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Matilde di Shabran ROH 2008 [Photo by Catherine Ashmore]
19 Nov 2008

Matilde di Shabran at Covent Garden

The rare Rossini opera which brought Juan Diego Flórez to international attention in Pesaro in 1996 was thrown together by the composer at the last minute to meet a deadline in February 1821, with a plot from one source and characters from another, and bits of the score filled in by Pacini.

G. Rossini: Matilde di Shabran

Aleksandra Kurzak (Matilde Di Shabran), Juan Diego Florez (Corradino), Mark Beesley (Raimondo), Vesselina Kasarova (Edoardo), Marco Vinco (Aliprando), Alfonso Antoniozzi (Isidoro), Enkelejda Shkosa (Contessa D'Arco), Carlo Lepore (Ginardo), Robert Anthony Gardiner (Egoldo), Bryan Secombe (Rodrigo). The Royal Opera. Carlo Rizzi, conductor.

Above: Aleksandra Kurzak as Matilde di Shabran and Juan Diego Flórez as Corradino [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of The Royal Opera House]


Musically and structurally, it is unusual; not only does the first act last over two hours, with a full forty-five minutes before either of the major principals put in an appearance, but there's barely a solo aria in the piece; the score consists almost entirely of duets and ensembles. At Covent Garden over a decade later, the prospect of such an opera (mounted as a star vehicle for Flórez) was enough to provoke a certain amount of trepidation despite the house being sold out months in advance.

But the opera's principal message is a familiar one: no man stands a chance when pitted against a talented and resourceful woman. It's an idea reminiscent of two of the composer's better-known operas, L'italiana in Algeri and Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Matilde drives the point home so unequivocally that rather than feeling formulaic it comes across at times as a Rossinian self-parody. The characters are two-dimensional and limited in range, especially Flórez's character, the tyrannical Corradino whose motiveless misogyny is such that he barricades himself away from the world to avoid having to deal with women, but who melts like a lovesick puppy the second he's confronted by the feisty Matilde. There's plenty of catty business between Matilde and the Contessa d'Arco (the noblewoman with her own legitimate claim on Corradino), pathos from Corradino's young prisoner Edoardo and the father who is searching for him, and a convenient ending made possible by the verbal cunning of an omnipresent itinerant poet called Isidoro.

As Matilde comprehensively conquers the war-hungry Corradino, so the young Polish soprano, Aleksandra Kurzak, upstaged the mega-star tenor whose availability was responsible for the opera's rescue from obscurity. Kurzak brought an air of confident modernity to Rossini's heroine, with a pert, confident stage presence and pinpoint accuracy in the fiendish coloratura which she delivered with a crystalline tone. The flexibility in Flórez's upper register was as show-stopping as ever, but the small size of his voice was shown up by the strength of the female leads (not just Kurzak, but Enkelejda Shkosa as a fiery Contessa d'Arco) and he sounded a little dry at times. His music just doesn't have the same potential as the women's; he's not even destined to be the voice that stays in the memory at the end of the night, as Matilde concludes with a triumphant rondo a show in which Corradino has had no real solo at all.

Matilde_723.pngCarlo Lepore as Ginardo, Alfonso Antoniozzi as Isidoro and Juan Diego Flórez as Corradino [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of The Royal Opera House]

In the trouser-role of Edoardo, Vesselina Kasarova was disappointing, her top register sounding disjointed from the rest of her voice, though it's always a warm sound, and the reunion with father Raimondo (Mark Beesley) was very affecting – a serious sub-plot in an opera which is otherwise a sharp comedy. Alfonso Antoniozzi was endearing as the poet Isidoro, and those in the minor roles all contributed to a surprisingly well-integrated ensemble performance considering the opera's hybrid pedigree.

Mario Martone's production was constrained by Sergio Tramonti's austere set design, consisting of two enormous concentric spiral staircases snaking up into the flies, and a ramp leading up to an aperture at the back. Though it gave three dimensions to the movement on stage, it was excessively limiting, not to mention colourless. It was left to the principal singers to maintain interest throughout a long evening, a feat which they more than achieved with snappy assistance from Carlo Rizzi in the pit. But really – with this classy a vocal cast – it would have worked just as well as a concert.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

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