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Nicola Said as Rosaura [Photo ©Guildhall School / Clive Barda]
05 Nov 2015

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: Le donne curiose

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari was one of the Italian composers of the post-Puccini generation (which included Licinio Refice, Riccardo Zandonai, Umberto Giordano and Franco Leoni) who struggled to prolong the verismo tradition in the early years of the twentieth century.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: Le donne curiose

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Nicola Said as Rosaura

Photos ©Guildhall School / Clive Barda

 

Wolf-Ferrari is better known today, though, for his series of operas in the spirit of, or directly derived from, the plays of Carlo Goldoni — the first of which was Le donne curiose (1903). And, on this occasion, this battle-of-the-sexes comedy of manners was performed by the opera students of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama which a responsiveness to Goldoni’s ‘world’ the equal of the composer’s own buffa sensibility.

12185056_10153276853566365_1922522312554075300_o.pngMilan Siljanov as Arlecchino

The scenario of Le donne curiose, or ‘The Inquisitive Women’ (libretto, Luigi Sugana), is somewhat dated, though. A gaggle of gossiping girls is obsessed by what goes on behind the doors of the gentleman’s club which is frequented by their husbands and fiancés. Its strict ‘no women admitted’ policy fuels their frustration and their imaginations. Beatrice, wife of Ottavio, believes the club is a gambling den; Lelio’s spouse, Eleonora, is convinced that the men are indulging in occult practices and alchemy. Rosaura is tormented by the idea that her betrothed, Florindo, is frequenting a house of ill repute; Colombina, whose dark glasses and trench-coat suggests that she’s watched too many episodes of Colombo, is sure she’s solved the mystery — they are digging for hidden treasure. Instead, over a pizza and pint, the men are simply seeking peace from the ladies’ chattering, and congratulating themselves on their male Amicizia, or friendship — as celebrated in the club’s slogan. Thus, when the insatiable sinner-seekers connive a way inside and find their men doing nothing more debauched or outlandish than sharing the feast that Pantalone has served up to celebrate the imminent marriage of Florindo and Rosaura, it’s a bit of an anti-climax for them, and for us. There’s not nearly as much comic business, particularly in the final Act, as one might expect. When their espionage is discovered, embarrassment replaces prurience; they beg for forgiveness and the magnanimous males oblige.

Goldoni’s plays and libretti blend contemporary wit with the masks, mode and improvised mayhem of the commedia dell’arte; director Stephen Barlow and his designer Yannis Thavoris translate Le donne curiose to the almost-present, combining the stock characterisation of commedia — miserly merchants, foolish old men, pedantic wind-bags and wily servants — with the cheerful vulgarity of a 1970s sit-com.

We glide into Venice — the home of the commedia — down the Grand Canal, courtesy of Dom Baker’s screen-credit video designs which ingeniously transform Thames Television’s London-landmark logo into a Venetian waterside vista of palazzi and vaporetti. (Baker is a student on BA Technical Theatre Arts at GSMD.) Against this baroque Venetian backdrop, the cast are presented to us in a series of ‘opening credits’, grinning and preening like day-time soap-opera stars. This raised guffaws but did distract somewhat from some stylish playing in the pit during the overture (which was a shame, as there was good ensemble and some brave playing by the horns).

Yannis Thavoris’ sets are colourful and characterful. The bold orange, yellow and brown concentric circle designs, the shag carpet-rug, the bright chrome and plastic furniture, garish lamps, and finally the huge white-leather semi-circular sofa arrangement of the gentleman’s club re-create the height of 1970s (bad) taste. The dark-stained cabinets, extended Formica counters, combo oven/range and the clashing décor of avocado green and burnt orange would have delighted Fanny Craddock.

A tacky souvenir shop is the ‘front’ for the club, the latter signalled only by the symbolic over-sized key-hole in the centre of a rear door. Tourists (members of the Guildhall Chorus) wander through to flick through post-cards and gawp at the Carnival masks and strip gondoliers’ shirts that hang from the walls. The club interior is a shrine to boys’ toys — football and fast cars, motorbikes and music idols: the characters sport an eclectic array of costumes indicating diverse musical tastes from Frank Zappa to the Bee Gees. There’s a fantastic coup de theatre in the final Act: as the women jostle each other to peer through the keyhole, the whole set swivels and in the blink of an eye outside becomes inside. On the whole, the set is brightly lit, which makes the dimmer, duskier moments more arresting. Ottavio’s misery in Act 2, aggravated by the women’s schemes to get him to remove his jacket so they can filch his keys — machinations which result in him being doused in wine and catching cold — initiates darker tones and longer shadows. The aquamarine canal, which is projected during the Act 3 overture, ripples in the moonlight evoking nocturnal mystery and romance.

