Wednesday 16 April 2014

Rita or Deux Hommes et une Femme

Donizetti: Rita - Opera Rara ORCD50
Donizetti Rita or Deux Hommes et une Femme: Karneus, Banks, Maltman, Halle Orchestra, Elder: Opera Rara
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 20 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Sparkling performance of a rare Donzetti late comedy, just don't read the plot

Donizetti's opera Rita (which he seems to have called Deux Hommes et une Femme) seems to have been written in the 1840's but for various reasons lay unperformed till 1860, well after Donizetti's death. This new recording from Opera Rara rolls back the sentimentalisation of the plot from 1860 and goes back to the original autograph and libretto to give us Donizetti's original sung by Katarina Karneus, Barry Banks and Christopher Maltman with the Halle Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder.

The libretto is by the Belgian playwright Gustave Vaez, with whom Donizetti would go on to collaborate on the French version of Lucia di Lammermoor. In fact if the article in the booklet is right in its dating of Donizetti's first work on Rita to 1839, then the opera can be seen as Donizetti trying out a new colleague.

The plot is quite simple. Rita is married to the good for nothing Pepe and they run an inn. A visiting sailor, Gasparo, turns out to be Rita's first husband who was thought to be dead. He wants to marry a woman in Canada and has returned for his original marriage certificate. Pepe is not unwilling to leave Rita, she beats him. But Rita is not best pleased to see Gasparo, as he beat her. Gasparo finally provokes Pepe to a fight, which seems to please Rita and Pepe ends up staying with Rita to avoid further violence from Gasparo.

The plot has a similar sort of disturbing cruelty to that which runs through Don Pasquale. This can be seen as owing something to the commedia del'arte tradition but which is rather disturbing in a contemporary context. This seems to have disturbed Donizetti not a whit, he has turned out a little comic masterpiece complete with such delights as an aria to wife beating by Gasparo.

Listening to this opera without following the words is a complete unalloyed delight as all concerned on this recording contribute immensely to the vivacity and charm of the piece. Karneus is a Rita who displays a considerable charm even when berating her husband. She sings with finely modulated tones, a warm mezzo-soprano voice and a nice facility in the fioriture.

Banks is nicely characterful as Pepe, bringing a wonderful combination of edge and charm to the music. His aria when he thinks that he is a free man is a little comic masterpiece. Maltman has just the right sort of swagger as Gasparo, and is unnervingly cheerful in his song about wife beating. All three interact with great immediacy, and nice comic timing. The work zips along and combines broad humour with subtle charm. As in Don Pasquale, Donizetti's music humanises the characters. There is a lovely duet for Pepe and Rita at the beginning which starts with them being charming to each other but quickly ends up with them bickering. Similarly the duet for Gasparo and Rita when they think they are married again starts as a wonderfully extravagant duet, before relations inevitably degenerate. And the fight scene develops into a brilliant patter ensemble.

The work is written with spoken dialogue and performed like that here, though he amount of dialogue is relatively discreet. In an ideal world we would have had a recording with Franco-phone singers but the cast on the disc make the dialogue work well.

As I say, for me the problem is the plot and the rather cavalier way the characters (and the composer) deal with it. The opera certainly confirms that the difference between a comedy and a tragedy is simply on of attitude, you could easily imagine Rita forming the basis for a torrid verismo tale!

The CD comes with the usual admirably created Opera Rara booklet, with an extensive article on the work's history along with images of early performers. It is lovely to see Opera Rara still on good form, with Mark Elder at the helm after the death of founder Patric Schmidt.

There is much to enjoy and delight here. Mark Elder has been a fine stalwart of Opera Rara recently and it is lovely to hear him on form with his home orchestra. The Halle's playing has the right combination of sparkle and sprightliness and I do hope we get more from them on Opera Rara. You can certainly imagine Maltman and Banks joining them for a wonderful Don Pasquale.

So, highly recommended but just don't read the plot!

Gaetano Donizetti (1797 - 1848) - Rita (1839/40) [63.43]
Rita - Katarina Karneus (mezzo-soprano)
Pepe - Barry Banks (tenor)
Gasparo - Christopher Maltman (baritone)
The Halle
Mark Elder (conductor)

Recorded at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, September 2012

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