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03 Aug 2005

ROSSINI: Equivoco Stravagante

A DVD performance of an opera may deserve recommendation for a single memorable performance, or because a rare work has finally been recorded, or simply for nostalgia's sake. How many DVDs primarily offer the pleasures of a witty, imaginative staging, done on a minimal budget?

Gioachino Rossini : L'Equivoco Stravagante

Olga Voznessenskaia, Vito Marino, Luciano Miotto. Orchestra del Conservatorio di Musica "G. B. Martini" di Bologna; Coro Philharmonica di Piacenza; Carmine Carrisi (cond.)

Kicco Classic KCOU9007 [DVD]


Francesco Esposito (director and designer) has created such a performance for this Kicco Music DVD. Some Rossiniites may have been praying for a chance to see the very early L'Equivoco Stravagante; one hopes to be forgiven for suggesting the clamor elsewhere could not have been so great. The libretto's one amusing feature, alluded to in the title, involves a scam meant to convince an older suitor that his intended bride is actually a male — a castrato. That plot point takes up most of the shorter act two; act one offers a more familiar set of scenes of young lovers struggling against the preemptory rights of age and money. In fact, that first act contains many eerie foreshadowing of Barbieri di Siviglia, including the tenor suitor's disguised entrance into the house of his beloved, aided by that home's servant.

The score cannot compete with that of the later masterpiece, but the music remains fresh and energetic throughout.

Esposito, working with a cast of no great distinction, manages to make the performance come to life, mainly through his clever design. No one would mistake this for a Metropolitan Opera production. Clearly the theater is small and the budget tight. Necessity has engendered much creativity, however. Three large frames, representing different rooms and/or locales, dominate the stage. Within each frame are carefully selected props that truly evoke the required milieu — the kitchen setting in act one, with realistic steam seeping through pot lids, serves as just one example.

Most importantly, Esposito has sought out ways to keep the stage picture as fresh as the energetic action. So that sometimes only one of the frames is used, or two at other times too. In some scenes the chorus appears behind a long row of smaller frames, making for am amusing row of portraits. Through a variety of approaches Esposito keeps the action moving and still manages to set the scene. It is very well done.

Viewers may differ on whether the occasional use of film deserves as much praise. The overture accompanies some mystifying antics involving a Rossini bust come to life. Later, as the buffoonish older suitor imagines with horror the supposed male he has been romancing, we see that character (mezzo-soprano Olga Voznessenskaia) with full beard, entertaining a bevy of nymphs. (this is before the "knife" — here scissors — but surely a bearded youth wouldn't have a voice worth preserving through such extreme measures!)

Similarly, including the audience seating area in the action smacks a bit of desperation for innovation. The general spirit of fun allows for a forgiving spirit, however.

If only that spirit could extend to the reaction to the singers. The older suitor, played by the youthful Luciano Miotto, is decent enough, both as actor and singer. The other two leads leave much to be desired. The tenor, Vito Martino, is the anti-Juan Diego Florez — having neither that great singer's charming appearance or sweet, fluid instrument. One can only imagine how much more rewarding this performance would be with a more effective tenor.

Voznessenskaia, the supposed castrato in love with the tenor and eager to escape the clutches of the "basso comico," possesses a dark, heavy contralto, which belies the supposed youthful femininity of the character in the first act. The second act masquerade might be more believable with such a voice. Suffice it to say, when this contralto and tenor get together, the resulting duet makes for some uncomfortable listening.

The DVD has one large demerit — the titles, at least in English, are even worse than usual. One may become accustomed to the typical DVD's odd spelling or wayward syntax. Here, however, the shoddy translation makes some of the story incomprehensible. Surely someone can do better than "A man without a head in his head" or "Life don't out of me!" On the other hand, sometimes the mangled English becomes quite poetic as the mezzo decries the "frenetic delirium of a pygmy thinker" and the basso worries that he is engaged to a cross-dresser with "a rock beneath the waves." Ouch!

A mixed bag, therefore. On a vocal level, this L'Equivoco Stravagante can't merit a recommendation. As an example of what a truly creative director can do under less than ideal circumstances, the DVD provides much to ponder, and even enjoy. And Francesco Esposito deserves credit for that.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Harbor College

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