Thursday 11 August 2022

Operatic wit and style in the West End: Donizetti's Rita at the Charing Cross Theatre

Donizetti: Rita - Brenton Spiteri, Laura Lolita Peresivana - Charing Cross Theatre
Donizetti: Rita - Brenton Spiteri, Laura Lolita Peresivana - Charing Cross Theatre

Donizetti: Rita; Laura Lolita Peresivana, Brenton Spiteri, Phil Wilcox, director: Alejandro Bonatto, Faust Chamber Orchestra, conductor: Mark Austin; Charing Cross Theatre
Reviewed 10 August 2022 (★★★★)

A wonderfully engaging account of Donizetti's late comedy in a very enterprising off-West End run with a terrific young cast

Rather enterprisingly for its Summer show, the Charing Cross Theatre is presenting an opera, Donizetti's rarely performed comedy Rita (seen 10 August 2022). Directed by Alejandro Bonatto, it features Laura Lolita Peresivana as Rita, Brenton Spiteri as Beppe and Phil Wilcox as Gasparo, with Mark Austin conducting the Faust Chamber Orchestra. Designs were by Nicolai Hart-Hansen, lighting by David Seldes; the opera was performed in an English translation by Alejandro Bonatto who also responsible for the orchestral reduction using eleven players.

Considering it is a mature work dating from the 1840s, Donizetti's Rita does not get that many outings. Opera Rara recorded it in 2014 [see my review] whilst in 2020, Guildhall School of Music and Drama performed it as a part of a live-streamed triple bill of Italian rarities [see my review]. Two of the cast in that performance were Laura Lolita Peresivana and Brenton Spiteri, so it was lovely to be able to catch them reprising their roles, in person.

Charing Cross Theatre is quite compact, the opera was performed with the singers in front of the proscenium with the orchestra on the stage hidden by a scrim. Considering the trickiness of communications between conductor and singers, the results were near miraculous.

Donizetti: Rita - Phil Wilcox, Brenton Spiteri - Charing Cross Theatre
Donizetti: Rita - Phil Wilcox, Brenton Spiteri - Charing Cross Theatre

Whilst Donizetti wrote his opera (in Paris) in the 1840s it was never performed and only premiered at the Opera Comique long after his death. Like his two best known comic operas, Don Pasquale and L'elisir d'amore, Rita contains a strong element of cruelty. And whilst we seem to be able to stomach, for comic purposes, the ageism and classism of these two, the fact that Rita makes light of spousal violence remains somewhat problematic; Gasparo even has a musically charming aria about the delights of beating your wife.

Wisely, Alejandro Bonatto did not try to finesse things and the violence was presented on the level of commedia dell'arte (in England we might, perhaps, think of Punch and Judy) with a plot that was securely at the level of comic absurdity. If you can park your doubts, then this is a delightful show. It is certainly prime Donizetti.

Laura Lolita Peresivana made an engaging Rita, sassy and self-possessed, she started by addressing the audience in a lively and charming aria full of roulades, and throughout Peresivana's big personality counted for a lot. On this basis, I would love to see her as other Donizetti comic heroines. But Peresivana also manage to suggest the way Rita has blossomed since the disappearance (and apparent death) of her husband, Gasparo, who kept her subdued by beating her.

Currently Rita is married to Beppe (Brenton Spiteri) whom Rita keeps subdued by beating him (to ensure he doesn't beat her). Spiteri was all hang-dog charm as Beppe, very much a sad clown with the ability to get us rooting for him. But Spiteri's performance had a nice amount of spark to, you could tell why Rita fancied him, and he had a stylish way with Beppe's music.

Phil Wilcox as Gasparo was full of know-it-all swagger. Despite his aria about wife-beating, he was not a specifically nasty character and Wilcox managed to imbue him with an element of bravo appeal.

Donizetti's music gives these rather stock characters with just the right element of humanity, so that we care about them and all three performers brought this off admirably, whilst also giving us some fine, bel canto singing. For all the spousal violence, the piece has a moral end when Rita and Beppe agree to be equals, with no violence, and Gasparo goes off, all trace of his marriage to Rita expunged, to marry his rich Canadian (let us home she is feisty enough to deal with him).

Alejandro Bonatto's witty production played up the farce elements, with three doors for the cast to have fun with. Yet he allowed each character the moment to address us, for us to get to know them. With the cast right in front of the audience, this was very intimate theatre and it benefitted from the acting talents of the cast. Mark Austin and the Faust Chamber Orchestra did sterling work, and the orchestra was far more than a simple engaging backdrop for the singers.

This was a wonderfully enterprising event. There is no reason why a theatre that regularly stages musicals should not stage this style of opera too. All concerned had the style and bravura to bring off Donizetti's music whilst engaging the audience.

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