Donizetti with a difference

Opera director Grischa Asagaroff puts his own spin on the comic opera ‘Don Pasquale.’

Opera (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
(photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
Grischa Asagaroff seems to be having a good time here. It is the German opera director's first working date with the Israeli Opera, and in-between rehearsals he is getting an impressive amount of sightseeing in.
“I was here once before and spent only one night in Tel Aviv, so it is good to spend more time in the city.
This time, I have been to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, as well as Masada. I also hope to go to Caesarea and Haifa and maybe Acre,” he says.
“There is a lot to see in Israel.”
The director also has a lot of work to get through as things heat up prior to the first performance of Donizetti's comic opera Don Pasquale on Tuesday, with nine more shows lined up until March 1. But Asagaroff feels he is in good hands.
“All the [Opera House] departments are very professional, and they are prepared ahead of time. Things are running smoothly,” he says.
Although this is his debut here, Asagaroff has already chalked up a long personal history with the Donizetti work.
“I directed it in Zurich in 1981, and I did it in London at Covent Garden in 1986, and then I did a new production in Zurich in 1997.
That's the production we have here now,” he says.
Asagaroff, not one to let grass grow under his feet, endeavors to address the raw material from a new perspective each time he works on an opera.
“I changed it. It is totally different now [compared with the 1981 production]. I was young then and totally inexperienced, and I had to work with the set design I was given,” he recounts. “The first really new production was in 1997, when I did it with [set and costume designer] Luigi Perego. We took a really new approach to the piece.
We changed the whole style of the house, and I think that was a good thing from the point of view of success with the audience. The set changes after the intermission, and I think that is necessary for this piece.”
Perego is the set and costume designer for the upcoming production as well.
Presumably, as a 20something opera director still damp behind the ears in 1981, Asagaroff was not going to try to radically stamp his authority on the proceedings at Covent Garden. But now, with his accrued professional and life experience, he has the confidence and knowledge to mold tried and tested operatic works to his own way of thinking.
“I like all the Donizetti operas,” he says. “I already did L'elisir d'amore and I did Maria Stuarda twice, and I had already done some operas by [Vincenzo] Bellini, so I was already into this style of comic works. And what also helped me was all my experience with all the Rossini operas I did.
But, then, with Don Pasquale, I wanted to find my own language, my own style.”
Professional experience and track record with Don Pasquale notwithstanding, the work can still present any director with some dome challenging moments, particularly in view of the fact that it is an action-packed opera. But the rapid plot transitions do not faze Asagaroff.
“I like that,” he declares. “I also like chorus action. That is not so much chorus singing, but the two chorus scenes are really good for the director. But you have to be inventive, and it takes a lot of work and time. But ultimately, the choir loves to do it. One scene is about two minutes, and the other is about six minutes, and there is a lot to do in these short pieces. But for me, it is fun to work with choirs. I learn a lot from it. I don't like to see choirs standing around and just singing.”
Opera, of course, can be a highly emotional experience for the audience, and one wonders whether the director's hand needs to maintain a tighter hold on the tiller when the work in question is action-packed.
“You have to pay attention to detail,” Asagaroff notes. “That is something I have learned over the years. You gain experience by doing Mozart and Rossini operas, and you learn not to overdo things.”
Naturally, an opera is also a work of music; and that, says the director, helps to keep him anchored.
“You have to work in the music,” he states. “That is not choreography, but you have to use the music for the movements, and really go with the music. I never in any of my operas went against the music. It's not my style at all.
Music leads me to my staging.”
That certainly helps with the project at hand.
“With Don Pasquale, it is good to do that because you have little stuff between things, so you have to use it [the musical interludes],” he says.
Although Asagaroff is new to the Israeli Opera, not everyone on board is new to him.
“I met [principal conductor] David [Stern] in Paris once when we were both working there on different things. We didn't work together, but we spent time together and got on very well. We agreed on the little details and the comic stuff, and we both don't want operas to be boring, and we pay attention to the little details. I feel very comfortable working with him,” he says.
Don Pasquale is a very entertaining comic opera, and with the likes of Asagaroff, Stern and Perego at the helm, a good time is surely guaranteed for all.
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