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An Unceremonious Secret Marriage

Teatro alla Scala
09/05/2022 -  & September 7, 10, 13, 16, 19*, 2022
Domenico Cimarosa: Il matrimonio segreto
Greta Doveri*/Aleksandrina Mihaylova (Carolina), Pietro Spagnoli (Il Signor Geronimo), Paolo Antonio Nevi*/Brayan Avila Martínez (Paolino), Sung‑Hwan Damien Park*/Jorge Martínez (Il conte Robinson), Mara Gaudenzi*/Valentina Pluzhnikova (Fidalma), Francesca Pia Vitale*/Fan Zhou (Elisetta)
Marco Schirru (fortepiano), Orchestra dell’Accademia Teatro alla Scala, Ottavio Dantone (conductor)
Irina Brook (stage director), Patrick Kinmonth (sets, costumes), Marco Filibeck (lights)

(© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano/Teatro alla Scala)

Five cast members in this production are young singers training at Accademia Teatro alla Scala. The choice of Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto is an excellent one for such an endeavour, as it is an ensemble piece giving all six protagonists important roles. The enterprise seemed promising with veteran harpsichordist and early music conductor Ottavio Dantone at the helm.

Based on an English play, The Clandestine Marriage, Cimarosa’s most famous opera enjoyed a certain popularity in its day and for much of the following century. The music is reminiscent of such contemporaries as Salieri, Mozart and Haydn, and on occasion there are hints of Rossini. Nowadays, Il matrimonio segreto is the sole opera of Cimarosa’s that is still occasionally performed.

Like Così fan tutte, the opera has six characters, an ideal number for an intimate comedy. The entire opera takes place in the house of the rich merchant Geronimo. The protagonists are the merchant; his two daughters, the haughty Elisetta and the spirited Carolina; his widowed sister Fidalma; his enterprising young secretary Paolino; and the latter’s friend, an English nobleman named Count Robinson.

In the opening scene, we learn that Carolina and Paolino have secretly wed, months earlier. Paolino is scheming to convince his nobleman friend Count Robinson to marry the older daughter Elisetta, for her enticing dowery. He is convinced that the nouveau riche merchant would accept his marrying the younger daughter once the family is ennobled through Elisetta’s marriage.

As this is a comedy, things get complicated. The Count is not impressed by Elisetta and wants to marry Carolina instead. Geronimo agrees, as the Count offers to lower the dowery by half. Finally, the widow Fidalma has set her eyes on young Paolino. Things get hectic until the young couple are caught in Carolina’s bedroom and confess their marriage. To soothe the situation, the gallant Count Robinson accepts marrying Elisetta, bringing the opera to a happy end.

Though all six singers were more than adequate, the staging was profoundly flawed. Transposing the epoch in opera makes sense if it adds to the action or conveys a particular message, which is unfortunately not the case here. Stage director Irina Brook seems to forcibly try to make the story more “hip”. The result is heavy-handed action which, under ideal circumstances, should be sparklingly light. Though a comedy, the atmosphere in the theatre was mostly glum.

This is sacrilege when Giovanni Bertati’s well-written libretto is rich in situational comedy. The occasional laughs occurred when gratuitous buffoonery was offered the public, such as the widowed aunt, Fidalma, “in heat” attempting to seduce young Paolino, or when Elisetta, dressed in clownish, supposedly fashionable clothes, acts like a spoiled brat, with all the attendant attributes.

A gag at the opera’s finale about the additional revelation of an LGBT couple among the domestic staff also generated some laughs and applause. Stereotypes of middle-aged women in need of a man or of spoiled, harebrained young women are the antithesis of “hip.”

As mentioned, of the six singers, five were young singers in La Scala’s training program. The sixth was veteran baritone Pietro Spagnoli, whose stage presence and acting were outstanding. Vocally, the role is not particularly demanding, but his charisma and clear diction set the tone for the unfolding drama.

The two sisters, Carolina, sung by Greta Doveri, and Elisetta, sung by Francesca Pia Vitale, were both vocally excellent. Equally important, their voices blended well and were easily distinguishable. Given the many ensembles where both are required, this is essential. Doveri’s lyric soprano contrasted with Vitale’s lighter coloratura.

Regarding casting, it made sense that the irritable older sister was the one with the higher voice. Mara Gaudenzi, who sang the widowed aunt Fidalma, has a lovely warm mezzo and a lived‑in, charismatic stage presence. There was no need to have her act extravagantly, as she immediately commanded the stage. Her aria “E vero che in casa, son io la padrona”, where she states she is mistress of the household, was utterly convincing.

Bass Sung‑Hwan Damien Park, who sang Count Robinson, the potential aristocratic bridegroom, was more brilliant as an actor than as a singer. His voice is rather small, and his Italian diction is sometimes tentative, a huge drawback in comic opera. But what an actor! He too is charisma incarnate, and utterly at ease onstage. His small size helped in his agile movements and expressiveness. His Act II aria, “Sono lunatico, bilioso”, in which he recites his many alleged defects to his potential bride to dampen her intentions, was hilarious. The weakest link was tenor Paolo Antonio Nevi as the secretary Paolino, already secretly married to Carolina and the object of Aunt Fidalma’s desires. His timbre was pleasant, but his high notes were often insecure. However, he has notable stage presence and solid acting skills.

Unlike Mozart’s Da Ponte trilogy, Giovanni Bertati’s libretto doesn’t have a lot of recitatives. While that may help the musical flow, it hinders the development of characters, as more is said in a few concise words than in an aria, and more acting can be done in recitatives than in singing.

Moreover, Il matrimonio segreto has many more duets, trios and ensembles than arias. Therefore, the development of characters doesn’t come naturally. Compared to Le nozze di Figaro or Così fan tutte, the characters don’t evolve, unless an inspired stage director takes charge, which was definitely not the case. Nonetheless, thanks its excellent singers, the evening was an enjoyable one.

Ossama el Naggar



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