Poor Beppe, chased mercilessly around stage by his broom-wielding, fist-swinging spouse.
The Linbury Studio’s latest opera production is, with exception, a musical triumph, driven by three strong character performances from the Royal Opera House’s superb Young Artists.
The simplicity of Thomas Guthrie‘s set allows the human drama to stand firmly and correctly at stage front.
The single set, a murkily lit bar with tiled floor and dingy red metal chairs, is dramatically serviceable and the direction of the principals is responsive and realistic, though this is realism with a distinct comic underbelly. The birdcage that hangs by the bar counter is an evident representation of the theme of entrapment, an idea so key in this farcical domestic tale.
Guthrie mirrors the movements of the principals with the actions of a group of darkly-clad extras: this does, at times, distract the eye from the thrust of the narrative, but the presence of others onstage adds visual depth to the scenas, while the lighting carefully responds to the story’s unravelling thread.
Top of the bill vocally is Anita Watson‘s Rita, the forceful, volatile wife, dominating her creeping husband. Watson possesses a pure, easy soprano, and every coloratura run, every roulade, every decoration is deployed to further her thoughtful, convincing and humorous characterisation. As the downtrodden husband Beppe, Haoyin Xue is scarcely less good. He has to push hard at the top, his tenor lacking the ease of delivery of, say, Juan Diego Flrez in the aria Allegro io son, but his even, smooth timbre consistently pleases the ear; Krzysztof Szumanski, as Gasparo, uncovers a resonant, rounded baritone. Even though there are no surtitles, the action emerges clearly, fluidly and understandably, the Italian libretto raising many laughs. The three vocal performers could hardly be bettered in terms of all round dramatic ability.
Conductor Andrew Griffiths draws from his orchestra (the Southbank Sinfonia) a rhythmically incisive, instrumentally detailed reading of Donizetti’s compelling score (especially of note is a melting concerted number near the opera’s conclusion), but coordination between pit and stage was, on opening night, far from perfect. Griffiths’ tendency to accelerate in cadential passages, impetuously and unnecessarily, was unkind to the singers. I was also concerned by the female woodwind player whose giggling fit lasted for the opera’s second half: the orchestra is exposed in this venue, and such unprofessional, distracting conduct was an insult to the tireless, committed work of every other instrumentalist.
Otherwise, this is an infrequently performed comic opera that is, here, given an intelligent, funny and engrossing performance. I highly recommend it.