21 Sep 2011

The Italian Girl in London, Bampton Classical Opera

As one of the most successful Italian opera composers of the late-eighteenth century, Domenico Cimarosa’s reputation lasted well into the following century during which his operas were staple repertoire in all the major European opera houses.

Revered by artists and intellectuals, he was (according to an informative programme essay) considered by Delacroix to be superior to Mozart, while Stendhal asserted that his genius was equal to that of Raphael!

Nowadays, Cimarosa is best known primarily for his comic masterpiece, Il matrimonio segreto (The Secret Marriage). However, once again Bampton Classical Opera have delved into the archives and located another melodious, charming gem richly deserving of a wider audience.

Covering a single day during a time of war, and set in a London hotel, The Italian Girl in London is a typically daft buffa tale of muddle, misunderstanding and mayhem. Resident are an eclectic bunch of Europeans: an eminently sensible, if self-righteous, Dutchman, Sumers; Don Polidoro, an ardent Italian; and the morose English aristocrat, Milord Arespingh — their needs catered for by the √©migr√© Italian hostess, Madama Brillante, assisted by her French waitress, Henriette. The foreign visitors find English manners and customs baffling, but despite their national differences, all three men are equally entranced by the captivating Henriette. In fact, ‘Henriette’ is actually Livia — formerly affianced to, and jilted by, Milord, who has been ordered by his father to marry the ghastly Diana. Polidoro is the object of Madama’s own amorous attentions, but she is determined to embarrass him for his infatuation with Livia. So, she explains that the girl can make herself invisible using a magic bloodstone, and tricks him into making amorous advances to thin air. Meanwhile, Sumers has learned of Milord’s forthcoming marriage and resolves to protect Livia from the inappropriate attentions of others. The protagonists lurch from one melodrama to the next: the deluded Polidoro searches for his own bloodstone in order to advance his courtship with Livia; driven to despair by thoughts of a life with Diana, Milord demands that the Italian spares him his fate by running him through with a sword; Livia is arrested (a ruse intended by her father to prevent her running away from home), before the chivalrous Sumers comes to her rescue. Inevitably, there is a sentimental resolution to the pandemonium: the puzzles are solved, the disorder dispelled, and both lovers and nations celebrate peaceful reconciliations.

Following fully staged performances earlier this season at Bampton, Westonbirt and at the Buxton Festival, Bampton Classical Opera presented the opera at St. John’s Smith Square with only costumes and minimal props to recreate the Victory Bar at the down-at-heel ‘Nelson Hotel’; a Rubik Cube (which fascinates but defeats the dim-witted Milord) and a rack of Charles & Di postcards serve to establish the year, 1982. At Buxton sets and staging were wittily deployed to complement the entertaining translation by Jeremy Gray and Gilly French, and this visual humour was missed, especially in the barmy finale to Act 1. Perhaps some side flats would have helped, but, although the stage business was necessarily quite limited given the restrictions of the St. John’s performing space, the young cast did succeed in conjuring up a frothy, sunny atmosphere — although the nautical cutlasses were more anachronistic when drawn from the umbrella stand than they had been when plucked from a wall display of maritime memorabilia!

_MG_9513.pngThe finale of Act I

Although the commedia dell’arte stereotypes are rather two-dimensional, focused acting from the whole cast quickly established strong characterisation: Nicholas Merryweather demonstrated a typically sharp appreciation of comic timing and gesture, and Adam Tunncliffe made much of the rather ‘flat’ role of Sumers, engaging the audience’s attention effectively in well-acted, focused recitatives. He demonstrated a flexible, pleasing tenor as he introduced a much-needed touch of sobriety into the inane proceedings. Even the silent roles — Rosa French, as the hotel’s gum-chewing maid, and director Jeremy Gray, attempting to restore order with his police officer’s hand-cuffs — contributed considerably to the capers and drolleries.

The singers enjoyed Cimarosa’s graceful, shapely vocal lines; while there is little flamboyant coloratura, the well-crafted phrases do allow for textual clarity, and diction was uniformly clear. Merryweather excelled in this regard; moreover, he charmingly varied his tone to indicate the passionate Italian’s whims and wiles — his crafty whispered asides, with perfect intonation and crisp enunciation, were particularly impressive. As a poised and dignified Livia, Irish soprano Kim Sheehan produced a pleasing round tone, never strident at the top, and conveyed tender pathos when destined for imprisonment.

Bass Robert Winslade Anderson (Milord) seemed a little hesitant at first, and on occasion strayed from conductor Thomas Blunt’s beat, but to be fair, placed in front of the orchestra and without a monitor to aid them, all the cast had to work hard in this regard. And, in an explosive jealous outburst in his Act 2 aria, Anderson presented a confident portrait of blustering pomposity, making excellent use of the text to develop characterisation. As the knowing, worldly Madama Brillante, Caryl Hughes’ Act 2 cavatina was particularly lively and bright.

Placed centrally on raked staging behind the singers, Bampton Classical Orchestra delivered a neat, precise performance, understated and accurate, never overwhelming the young voices. Textures were elegant, articulation appropriately nimble, and Charlotte Forrest’s continuo accompaniments were elegantly decorative. Blunt judged the tempi well, particularly in the galloping Act-finales; after a series of solo arias he confidently led cast and players as the momentum accumulated towards the cheerful, buoyant conclusion.

Claire Seymour