Sunday 29 June 2014

Fizzing with fun: Rossini's La gazzetta

Kelly Mathieson and Timothy Nelson in Rossini's La gazzetta at the Royal College of Music
Kelly Mathieson and Timothy Nelson
Rossini La gazzetta; Royal College of Music<
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 27 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Lively account of one of Rossini's neglected comic operas

Rossini's comic opera La gazzetta was written in 1815, between Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola but it is far less famous then these two and has, until recently, been rarely performed. A new critical edition of the opera, including the recovery of such items as the act one quintet, have enabled a new re-assessment. The opera was presented by the Royal College of Music in its Britten Theatre and we caught the third performance on June 27. The work was directed by Donald Maxwell and Linda Ormiston, themselves both veterans of the comic opera genre, in designs by Nigel Hook with choreography by Louisa McAlpine and lighting by John Bishop. 

The opera was double cast and we heard the first night cast's second performance, with Filipa van Eck as Lisetta, Hannah Sandison as Doralice, Angela Simkin as Madama de la Rose, Luke D Williams as Filippo, Gyula Rab as Alberto, Timothy Nelson as Don Pomponio, Matus Tomko as Anselmo and Julien Van Mellaerts as Monsu Traversen. The Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra was conducted by Michael Rosewell, Director of Opera at the Royal College of Music.

Rossini wrote the opera for Naples, where he had just started work on his sequence of opera serias for the Royal theatre in Naples. La gazzetta was premiered at the Teatro dei Fiorentini a few days after the premiere of Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra at the Teatro San Carlo. In both works Rossini seems to have been concerned to show off what he could do and both include extensive borrowing from his back catalogue. The music is not always imported bodily, the act one quintet which has recently been re-discovered, includes a mixture of newly composed sections and borrowed ones. And the overture, specially written for the opera, was then taken bodily into La Cenerentola. But of course, the first night audience would not have known any of the existing music, as the operas it was borrowed from had been premiered in Northern Italy. And what makes the piece a delight is the way it segues from the known to the unknown with delightful speed.

Julien Van Mellaerts, Gyula Rab and Angela Simkin in Rossini's La Gazzetta at the Royal College of Music
Julien Van Mellaerts, Gyula Rab and Angela Simkin
To say the plot is daft is an understatement. Don Pomponio, a Neapolitan living in a hotel in Paris, decides to advertise his daughter Lisetta as being available for marriage in the newspaper, La gazzetta. In fact Lisetta is in love with Filippo who happens to be the hotel's manager! Two other hotel denizens become interested in Lisetta's hand, Alberto and Monsu Traversen. But any scope for satire is wiped out by the librettist  Giuseppe Palomba, by having a second father and daughter couple, Anselmo and Doralice. Cue general confusion and mistaken identities, fake Quakers and fake Turks. We end up with not one but two principal couples, Lisetta (soprano) and Filippo (baritone), and Doralice (soprano) and Alberto (tenor). This threatens to spread the plot a little too thinly and whilst the music delights you are aware that the opera is rather crazily fluffier than works like Il barbiere di Sivigla, La Cenerentola and Il turco in Italia.

Maxwell and Ormiston's production was supposedly updated to the 1990's but Hook's designs seemed to be rather more eclectic varying crazily from the 1980's to more recently. Resulting in a lively effervescence which matched the production, but threatened to make us OD on pattern and colour.

Filipa van Eck in Rossini's La Gazzetta at the Royal College of Music
Filipa van Eck
Another oddity about the opera is that the role of Don Pomponio, one of the principals, was written for the Teatro dei Fiorentini's resident comic who performed in Neapolitan dialect. Rather bravely the RCM performed the opera in the original language so that Timothy Nelson as Don Pomponio sang in what I presume to be Neapolitan. To compensate for the fact that we British would not find the character's speech naturally funny, the directors kitted Nelson out with a fat suit, badly died red hair and a sequence of appalling outfits including a cliched golf outfit and a shell suit. Frankly, I think we would have been better having the opera in English with Don Pomponio in a heavy regional accent.

As it was, it was as if Nelson wandered round the stage with a placard saying 'I am funny' all the time. Still, Nelson did very well and I think makes a good comic. I would like to see him in a similar role but without the excess. He had a lovely range of facial expressions which brought audience sympathy, and carried off the fat suit and outrageous costumes very well. He also sang well too, showing a lovely feel for Rossini's patter songs and much else. Rossini might have written the role for the local comic, but he didn't stint on the notes.

All the cast had the Rossinian style off pat, in a way which made for a very enjoyable evening.

Fillipa van Eck made a lively Lisetta, all big hair, short skirts and teetering high heels. Van Eck's voice has a strong brightness which made me think she may develop into something more spinto. But she certainly had the skill to negotiate round all the notes, and do so in way which impressed with the brilliance and ease of delivery. She brought bags of charm and a sharpness to the character which made her a delight. Someone ought to snap her up for Fiorella in Il turco in Italia, after all she performed some of that character's music in act one!

Hannah Sandison was Doralice, technically the second soprano but with an equally demanding part. A rather quieter stage persona, she brought a quiet dignity to the role of Doralice forming an apt foil for Van Eck, but showing the she was equally capable of impressing in Rossini's fioriture.
Luke D Williams in Rossini's La gazzetta at the Royal COllege of Music
Luke D Williams (in Quaker guise)

Gyula Rab as Alberto, was the tenor hero who does not get the right girl. Love-lorn at the beginning, he falls for the seconda donna, Doralice. Rab has a lovely soft-grained lyric voice (he sings Tamino in his native Hungary in December), and he impressed with his gentle love-lorn persona. Though given Alberto's alarming choice of bright coloured costume, it is no wonder he was scaring girls off! The high lying writing and busy passagework did not seem to phase Rab, who impressed with his style.

Luke D Williams was Filippo, the comic baritone role, who does get the girl. The role is a little under-written and given Williams' talents I rather wished that we got to hear him as Figaro or Dandini. Still, he produced Rossini's stream of notes with delightful character, and threw himself in the various crazy stratagems that the libretto lumbers the character with.

Angela Simkin made a poised and soignee Madama la Rose who runs the Hotel and seemed to spend a lot of time soothing her crazy guests, But she too gets a solo moment and Simkin (experienced in Handel and G&S) showed that she could shine in Rossini too.

Matus Tomko as Anselmo and Julien Van Mellaerts as Monsu Traversen had rather smaller roles but contributed to the general ensemble admirably. In fact, one of the joys of the performance was the way the entire cast formed a believable and enjoyable ensemble, all the way down to the chorus. I must say a word about three of the chorus. Kally Mathieson played the silent role of Don Pomponio's assistant and showed she had a very expressive face, and also provided the dancing in the Turkish scene; Milo Harries and Mark Nathan were the bell hops who had a prominent role in some of the drama.

In the pit, Michael Rosewell and the RCM Opera Orchestra offered up some lively and characterful playing, starting with a fine account of the overture. I am not quite sure what instrument was used for the recitatives, frankly it sounded a bit like a period moog synthesiser.

All the cast entered into the spirit of Maxwell and Ormiston's production with a will, resulting in a performance which delighted and revelled in being over the top. I could imagine a simpler, more direct production of the opera but the RCM gave us a fun evening in the theatre with some very fine Rossini singing indeed.  

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