Sunday 15 August 2021

Making the most of opportunity: a brilliant young cast in Rossini's early farsa with British Youth Opera

Rossini L’occasione fa il ladro - Laura Fleur, Patrick Alexander Keefe,Sam Harris, Helen Francis Corlett - British Youth Opera
Rossini: L’occasione fa il ladro - Laura Fleur, Patrick Alexander Keefe,Sam Harris, Helen Francis Corlett - British Youth Opera

Rossini L’occasione fa il ladro; Aimée Fisk, Laura Fleur, Brenton Spiteri, Sam Harris, Patrick Alexander Keefe, Joe Chalmer, dir: Victoria Newlyn, Southbank Sinfonia, cond: Peter Robinson; British Youth Opera at Opera Holland Park

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 August 2021
An evening which mixed light-hearted intent with taking Rossini's music seriously, to brilliant effect from a vibrant young cast

Rossini's opera L’occasione fa il ladro, ossia Il cambio della valigia (literally 'Opportunity Makes a Thief, or The Exchanged Suitcase' but memorably translated by Opera North in 2004 as 'Love's Luggage Lost') is a one-act burletta per musica or farsa which premiered in 1812 at the Teatro San Moisè, Venice (founded in 1620 and where a number of operas by Cavalli, Vivaldi and Galuppi premiered), one of five such one-act comedies that the young Rossini (he was just 20 at the time of the opera's premiere) wrote for the theatre. Based on an 1810  vaudeville by Eugène Scribe (who became a notable opera librettist in the 1820s), the opera was one of the most popular of Rossini's operas during his lifetime.
It is an engaging piece of fluff, yet like the best comedies requires to be taken seriously as does Rossini's vocal writing, which takes no prisoners. This isn't the first time that British Youth Opera has turned to Rossini's farse for repertoire (in 2009 they did a double-bill of Il signor Bruschino and La scala di Seta which featured Thomas Herford, Michel de Souza, Peter Brathwaite and Hanna Hipp), and for their Summer 2021 season at Opera Holland Park they paired it with their production of Hansel & Gretel [see my review].

Directed by Victoria Newlyn and conducted by Peter Robinson with Southbank Sinfonia, British Youth Opera presented Rossini's L’occasione fa il ladro at Opera Holland Park. We caught the first night of the blue cast on 13 August 2021 with Aimée Fisk as Berenice, Laura Fleur as Ernestina, Brenton Spiteri as Alberto, Sam Harris as Eusebio, Patrick Alexander Keefe as Parmenione, Joe Chalmers as Martino plus actors Helen Francis Corlett and Alaric Green.

The plot's titular accidental exchange of luggage and the resulting impersonation of one character by another is really just a device so that we can end up at the run up to a wedding where neither the bride nor the groom is who they are supposed to be. Two couples, each person falls in love with the 'wrong' person only to find that because of disguises it is the right one.

Victoria Newlyn and designer Madeleine Boyd gave the production a real 1980s vibe from Patrick Alexander Keefe's sub-Adam Ant outfit (thankfully without the makeup) as Parmenione to padded shoulders of the stylish Italian leather jackets worn by Brenton Spiteri as Alberto and by Helen Francis Corlett as the wedding planner, even to the replacement of the first scene's inn by a baked potatoe stand (remember those!).

It has to be said from the first off, that the standard of the Rossini singing was high. None of the singers gets away with it lightly, and everyone impressed both with the technical standard and the way they used the music. This was Rossini's fioriture used to create character in just the right way. 

The opera is relatively unusual in that there are two leading men. Technically the hero is Alberto (Brenton Spiteri), who is the real bridegroom and gets to marry the leading lady, Berenice (Aimée Fisk) at the end. But Parmenione (Patrick Alexander Keefe) not only usurps Alberto's role as bridegroom but effectively hijacks his place in the dramaturgy. BYO was lucky to find two leading men who were both filled their roles vividly and provided fine foils to each other.

Patrick Alexander Keefe has already sung Guglielmo in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte for Royal Academy Opera and here he leveraged that sense of style with a comic edge for Parmenione. Very tall and slim with a striking stage presence, Keefe carried off his over-the-top outfit superbly and made it all into a vividly engaging chancer who very surprisingly falls in love. He was a good, physical comedian and there were a number of other bel canto roles that I imagined him in, but the way he lit up the stage without ever, quite, upstaging was a joy.

Really, Brenton Spiteri's Alberto wasn't much more admirable than Parmenione. Dressed stylishly to within an inch of his life, this Alberto was very much concerned with appearance and honour. A neat mover (in previous operas with Guildhall School of Music and Drama we have seen Spiteri proving his dancing chops), Spiteri is also the possessor of a wonderfully lithe tenor which has an admirable ease and flexibility at the top which makes him ideal in these sort of Rossini tenor roles. He also had an understated yet strong stage presence which ensured that we really did have two leads.

As Berenice, Aimée Fisk had personality in spades and with a slightly dramatic edge to her voice she used this to great effect. Particularly telling was her big aria when she tells both Alberto and Parmenione off, they are not deciding things neatly between the two of them, she will decide whom she marries. It was a finely confident performance, imbuing the heroine with the sort of strength of character which is needed in these operas as otherwise she descends simply into being a canary. I would love to hear Fisk in one of the Isabella Colbran roles Rossini's serious operas.

As Berenice's companion, Laura Fleur proved delightfully sunny and engaging, a lively presence yet someone for whom complexity lay underneath. And vocally, Fleur provided a lovely foil to Fisk, and impressed in her solo moments.

For one brief moment, I wondered whether Newlyn was going to give us a triple wedding, as there seemed to be a brief frisson between Joe Chalmers' Martino and Sam Harris' Eusebio, but that did not happen. Both characters are necessary to the plot yet don't quite have enough to work with. Yet Chalmers' engaged as Parmenione's much put-upon friend (in the original he is a servant) Martino and when Rossini gave him his moment, Chalmers certainly took to the stage with a winning presence. Eusebio is Berenice's uncle, Harris made him slightly ineffectual (on the way to being Tim-nice-but-dim), yet rather charming. 

There were two extra characters, and oh what characters they were. Alaric Green played the proprietor of said jacket potato stand and the assistant to Helen Francis Corlett's wedding planner. Both created strongly vivid characters out of purely visual clues, with Green rocking a kilt and braids whilst Corlett brought Italian style to all-black with a strong leather jacket. Neither quite upstaged the singers, but provided a vivid backdrop.

This was a busy production, Newlyn (who teaches movement and drama) had created plenty of choreographed moments without ever making the music seem over choreographed, movement would morph into dance and then evaporate again. It made for an engaging and light-hearted evening, but occasionally the demands of music and movement told, and there were a couple of moments when ensemble between pit and stage could have been tighter.

Rossini would write greater operatic orchestral scores, but in the pit under the experience and sympathetic baton of Peter Robinson, Southbank Sinfonia made engaging partners in this enterprise, supporting and complementing the singers. And away from the complexities of the acoustic of the Peacock Theatre (BYO's usual Summer home), balance was rather more satisfactory than usual.

This was quite a long evening (over 90 minutes) yet is sped by. Some of Rossini's set pieces are quite long (as I said, his writing does not really take any prisoners), yet everyone on stage seemed to make such vivid fun of it, never over-pointing things or over-doing things, that the evening sped by.

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