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When Slavery Was In Fashion

New York
Harvey Theatre, BAM
05/28/2008 -  & May 29-31, June 3, 4 (7.30 pm), June 1 (3.00 pm)
Domenico Cimarosa: Il Matrimonio segreto
Jonathan Best (Count Robinson), Fredrika Billembourg (Fidalma), Conal Coad (Geronimo), Georgia Jarman (Elisetta) , Chad A. Johnson (Paolino), Heidi Stober (Carolina), Melinda Peirmado, Todd Cowdery (Supernumeraries)
Edward Brewer (Harpsichord), Members of Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, Paul Goodwin (Conductor)
Jonathan Miller (Director), John Conklin (Scenic design based on 1992 Glimmerglass Opera production), Clare Mitchell (Costume design), Robert Wierzel (Lighting design), Production stage manager (Tom Kelly)

In the once-glittering bijouterie of opera buffa are three diamonds (Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti), tons of fool’s gold (Paisello, Piccinnini and Galuppi) and one semi-precious stone, Dominco Cimarosa. In his 50 years on earth and three years being tortured in a Neapolitan prison, Cimarosa composed nearly 200 comic operas, but outside Italy The Secret Marriage is the single opera played, and the opera which Jonathan Miller has so decorously staged several times. For a man of such all-encompassing skills—director, comic, doctor and (in his own words) a “civilized man”-- Dr. Miller has taken a most civilized pace for the opera , and that is indeed a blessing. Compared with, say, the Met’s Barber, with its painful celerity, this comedy of errors ambles without self-consciousness, only rarely looking back on its basic absurdity.

The Brooklyn Academy theatre was, alas, not filled for last night’s opening, for Cimarosa is not Rossini. But the singers wove their music effortlessly, the acting was never flamboyant, and the pleasant divertissement was agreeably amiable.

True enough, not a single one of the five star-crossed lovers (and their one guardian, Geronimo) could stop singing or saying, “This is so confusing”, “I don’t understand”, or “What a predicament”. But in the best tradition of the Enlightenment, and opera buffa, all would come out reasonably well in the end. Unrequited love would be requited (to a certain degree), a wedding dinner would be planned and the most absurd characters would be filled with reason and tolerance. Amen.

All of this takes place in two hours (both opera and real time) on a single set, the living room of paterfamilias Geronimo. We know that the six doors will be used for confusing exits and entrances. But the lack of props, the marbled texture of the walls, the white furniture, the pastel fashions of the sisters offered a subtle grace.

To the 21st Century, the dismaying story would be about slavery: the buying and selling of women to the highest bidder, with the despotic, befuddled overweight father auctioning off his two feuding daughters, one of whom is already married. But this was the 18th Century, so it all made sense, since the daughters are feisty enough—and have terrific voices.

In fact, Georgia Jarman, who has the only extended bel canto aria, and Heidi Stober, with her light soprano, make beautiful duets together, while their love-sick aunt, Fredrika Brillembourg add to some near Rosenkavalier-like trios. The two old men are caricatures, of course, but that is hardly distracting. Conal Coad is befuddled, portly, very much the classical dodderer, but has a rich basso buffa when he gets angry (which is often). The English laird, Jonathan Best, is equally silly, appearing first in muddy boots, incessantly miming cricket, stiff, pompous and—in his Act II scene with the father, bargaining for the girls—quite delightful. The secret groom, Chad A. Johnson, is supposed to be callow (which he is). Neither the voice nor the character are forceful enough, but as the male ingénue, that isn’t important.

The production did have two problems. Minor was the translation, which, unlike the production , tried to be modern. Words like “Whoopee” “and “Bi-polar” and “Thanks a million” don’t keep with the 18th Century spirit. Major is the Cimarosa music. Oh, he was quite the melodista of his time, but he was no Rossini, no Mozart, no composer who would take chances. The tunes, harmonies and climaxes were monotonously predictable, though the two sextet climaxes had a sense of ephemeral amusement.

And ephemera it is. A pleasantry, a trifle of a story, with an ensemble which frequently transported its trivialities and lilting music into a lovely little opera.

Harry Rolnick



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