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Reviews

<em>La finta semplice</em>: Classical Opera & The Mozartists, Queen Elizabeth Hall
10 Jun 2018

An excellent La finta semplice from Classical Opera

‘How beautiful it is to love! But even more beautiful is freedom!’ The opening lines of the libretto of Mozart’s La finta semplice are as contradictory as the unfolding tale is ridiculous. Either that master of comedy, Carlo Goldoni, was having an off-day when he penned the text - which was performed during the Carnival of 1764 in the Teatro Giustiniani di S. Moisè in Venice with music by Salvatore Perillo - or Marco Coltellini, the poeta cesareo who was entertaining the Viennese aristocracy in 1768, took unfortunate liberties with poetry and plot.

La finta semplice: Classical Opera & The Mozartists, Queen Elizabeth Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ninetta (Chiara Skerath), Don Polidoro (Alessandro Fisher) and Rosina (Regula Mühlemann

Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega

 

But, it doesn’t matter if the drama is slight and the characters superficial when there are moments of real musical beauty and insight, and when the singing and playing are as fresh - and the commitment so unwavering - as they were at the Queen Elizabeth Hall where Classical Opera and The Mozartists gave the second of two London performances of La finta semplice (having begun their mini-tour in Birmingham the previous week).

Although Classical Opera’s epic MOZART 250 project has reached 1768, La finta semplice was not actually performed until the following year, in Salzburg, after Leopold Mozart’s plans to promote his son’s genius before the Viennese was scuppered by the resentment of the city’s resident musicians at the royal favour bestowed upon the adolescent upstart. Leopold wrote to Lorenz Hagenauer, a merchant in Salzburg, on 29 June 1768, that his son suffered ‘a full load of all varieties of the most carefully planned calumnies and malicious persecutions […] envy towers above us on all sides’. And, he was so incensed by what he perceived as the duplicity of Giuseppe Afflisio, a Neapolitan, described by Casanova as a mountebank and deceiver and who was the central figure in Viennese theatrical life at the time, that he presented a written complaint against Afflisio during a personal audience with Emperor Joseph II on 21 September 1768 - complaining when he had challenged the impresario about the singers’ repeated requests for alterations to both the libretto and the music, the incessant delays, the lack of financial recompense, Afflisio had declared the opera to be untheatrical and unperformable, and ‘finally he left me with the most shockingly uncharitable utterances: if I insisted on having the boy prostituted, he would have the opera laughed at and whistled off stage’.

Such machinations would not have been unworthy of the opera itself. For, it presents a cat’s-cradle of conspiracies and collusions which see Giacinta and her maid, Ninetta, gain permission to marry their sweethearts - Fracasso, a Hungarian captain, and his sergeant Simone - by convincing both of Giacinta’s two brothers, the women-hating Don Cassandro and women-fearing Don Polidoro, that Fracasso’s sister Rosina, the ‘semplice’ of the title, is in love with them.

All credit to the superb young cast who brought this flimsy fable to live with such vivacity, charm and comic nous. Exquisite costumes were complemented by an eighteenth-century desk and two chairs mounted on square platforms, first left and right of the QEH stage, and then brought together in a central, horizontal aisle after the interval. The stage was atmospherically lit by Mark Doubleday, the tints becoming increasingly nocturnal as the amorous charades and duplicities deepened.

Mime aria.jpgLukas Jakobski (Cassandro) and Regula Mühlemann (Rosina). Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega.

This minimalism was all that was needed to provide a little context for the engaging comedy which ensued. The singers’ movements were economical but deft and fluent; the musical conversations were convincing as the characters’ betrayed their flaws and foibles. Comic extravagance - as when Cassandro grabbed a violinists’ bow to ward off Fracasso’s sword in a mock-duel, or when Rosina tricked him into ‘singing’ a love-duet entirely in deliberately indecipherable sign language - was indulged but not over-done.

The Mozartists were seated to the rear of the stage and this did cause some ensemble problems, as conductor Ian Page frequently glanced over his shoulder to ‘catch’ singers who were not only some distance away but facing out to the audience, resulting in some slippage between ‘pit’ and stage - though Page invariably recouped neatly and, in any case, perhaps it all added to the dramatic tone of controlled chaos.

