Like ‘a brightly coloured puppy chasing its tail’ is how the overture of this effervescent score has been described, bubbling along with youthful joy – and this can equally be applied to much of the rest of the piece. Written for Venice’s Teatro San Moisè in 1812, the overture has never been out of the repertoire and whilst complete performances of the complete opera are not uncommon, this was a welcome performance by the Jette Parker Young Artists in the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio, especially in light of it being the very first performance at the Royal Opera in over 200 years.
The original run notched up 12 performances and was the third of five farse written by Rossini for the little Venetian theatre that specialised in performances of one act operas. The libretto, based on a French opéra comique written in 1808, was criticised at the time for being too similar in plot to Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto but would obviously not be the last time that Rossini would write an opera that challenged a successful existing piece. As ever with Rossini, there are a few ‘I spy’ moments with several familiar tunes and motifs, whilst attentive listeners will be able to hear the tune of Lucilla’s aria, ‘Sento talor nell’anima’, again at Royal Opera House next April when Il turco in Italia gets revived.
A simple tale of clandestine marriage, confused identities, overheard conversations and eventual reconciliation, much of the action pivots around the simple-minded servant Germano, who talks quite a lot of nonsense in the concerted numbers and a lot more gibberish in the recitatives. Bizarrely, although the opera is cast in one act lasting less than 90 minutes, space was found for an interval, no doubt helping to fill ROH’s coffers by sending its audience to the bar.
The single set, designed by Holly Pigott, sufficed for the drama, containing a luxuriously laid out bed, playing on the role of the bedroom in 18th Century society, when the opera is set. One need only think of the elaborate ritual around the daily royal levée in France to get a sense of this. Within this, a discarded gift of flowers slowly grew throughout the evening until a blossoming tree stood in place, reaching delicately over the balcony above the bed. This elegant design was matched by period style clothing taken from the Royal Opera’s costume collection.
Director Greg Eldridge kept the action moving along with several amusing touches in set pieces such as Blansac purposely standing on Dorvil’s hand during the quartet that closed the first half, causing Dorvil to yelp using the contours of his vocal line in a dramatically satisfying manner. However, overall there was a lack of fizz and sparkle to the evening, both musically and as a result of the interpolated interval. Much better to have paired it with another one-act farsa and not necessarily one of Rossini’s, though British Youth Opera did pair this with il Signor Bruschino back in 2009.
The Southbank Sinfonia under conductor Jonathan Santagada played with mixed results. There was some fine cor anglais playing but the piccolos in ‘Sento talor’ were hesitant and there were some intrusive sounds from the horns. The middle strings in the overture tended towards scratching the notes and at the other end of the scale, gave too soporific an effect in the closing number ‘Dorme ognuno in queste soglie’. The dizzying scramble in the orchestra following the closing chorus was let down by some wrong notes and faulty intonation in the quirky yet mischievous jump down the stave. Ensemble work between the pit and stage was several times noticeably off, the end of the introduction and then ‘Io so ch’hai buon core’ for Giulia and Germano in particular. In general, there was an over reliance on rubato to make a statement, with phrases being slowed down then speeded up which became distracting.
As Giulia Lauren Fagan gave a charming characterisation, decently shrewish when berating Germano but equally exuding charm when taking advantage of him to do her bidding. Her voice was a richer sound for the role than can be cast (Luciana Serra and Olga Peretyatko have both taken on the role in Pesaro) thought her upper register often came across as dry and stretched. Timing, as already mentioned, came a bit unravelled in her first duet, giving an unnecessary jarring feel to the ending.
To keep the plot going, one does need a real buffo as Germano, which sadly was not Yuriy Yurchuk. He was too heavy footed and lacked spontaneity in characterisation, occasionally resorting to bleating the rapid notes required. He seemed to lose his way during the introduction but I am glad to say he did settle into the role somewhat and whilst his voice is more suited to Verdi than the oft’ light-footed demands of Rossini, he and James Platt as Blansac produced a good patter in the stretta of the quartet ‘Si che unito a cara sposa’. Though he doesn’t get an aria himself, Platt brought a much clearer and precise tone to his part and a gentle lyricism to his off-stage calls during the finale, as he called to Giulia from outside her balcony. Dressed in garish pink and with rouged cheeks he was very much the dandy but looked genuinely and genially amused at the number of people who end up in Giulia’s apartment, a ‘randevu in duecento’ indeed.
With the opera only containing eight numbers, arias are in short supply but both Dorvil and Lucilla get one each. As Lucilla, Anush Hovhannisyan sounded rather monochromatic in her aria, a pleasant mid-range but as with Fagan, a little thin toned at the top. She was uncomfortable in places, with a badly-executed descending chromatic line in the cadenza, however, her characterisation was suitably soubrette for the role of Giulia’s cousin.
Luis Gomes as the secret husband Dorvil, was impassioned and played the role with a twinkle in his eye but as with other cast members gave a curiously flat rendition, singing as if this was serious Donizetti rather than youthful scamp Rossini. The cabaletta of his aria ‘Vedrò qual sommo incanto’ was given a lighter touch though that was much more stylish. Despite an uncluttered set and good acting this was an oddly muted performance, which was more stray family pet in the alley than brightly coloured puppy.
Photos: Mark Douet/Royal Opera House