12185555_10153276853841365_8647218824174400671_o.pngBethan Langford as Beatrice; Nicola Said as Rosaura; Thomas Atkins as Florindo; David Ireland as Ottavio

Le donne curiose , with a cast of 17, is a good choice for a student opera and the young singers here demonstrated strong and well-balanced vocal and theatrical skills, although some found the most high-lying passages challenging. The ensemble work was polished and the honours shared; no one individual dominated the crowd. On the whole, the singers did not let the farce and foolishness distract them: the light-hearted routines are slick — and well-matched to the music.

Thomas Atkins’ tenor has an incipient Italianate gleam and he was a beguiling Florindo, so obviously enamoured of Rosaura and at the mercy of her emotional mood swings. Looking as if he had strayed from the set of Saturday Night Fever, Atkins sustained a strong tone through his arching melodies, and showed impressive stamina in his long aria; but he also revealed a beautifully dreamy quieter voice. His Rosaura, Nicola Said demonstrated a creamy tone complemented by a strong low register, and she commanded attention.

Although the scenario nods in the direction of the eighteenth century, the opera’s score borrows from closer to home — Verdi’s Falstaff and Rossini’s Barber of Seville and Daughter of the Regiment' are the most obvious fore-runners, although there’s a debt to Mozart too, and some pastiche in the form of Handelian bravura and a gondolier’s serenade. The musical idiom is generally through-composed but at times arioso and conversational exchanges crystallise into discrete numbers, the best of which are the Act 2 quartet and the beautiful duet for Florindo and Rosaura, ‘Se in voi cotanto’. During their expression of devotion the lighting may have been rose-tinted but the singers conveyed a candour which aroused our own empathy, something which the opera’s superficiality and foolishness generally banish elsewhere. The throb in Florindo’s voice was surely genuine.

Bass-baritone David Ireland’s optimistic Ottavio sang with an easeful flow and grace; Christopher Cull’s tenor had real power and incisiveness, but the characterisation of Lelio was a little discomforting — was he a buffoon, an object of ridicule, when, frequently enraged by his wife, he readily whipped off his belt to thrash her? Or, was he a reminder of the darker side of marital relations? Swiss bass-baritone Milan Siljanov (winner of the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition in September 2015) was superb as Arlecchino, Pantalone’s side-kick; his big aria doesn’t come until the final Act, but it was worth the wait. Dominick Felix used his attractive tenor to suggest Leandro’s happy-go-luckiness. Baritone Josep-Ramon Olivé made an impact as Pantalone; though in Act 1 he was a trifle over-emphatic, he modulated Pantalone’s contemptuousness and bitterness subsequently.

12188081_10153276854311365_4603708256243985753_o.pngNicola Said as Rosaura; Elgan Thomas as Florindo; Katarzyna Balejko as Colombina; David Ireland as Ottavio

The women formed a well-balanced quartet. Bethan Langford conveyed Beatrice’s indignant exasperation through both the richness of her mezzo soprano and the violence that she inflicted on Ottavio’s pasta supper. In Act 1 I found that Jennifer Witton, as Eleanora, let theatrical exaggeration (there were shades of Hyacinth Bucket) overpower her vocal focus; but she quickly re-established her control, and in Act 2 she delivered elegantly shaped phrases, with soft effortlessness. Katarzyna Balejko was the instigator of much of the farce — and showed her comic timing when spilling liquids and swinging doors. ‘Disguised’ is an Italian football fan, sporting the national kit, this Colombina nevertheless found her way to Arlecchini’s in the final Act.

Conductor Mark Shanahan ensured that proceedings breezed along charmingly, but there’s quite a bit of padding in Wolf-Ferrari’s score and the melodic invention is on the thin side. That said, there is some imaginative orchestration and Shanahan made sure that we heard the delicate motifs for bassoon, or other woodwind, and appreciated the more unusually scored passages, such as the overture to Act 3.

Overall, I’d say that Barlow judged this production perfectly — excepting one small detail. Wolf-Ferrari never quite attains Mozartian clarity or matches the comic sincerity of Verdi’s Falstaff, but there are intimations and echoes: these were swept aside, however, when the cream pie fight broke out in the closing scenes. However, Barlow and his cast made a strong case for the theatrical effectiveness of Le donne curiose and contributed greatly to our appreciation of its musical charm.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Leandro: Dominick Felix, Lelio: Christopher Cull, Ottavio: David Ireland, Florindo: Thomas Atkins, Almoró: Andrew Brown, Alvise: James Robinson, Asdrubale: Eduard Mas Bacardit, Lunardo: Likasz Klimczak, Mènego: Bertie Watson, Mòmolo: Jack Holton, Pantalone: Josep-Ramon Olivé, Arlecchino: Milan Siljanov, Beatrice: Bethan Langford, Rosaura: Nicola Said, Eleonora: Jennifer Witton, Colombina: Katarzyna Balejko, Gondolier: Chavdar Mazgalov; director: Stephen Barlow, conductor: Mark Shanahan, designer: Yannis Thavoris, lighting designer: Howard Hudson, video designer: Dom Baker, GSMD orchestra and chorus. Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, Monday 2nd November 2015.

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