Student Donne Curiose

10 Nov

I wonder what I’d do without the music colleges and, particularly the Guildhall in introducing me to the by-ways of the repertory.  Just this year, I’ve seen five operas that I’d be lucky to see elsewhere.  The latest, which I saw on 9th November, is Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Le donne curiose, a comedy from 1903, his first successful opera.  It was originally performed in a German translation before Toscanini did it at the Met in 1912 in the original Italian.

I wonder what Toscanini thought of it.  It’s quite interesting in that it comes in that slightly odd point in operatic history before Puccini and Richard Strauss had taken off, before Lehar had redefined operetta, before Stravinsky and the 2nd Viennese School.  It feels like a very conservative work indeed – an attempt at an opera buffa based on Goldoni and written heavily under the influence of Falstaff.

The plot feels like Merry Wives of Windsor without Falstaff. A group of men have their club where they meet to drink and complain about women. Their wives and girlfriends are curious about what’s going on and have all kinds of theories and attempt various devious ways of getting in. They succeed and find, of course, that their fears are groundless and that there’s nothing to worry about.

The problem is that it all feels a bit lame and inconsequential without the sort of strong characterisation that, I suspect, is likely to be in Goldoni’s original and which can be the only justification for putting on what is otherwise a piece of nonsense. The piece works best when dealing with the different relationships. For me, it woke up in the second act where there seems, quite seriously, to be some domestic violence going on (but skated over) and in the following one where there is a gorgeous quartet for husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend, a smashing aria for the girlfriend and a gem of a duet for her and her boyfriend.

The rest of it is enjoyable enough, though I found the first act a bit on the long side.  The music isn’t quite individual enough. You hear flashes of Rossini, Donizetti, pre-indications of Puccini and a huge amount that isn’t quite good enough for Falstaff. I was reminded slightly of Cimarosa’s Matrimonio segreto where the opening impression is one of pleasure at the fizzing music to be succeeded by an urgent desire that it would stop and go somewhere interesting.  It’s a relatively short piece, but you often feel that it could have been shorter. And it’s rather hard to feel sympathy for any of the characters.

I could imagine this being quite enjoyable if you had an enthusiastic enough director with a strong enough concept. Here, Stephen Barlow got part of the way.  He had the sense to see that an eighteenth century setting was likely to be the kiss of death. Whether a late 1960s setting was the answer, I’m not sure. The men’s club seemed to be more like a teenager’s bedroom with football posters, games and other masculine clichés – no porn, of course. Their food preferences appeared to be beer and pizza. This was a place for slumming it. Their homes appeared to be relentlessly middle class. There were some amusing touches – the group of lost tourists, for example – and superbly garish sets and costumes from Yannis Thavoris who managed the quick change needed between the last two scenes to perfection (the first time I’ve heard the sets get a round of applause at this address).  Otherwise, it was amiable, with the nastier side only just hinted at.

The cast was very strong. There are nine main roles and a number of minor ones and there were some rather promising singers out there. The most interesting seemed to me to be Thomas Atkins from New Zealand. I don’t think I’ve heard such a promising spinto tenor in a student performance before. He has a real “ping” aligned to a gentle, reedy quality and has a nice, enthusiastic acting ability. He gave enormous pleasure in some of the most grateful music of the opera.  He’ll make a lovely Rodolfo or Alfredo and probably beyond. I hope he can manage the career sensibly. You could imagine all kinds of opera houses queuing up for him.

Of the other men, Christopher Cull made a rather nasty Lelio and displayed a rather good baritone, Josep-Ramon Olivé was pretty strong as Pantalone, the club owner and Milan Siljanov struck me as quite promising as Arelecchino. These were good voices, not over-taxed by the music and game actors.

Of the women, Nicola Said was a very sweet, Nanetta-like Rosaura with plenty of personality, Elizabeth Karani showed bags of spirit and a spit-fire soprano as Eleanora, the potentially battered wife, Bethan Langford was a sensible Beatrice and Katerine Balejko was a resourceful, sweet, nicely sung Columbine.  It all made for a very nice ensemble performance.

Mark Shanahan conducted – the orchestra sounded a bit scratchy but never drowned the singers and there was some elegant, confident playing while the music was in the strings’ comfort zone.

In today’s climate, I don’t see this ever making the repertory but it made an enjoyable evening and I was glad that I saw it.

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