Gries. She was an extreme character who hectored and badgered poor Edwin throughout the performance, and she was very good at it! Her piercing, cutting voice coped easily with the role’s high tessitura and successfully created a portrait of an emotionally unstable woman, verging on the hysterical. Her acting was wonderfully over-the-top and had the audience laughing out loud.

We first met Vivian while she was happily ironing clothes, which nicely summed up her character. She sees her role as supporting her husband, in this case, the ne’er-do-well Richard. Mezzo-soprano Rommie Rochell gave a convincing performance in which she successfully conveyed her increasing inner confidence as she transferred her affections to the responsive Edwin. She possesses a resonant, colorful voice with a pleasing degree of versatility, which she used intelligently to develop her character.

Tenor Theodor Uggla produced a strong performance as Richard. He began the performance with a confident swagger, lauding it over his wife. His voice was strong, firm, and assertive. However, as his position became more exposed, his superficial veneer began to crack, revealing a far weaker character. Uggla brilliantly crafted this transformation by altering the inflections in his voice, changing its emotional character, and adding screeches and screams, which made him appear as a distinctly forlorn specimen. He supported this with an excellent acting performance in which, like Gries, his exaggerated posing had the audience laughing out loud.

Daan Boertien accompanied the singers on the piano with an energetic, sensitively alert performance.

L’Isola Disabitata 

“L’Isola Disabitata,” written in 1779 to a libretto by Metastasio, is defined as an azione teatrale, a serious opera without any comic element. Dijkema, however, had other ideas.

The narrative concerns the plight of Costanza and her infant sister, Silvia, who find themselves alone on a desert island, having been shipwrecked there thirteen years earlier, along with Costanza’s husband, Gernando. Unfortunately, he was captured by pirates and has never been seen since. While Silvia, who has known nothing else, loves her life on the island, Costanza is tormented by grief, believing that Gernando had deliberately abandoned her. Things, however, are about to change.

Gernando and his friend, Enrico, have escaped their captivity and have just landed on the island and are searching for Costanza and Silvia.

The opera’s underlying theme concerns the relative influences of birth and upbringing on the development of one’s character. Lofty stuff, indeed! Dijkema’s approach, however, was to search out all the possibilities for introducing comedy into the drama, and he found many and set them alongside Costanza’s heartfelt emotions. It was a risky strategy; introducing comedy into a serious drama rarely succeeds, but in this case, it worked perfectly. On the one hand, Costanza’s grief and then the initial shock, followed by a loving reconciliation, was movingly captured, while on the other hand, Dijkema played up the adolescent Silvia’s total fascination with seeing a man for the first time in her life, and her hormone-driven behavior, unconstrained by the usual upbringing, led to many amusing scenes. Moreover, the idea of a desert island in itself is ideal for comedy, so that when they all leave the island in a little boat, which sails off around the upper floor balcony, it is chased by a shark.

Dijkema’s staging was once again simple, but effective. The floor of the stage was covered in rocks and what appeared to be black volcanic ash, which gave the impression that the island was not a hospitable place. Very little in the way of props was added. There was the boat and oars and some ropes to tie up Gernando, but little else. Yet the energy, movement, and commitment that the cast invested into their performances ensured that the audience was fully absorbed, lapping up the fun and frolicking while also sympathizing with Costanza.

Once again, van Bergen’s costume designs were suitably appropriate to the characters.

The musical director, Kenneth Montgomery, elicited a fabulous reading from The Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, in which its rhythmic and textural clarity caught the attention. The sheer sensitivity, vitality, and sheer musical beauty of the performance also delighted.

Delving deep into her emotional depths, mezzo-soprano Maria Warenberg made an impressive Costanza. Both her acting and singing convincingly brought out her character’s pain, suffering, and joy. Her presentation of her opening aria, “Se non piange un’infelice,” was particularly successful in establishing Costanza’s sense of loss, as she coated her lines with grief and despair, replete with colorful contrasts. The expressivity she is able to bring to her recitatives also displayed quality, as she filled the line with dynamic and emotional accents. There was nuance, urgency, and sensitivity in her performance. If there was one minor criticism, it was that in her determination to convince, her voice could, on occasion, sound harsh, which for the sake of dramatic strength was a price worth paying.

The noble Gernando was played by tenor Hugo Kampschreur. He possesses a firm voice with an attractive timbre, which he used successfully to deliver two pleasing-sounding arias and recitatives. All were beautifully molded and his singing lay easily on the ear. Unfortunately, everything was too one-paced, which meant his character Gernando ended up being rather flat. His voice has potential and he would benefit significantly from giving more attention to character development.

Soprano Sharon Tadmor, as the young adolescent Silvia, brilliantly captured the wonder and confusion of her sexual awakening upon seeing a man for the first time. Although it was done with more than a dash of comedy, which had the audience laughing along, it was a sympathetic and, essentially, believable portrait. It was also a performance that highlighted her pleasing vocal qualities. While the aria “Fra un dolce deliro” showed off her clear, bright, homogenous tone and thoughtful phrasing, her aria “Come il vapor s’ascende” displayed her vocal flexibility and control to good effect. Recitatives were lively and clearly articulated. Tadmor also possesses a strong stage presence and a flair for comedy.

Gernando’s friend Enrico was played by bass-baritone Fabian Homberg, who made a good impression. Although not the most malleable sounding of voices, his singing is resonant, forceful, and secure. The voice has a pleasing tone, which he used successfully in developing his character. His initial static reactions to Silvia’s attentions were quite amusing and worked well.

Two shipmates, both non-singing parts, played by Marcelo Alexandre and Filips Krauklis were involved in many of the comic parts and performed well.

Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable presentation. Each individual work was given an excellent performance, and together they produced a balanced program in which the two works by Haydn, separated by Krenek’s “What Price Confidence?,” ensured that there was a pleasing degree of contrast that forced the audience to refocus its attention and refresh its engagement after each piece. Dijkema’s direction was expertly crafted to bring out convincing performances from the singers while ensuring that each work was dramatically strong, and the students of the DNOA were of a high standard, one or two of which were impressive indeed.

What was particularly satisfying, however, was the program itself! How many full-time professional opera companies would perform one of these works, let alone an evening consisting of all three? Unfortunately, the answer is depressingly obvious.


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