The opening night of this, the second revival of Caurier and Leise’s flat-out farcical staging of Rossini’s 1814 opera, was the fifteenth performance the work has had in the house since its local premiere in 2005. There was a revival five years later, in 2010: and now, five years on from that, we get to reacquaint ourselves with what at times tonight sounded like some very old friends indeed. Of the five principal roles – which is stretching a point: the poet/author Prosdocimo has no formally structured solo lyric utterance of his own – four were the same as last time; and a slightly different four were the same as the time before that. Indeed, three of tonight’s soloists – Thomas Allen, Alessandro Corbelli and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo – have sung in every single performance given in the house so far. At this rate it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if we were all back in Bow St. in 2020 for another revival-cum-reunion. And to think people claim that ensemble opera is dead!

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One clear advantage of the degree of interpersonal familiarity such long pre-history predicates amongst the cast is the easy give-and-take of the extensive recitativo secco passages of dialogue – none of it by Rossini, by the way: but then, nor is any of it in Il barbiere or La Cenerentola either, so don’t fret unduly – which emerged here sounding as natural as if it had been speech, at a pace dictated entirely by the fluidity of the dramatic moment. But one clear disadvantage, from the auditors’ point of view, is the unsparing clarity with which any vocal decline is detectable. Five years can be a very long time indeed in some vocal careers – indeed, in certain cases, constitutes the whole of it – and I can’t pretend that its passage hasn’t taken its toll on Messrs. Allen, Corbelli and Banks (the latter pair the original Don Geronio and Narciso). In particular, the tenor’s account of “Tu seconda il mio disegna” is now relatively parched-sounding and certainly more effortful than it was in 2005 (Colin Lee sang it in 2010). And whilst Corbelli remains the best buffo caricato in the business, this is increasingly the result of his purely theatrical as opposed to vocal skills. Still, their Act I trio “Un marito scimunito” skittered along nicely, if without much juice, and given that between them they must have been in the business for over a hundred years – quite literally, I think you’ll find – any vocal deterioration can be fairly readily excused, if not entirely overlooked.

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Happily, no excuses need be made for Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Selim, the titular Turk, who may well have first come to my attention vocally in 1990, but who, 25 years on, sounds (and most certainly looks) untouched by time’s insidious little incursions, singing with perfectly even emission and the same rich, fat, dark tone he’s always had, and flinging himself around the stage as enthusiastically as ever. Less happily, and with no obvious or evident excuses to offer by way of accounting for it, Aleksandra Kurzak’s voice is starting to show distinct signs of wear-and-tear, raw and almost unsupported in alt. and with an incipiently screamy quality that was only too evident in last year’s Gildas, there redeemed in large part by her quite magnificent death scene, but here not entirely salvaged by her pert slut routine, just as funny and hard-edged as it was last time, but quite without Cecilia Bartoli’s Fiorilla’s underlying tenderness and depth-of-feeling in 2005. So although her Act I aria “Non si dà follia maggiore”, setting out her matrimonial Credo that there is no greater folly than faithfulness, went well enough, Kurzak’s Fiorilla’s natural stage ebullience is no longer equalled and amplified by her actual singing, some of which sounds to me unpleasantly edgy. And the altogether different demands of her big Act II showpiece “Squallida veste e bruna” – so why she sports a mid-blue dress rather than a dark brown one I’d love to know – are alas not altogether met, the point at which the comedy starts to bite and the feelings turn real finding her without the vocal resources to realise the deeper emotional response. That this is the same singer who, little more than six years ago in this house, virtually sang Juan Diego Flórez off the stage in Mathilde de Shabran stikes me as depressing, and gives me no pleasure to report. But there it is. I now view her half of the run of Lucia di Lammermoor next season with more trepidation than anticipation, which is sad state of affairs to have arrived at in such a short period.

