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Domenico Cimarosa
04 Jun 2008

Il Matrimonio Segreto in Brooklyn

Opera producers in quest of headlines, unable to make them from the limited number of Mozart operas available (all of them far too familiar) but equipped with the flood of attractive young singers trained to sing Mozart in conservatories (because singing Mozart does not harm young voices, and singing Verdi and Wagner before 30 — better yet, 40 — often will), sometimes turn to Mozart’s contemporary, Cimarosa, and his Il Matrimonio Segreto, to get attention.

Domenico Cimarosa: Il Matrimonio Segreto
BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) Harvey Theater, performance of May 30.

Carolina: Heidi Stober, Elisetta: Georgia Jarman, Fidalma: Fredrika Brillembourg, Paolino: Chad A. Johnson, Il conte Robinson: Jonathan Best, Geronimo: Conal Coad. Members of the Brooklyn Philharmonic conducted by Paul Goodwin. Directed by Jonathan Miller.


The piece is obscure enough to be news (outside music schools, it’s rarely given more than once in twenty years). None of its arias or ensembles are especially well known (or worthy of that distinction), but all are pleasant enough to pass the time, and the whole piece is so sprightly that at the world premiere, after a celebratory banquet, the emperor said, “Sing me an encore. In fact, do the whole piece again” — and they did. (This is the same emperor who hadn’t much cared for Clemenza di Tito a few months before.)

Myself, still unable to hum any of Matrimonio after four exposures over the years, I’d prefer a bolder choice: Paisiello, Martin y Soler, Salieri, Simone Mayr. They all wrote light operas (and not so light operas) for the same discriminating audience as Mozart and Cimarosa, and their works, famous then, are far less well known today. I’ve heard several, all worthy. Too, like Cimarosa, they tell us interesting things about why Mozart stands out from the pack, and where Rossini and the future of Italian opera came from.

Matrimonio Segreto is a cross between the buffo tradition (its characters are traditional commedia dell’ arte figures) and the comedy of manners — the libretto was derived from Garrick’s play The Clandestine Marriage. When, in Jonathan Miller’s production (devised for Glyndebourne in 1992, but cheap to revive), Colin Coad as Girolamo, with his buffo belly, confronts Simon Best as Lord Robinson, with his aristocratic English slouch, we know just where we are: that feature of both genres, two pompous fellows fiercely at cross purposes. Mozart had set such moments; Rossini and Donizetti would make capital of them as well. Money, honor, snobbery and love contend for victory, and honor gets the worst of it, as usual. That might be the difference between tragedy and comedy: in the former, affronts to honor end in bloodshed; in the latter, they produce laughter. Only a genius like Mozart could mix these genres and produce delight.

Miller’s production has the virtue of simplicity — taken to excess, in that a unit set (in a highly unattractive color for the residence of a wealthy man hoping to catch a noble son-in-law) does not really serve the plot’s situations well. Miller has chosen to go for knockabout comedy (lustful lady jokes, burp jokes) at the expense of other considerations, and far too much of the laughter was due to the excessive colloquialism of the surtitles — but the purpose is to entertain, and the time goes swiftly. (I did enjoy the moment — at the height of the plot’s confusion, with all the characters yelling at once — when the English milord peeped up at the titles to find out what on earth was going on.)

In brief: A wealthy old merchant, Girolamo, has two daughters; his secretary, Paolino, hopes to arrange an aristocratic marriage for the elder, snobby Elisetta, so that the old man will be pleased enough to approve Paolino’s marriage to the younger, pretty Carolina — which marriage has already taken place, secretly. But when Lord Robinson arrives, he falls for Carolina himself and refuses to take Elisetta, even offering to forgo a dowry. Adding to the confusion, Girolamo’s rich, widowed sister, Fidalma, has a thing for Paolino. The confusion is somehow drawn out for two melodious acts (you can see just where Desi and Lucy would put the commercials), whereupon Lord R, checking the surtitles, declares he so loves Carolina that, to ensure her happiness, he will marry her sister. As you can see: many opportunities for duets and trios at cross-purposes are present. But Rossini had not yet invented the grand buffo concertato, so Cimarosa’s scenes do not conclude with those satisfying explosions of mutual confusion and recrimination that seem so typically buffo to us.

The experienced but little known cast of the BAM performances gave pleasure as both singers and actors. Heidi Stober’s was the only name familiar to me — her sweet soprano (and face and figure) were all that a Carolina requires, but her voice also has a velvet, caressing quality that could take her places. Georgia Jarman sang the more bravura role of Elisetta, whose jilted hopes produce flights of parody-heroic coloratura in the manner of Donna Elvira. The voice is pretty, the flounces effective, but her ornamentation was not as precise as I’d have liked. Fredrika Brillembourg sang the thankless part of Aunt Fidalma, but her attractive and easy mezzo and stately figure suggest she would be impressive as Handel’s Cornelia or Mozart’s Sesto.

The comedians — whose lengthy resumes suggest long but insular careers — expertly inhabited the pretensions and asininities required of buffo clowns. Coad’s Girolamo, a father only a buffo heroine could love (and no one could obey), bristled and strutted and held down the bass line. Jonathan Best seemed — appropriately for an English milord in an Italian opera — to have strayed out of his natural element, tossing bits of stage Brit slang into the recitative and even the duets, and staring about the theater bemused as if he couldn’t imagine where he was. His Briticisms were well received, as was the sheer fun he seemed to be having, whether he was flirting with the right girl or the wrong. Chad A. Johnson, the Paolino, listed quite an array of lead roles in his program bio, but his wispy tenor did not seem worthy of any of them. Happily his role is the least important in the opera, and he may have been suffering from the pollen-ridden atmosphere.

Paul Goodwin got a pick-up bunch of musicians from the Brooklyn Philharmonic into unflaggingly lively shape for a pit band. The only awkwardness came from the timpani, off pitch and far too assertive (had there been no time to test balances in the tiny Harvey Theater?) during the opera’s delicious overture. This was most regrettable but, happily, the drums are not heard again after the curtain rises: they proclaim a portentous evening and then do not take part in it.

John Yohalem

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