But, as Classical Opera return to the QEH twice next year - in January to perform a musical survey, ‘1769: A Year in Music’, and then in June to present a double-bill of Gluck’s Bauci e Filemone and Orfeo - it’s something that they might want to re-consider. Also, and this is in no way a criticism of the company, the surtitles-screen in the QEH hangs low and large, presumably to obscure - but not quite succeeding - the blue light of the digital projector set in the rear wall; the result is that it seems to ‘rest’ rather low above cast and orchestra. Add in the presentation of the text in a super-size font, and the libretto’s banalities loomed rather too large.

La finta semplice Classical Opera The Mozartists QEH ©Benjamin Ealovega 5.jpgLa finta semplice, Classical Opera & The Mozartists. Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega.

Small logistics aside though, the orchestral playing was excellent. The Mozartists accompanied proceedings with characteristic energy and brightness: strings scurried spiritedly and rhythms were always crisp; there was gleeful punchiness from the horns and both irony and eloquence from the oboes’ decorative commentaries. In this light, the continuo playing of Pawel Siwczak (harpsichord), Alex Rolton (cello) and Cecelia Bruggemeyer (double-bass) was even more impressive: how hard they must have had to listen to ensure that not one of Mozart’s musical punctuations in the recitatives - not always predictable and enlivened by action - missed its mark.

Though the score is fluent rather than phenomenal, the cast ensured that we appreciated each and every moment when one detects the heart-touching musical sensibility of the adult Mozart peeking through the adolescent assurance. Rosina’s soaring Act 2 duet summons to mind the profound serenity which so powerfully suspend time, and comic capering, in the later operas, while in the act-finales one can hear the young composer learning how to increase the dramatic complexity and musical pace of the ensembles by increments and with slickness and skill. Don Polidoro’s affecting serenade resonates with a sincere passion which the twelve-year-old could neither have experienced nor understood. Don Cassandro’s blustering looks ahead to the disgruntled raging and blundering of Dr Bartolo while the wily, worldly Ninetta is surely a prototype Despina. Recalling the Count’s ‘Contessa perdono!’, there is an aria of forgiveness at the close, but this time it’s the ladies who have to apologise and show remorse: and the musical beguilement works its magic - even Don Polidoro who loses both his pride and his bride, is prepared to forgive, so tickled with delight is he by the duping of his brother.

Rosina and Cassandro.jpgRegula Mühlemann (Rosina) and Lukas Jakobski (Cassandro). Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega.

Regula Mühlemann was utterly enchanting as Rosina: no wonder both Dons were instantly besotted. She was a perfect faux naïf, operating with shrewdness in her duets with her two desperate suitors and relishing Rosina’s sly manipulations. The soaring lines of ‘Amoretti che ascosi qui siete’ bloomed serenely and with shapeliness: a delicate vibrato and the soprano’s silken tone evoked the true sensibility of this supposed ‘simpleton’, while lovely interjection from the violins, violas and bassoons, paired in thirds, added sweetness and colour.

Soprano Chiara Skerath was similarly impressive as Ninetta, ever clear and vivacious of voice, and acting with a combination of wit and composure. Giacinta, whose fear and woe at the hands of her bullying brothers instigates the proceedings, is then rather side-lined until the closing act, but Sophie Rennert used her warm, expertly modulated mezzo-soprano voice to suggest both Giacinta’s anxious timidity and engaging depths of character that plot and text do not even begin to intimate.

Lukas Jakobski enjoyed himself as the self-satisfied and initially reluctant would-be seducer, Don Cassandro. His dark, resonant bass was the perfect fit for Cassandro’s ham-fisted egoism, and if Jakobski occasionally overdid the hamming, his drunken bewilderment and incompetence certainly raised a smile. Alessandro’s gentle tenor beautifully expressed the hapless, hopeless Don Polidoro’s tender but ardent avowal of love, ‘Sposa cara’. As Fracasso and Simone, tenor Thomas Elwin and bass Božidar Smiljanić seemed a little less happy in their military shoes but sang warmly and with engagement.

Classical Opera continue their exploration of the year 1768 at Wigmore Hall, where they will perform Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne on 18 th September - a performance which ties in with the release of the next recording in the company’s Mozart opera series.

Claire Seymour

Rosina - Regula Mühlemann, Ninetta - Chiara Skerath, Giacinta - Sophie Rennert, Don Polidoro - Alessandro Fisher, Fracasso - Thomas Elwin, Don Cassandro - Lukas Jakobski, Simone - Božidar Smiljanić; Director/Conductor - Ian Page, Assistant Director - Adam Torrance, Lighting Designer - Mark Doubleday, Design Supervisor - Emily Adamson, Lighting Programmer - Paul Halgarth, The Mozartists.

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London; Friday 8th June 2018.

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