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The two vocal newcomers to this ensemble, Rachel Kelly and Luis Gomes, are both current members of the house’s Jette Parker young artists scheme, given the sort of comprimario roles that can get you noticed, without upsetting the apple cart if it’s for the wrong reasons. Kelly as Selim’s abandoned Zaida struck me as excellent, a rich, warm, even mezzo with some glints of steel, who, if she can handle coloratura, should make a fabulous Isabella (in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, Il Turco’s gender-swapped mirror-image). And the diminutive Luis Gomes did what he could with what’s left of the part of Albazar – his Act II aria, admittedly not by Rossini, was cut – rushing around laden with luggage. The third newcomer tonight was the conductor, Evelino Pidò (Adam Fisher led in 2005, Maurizio Benini in 2010). Here I don’t think we struck quite so lucky: certainly Benini exhibited much more sparkle and drive, even if the brass disgraced themselves in the overture and elsewhere under him. Here, they were on best behaviour (for once), credit for which could I suppose be laid at Pidò’s door. But I was more aware than in either of the previous runs of longueurs, especially in the second act, which can only be down to the conducting. The “disco” scene in particular just sort of sat there, whilst the exigencies of the who’s-who-in-disguise plot slowly unfolded, inert and interminable (perhaps also partly due to Caurier and Leise’s absence from this revival, instead rehearsed by the “other” Richard Jones, the one with “Gerard” in the middle).

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What most certainly didn’t help this, or indeed any other, scene of mild sitcom intrigue was the cohort of comped-in coach-trade, who yapped, gurgled, screeched and hyperventilated (and snored) throughout, but only laughed at the visual slapstick and, bizarrely, the blamelessly literal surtitles, which for some reason they found to be a source of constant semi-hysteria, including such deathless comedic pearls as “I’ll punch you in the face”. Cue eldritch cackling otherwise never heard outside of amateur provincial productions of Macbeth. Go figure. House management tells me this is a typical Saturday night audience (!?!). D’avvero? Well, you have been warned.

I actually think it a great shame this staging has never been filmed or transmitted live, either when brand new – Bartoli was astonishing – or first revived – when Kurzak was in resplendent voice – because the available competition is very poor, including Bartoli’s Zurich show, not a patch on this one. This revival is just a smidge tired-looking and frayed around the edges comparatively (as is much of the singing), lacking energy and sharp theatrical focus, with too many sluggish scene changes, though I’d be the first to admit that at least this aspect of things this may well perk up as the run progresses: but even if it didn’t, it would still merit preserving on film. Not that the endlessly referenced Fellini has anything at all to do with it (for all that the voluminously busty woman falling out of a green angora cardigan at the end has clearly wandered in from Amarcord). This staging is a stylised day-glo colour romp – sets, Christian Fenouillat, costumes, Agostino Cavalca, the Caurier & Leise go-to guys – played as flat-out Neapolitan frantic farce, whereas La dolce vita, which the programme manages to go on and on about as some sort of intellectual and visual inspiration – both insultingly and very ignorantly – is a slow black-and-white meditation on anomie, existential ennui and death, set in Rome: not exactly Rossini’s stock-in-trade. Oh well, never mind: it’s not as if you could reasonably expect the experts who contribute to the ROH’s programme books to know what they’re talking about, now could you?

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If this had been the last revival five years ago, I’d have given it at least 4*. As it stands, this one doesn’t really merit much more than 3*, though with two provisos: one, it may well improve; and two, there may never be another chance to see this opera at the ROH again (they must be tired of never being able to sell-out anything other than bog-standard mainstream Puccini, Wagner or Verdi, and having to do all manner of “deals” with everything else) so it’s well worth attending while you can. The opera itself is a delight, cleverly combining proto-Pirandellian meta-theatricality (in the shape of Prosdocimo’s authorial musings) with commedia dell’arte archetypes (flighty wife Fiorilla, cuckolded husband Geronio, cicisbeo suitor Narciso: you’ll meet them all again, to rather grimmer effect, in Pagliacci) all wrapped up in some of Rossini’s most delicious and irresistible music, written when he was precisely 22. Go, and if your ears aren’t burdened with superior memories as mine are (increasingly) you may well have a better time of it than I did.

3 stars

Stephen Jay-Taylor

(Photos : Clive Barda / ROH website)

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