Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Matilde de Shabran @ Royal Opera House, London

23, 27, 31 October 3, 6, 11 November 2008

Matilde de Shabran

Matilde de Shabran (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

If an opera’s had to wait since 1854 for a revival there’s usually a pretty good reason why, or in the case of Rossini’s third-rate Matilde de Shabran a whole host of reasons. Creaky plot, instantly forgettable tunes and a two-hour long first act that seems twice as long and far less exciting than Elektra explain why we’ve had to wait 150 years.

It seems highly unlikely that we’ll see this tedious opera, about a misogynist baddie (Corradino) who falls for the feminine charms of Matilde, again for a very long time and that’s just how it should be as operas don’t come more risible than this. Not only is the plot full of holes and unresolved loose threads that really aren’t worth explaining here, but the music is made up of such mind-numbingly dumb rum-ti-tum-ness that sitting through it all became something of an ordeal. Carlo Rizzi and the orchestra deserve some sort of accolade for getting through it, although the playing was often too loud, and fairly coarse in places (maybe this accounted for the few isolated boos accorded Rizzi at the final curtain).

Saddled with a production that harkened back to the days of opera production that I hoped were long dead and buried which included endless posturing, mugging and woefully inadequate blocking and stagecraft, Mario Martone’s effort was simply a mess. Having the chorus and various soloists entering through the stalls not only made for imperfect balance but rendered them invisible to many parts of the house. It was all very embarrassing and very panto (Morecambe Pier circa 1978). The production was imported from Pesaro, so was hopefully a lot cheaper than the Royal Opera creating their own, although I couldn’t help fantasising what one of the Aldens would have made of the work.

One might argue that all of the above was merely a backdrop for the whole raison d’etre of presenting Matilde, namely a vehicle for Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez. Maybe, but it seems silly for the Royal Opera to lower its dramatic credentials purely to accommodate a singer, however world class he or she may be, especially as those credentials are so uniformly high these days. Flórez didn’t disappoint his fans, indeed he was applauded when he made his first appearance a heinous practice that I sincerely hope doesn’t take off this side of the Atlantic.

This was my first experience of him in the theatre and I was taken aback by how small his voice is. Yes, he projects well and he punches out the staccato in the fiendishly difficult coloratura writing better than anyone else these days, but to begin with he was barely audible above the orchestra. When he sang fortissimo we really got the money notes but as Rossini doesn’t deliver Corradino any particularly show-stopping arias, there was a feeling of being short-changed. Flórez is musical to a fault but the jury’s out until he appears as Almaviva later in the season.

Ironically the vocal honours went to Aleksandra Kurzak who after many promising appearances in the House, finally revealed her true Diva-status with her wonderfully acted and thrillingly sung assumption of the title role. She held the stage whenever she was on it and produced such technically flawless singing, especially in the almost impossibly fiendish coloratura, that she rightly brought the house down. Vesselina Kasarova was outstanding in the trouser role of Edoardo but the supporting cast was decidedly mixed.

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