Written when he was just twenty, Rossini’s third opera La scala di seta (1812) is one of the five farsa comica that he composed at the start of his career. Set in eighteenth century Paris across a single day, it concerns the illicit relationship of Giulia and Dorvil, secretly married before the curtain rises: Dorvil visits her room each night by climbing the silken ladder of the title.
The trouble is that Giulia’s tutor Dormont has arranged for her to marry the country lord Blansac, even though he has a reputation as a womanizer and is actually desired by Giulia’s cousin Lucilla. Following a series of shenanigans and confusions, many of which result from the servant Germano misinterpreting the situation, a happy ending ensues when Giulia and Dorvil confess the truth and Blansac accepts Lucilla.
In placing so much emphasis on a ladder as a device for keeping people out or conversely holding them where they are, the opera pre-empts Il barbiere di Siviglia, but the finale looks back to Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro in the way in which every character enters the scene, most of them under false pretences. This first ever production of the opera at Covent Garden is presented by the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, and if anyone needed proof that it is as much about nurturing conducting and directing as it is singing talent, this would provide it. The staging is thoughtful and effective, and in overcoming one very practical problem it introduces a plethora of interesting insights and touches.
The action has to occur in a bedroom that can be arrived at by ascending a ladder, and yet the Linbury Studio, unlike the Royal Opera House’s main stage, is not suited to having full sets standing halfway up its height. The ingenious solution of director Greg Eldridge and designer Holly Pigott is to invert everything by placing the bedroom on the stage floor and have everyone descend the ladder from on high to reach it. This would not work so well if the set were designed to be taken entirely literally, but by using it to emphasise a series of points it prevails handsomely. By letting Giulia’s chamber with its sumptuous bed take centre stage in every way we are really invited to become voyeurs. The stage is relatively bare but the careful positioning of a few props offers all of the required opportunities for hiding, while keeping the area uncluttered enough to enable the farce to dominate.
The ladder itself is represented in a variety of ways. During the hilarious overture, in which the story’s background is played out, fabrics knotted together are toyed with as Giulia and Dorvil roll about the bed before ducking behind its curtains. After this, however, the bedroom is entered and exited during the first half via an alternative secret tunnel that lies behind a painting of Giulia positioned on the headboard.
A sprig is also placed among the sheets that after the interval blossoms into a full tree. In the second half this, in effect, constitutes the ladder with people appearing on a balcony set above the bed and then descending the tree into the room. This provides much commentary on the blossoming of love, but since this ‘ladder’ is entirely organic, it introduces the nature versus society debate that lies at the heart of many an opera. The implication is that true love represents the natural, wholesome state of affairs, and should always be allowed to triumph over the corrupting forces of societal expectation and hierarchy.
The Southbank Sinfonia is strongly conducted by Jonathan Santagada, while the cast is excellent with each performer really growing as the evening wears on. The few weaknesses there were in any of their performances on opening night appeared to derive largely from nerves, and so may well be eliminated in subsequent performances.
Lauren Fagan is a sumptuously voiced Giulia, with excellent enunciation and a smooth, rounded sound that also proves capable of hitting the ethereal heights required by her arias. Luis Gomes has real presence and an engaging tenor, so that the few signs of strain he occasionally shows when he goes full throttle only make his performance all the more exciting as we really feel him giving it his all. He skilfully captures both the dashing hero and the figure who looks awkward as he is forced to descend to such ignominious depths as hiding under dummies that sport women’s frocks. He also makes the subtexts very clear to grasp as his mouth proclaims one emotion, but his darting eyes suggest another.
Yuriy Yurchuk as Germano struggles a little in one early duet, but as the evening progresses he gives both a powerful vocal and stirring dramatic performance. Anush Hovhannisyan is an impressive Lucilla, her voice capable of being as subtle as it is vibrant, James Platt is simply a class act as Blansac, while the only note of regret with Samuel Dale Johnson’s Dormont is that the part is not bigger so that we can hear more of him.