Rita – Opera in one Act to a libretto by Gustave Vaëz [performed in a reduced orchestration by Francis Griffin; sung in English]
Wolf-Ferrari Il segreto di Susanna – Intermezzo in one Act to a libretto by Enrico Golisciani [performed in a reduced orchestration by Juan David Moland; sung in Italian with English surtitles]
Rita – Natasha Page
Peppe – Jack Dolan
Gasparo – Kieran Rayner
Bortolo – Christopher Gillet
Susanna – Katherine McIndoe
Conte Gil – Philip Smith
Sante – Christopher Gillet
Tik Tok Chorus
The Bristol Ensemble
Lysanne van Overbeek – Director [Donizetti]
Daisy Brown – Director [Wolf-Ferrari]
Flavio Graff – Set Designer
Bettina John – Stage & Costume Designer
Luca Panetta – Lighting & Video Designer
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 27 August, 2022
Venue: Belcombe Court, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, England
Two operas here – one written over a century before the present day, the other nearly two centuries ago – show that women dealing with ‘toxic masculinity’ is nothing new, however apparently comic their situations. Although both also owe something to the earlier traditions of eighteenth-century opera buffa (a genre in which women first came to speak prominently for themselves as individuals and generally get the better of the men) the dynamics at play in the relations between the sexes work perfectly well in a contemporary setting, as recreated in these two productions.
Following the disappearance (presumed dead) of her abusive first husband, Gasparo, Rita (in Donzietti’s eponymous opera, 1841) has struck out on her own by buying an inn, and marrying again, this time the unassuming Peppe, whom she beats and keeps on a tight leash. When Gasparo returns, for his part believing Rita to have died and seeking her death certificate so that he can remarry, Peppe realises that this is an ideal means to escape his unhappy situation. In Lysanne van Overbeek’s production, the action takes place principally in the pub garden, overseen by the somewhat flummoxed barman, Bortolo, a silent role added for this performance (paralleling the equivalent role of Sante, the dumb servant, in Il segreto di Susanna, who is required by that opera’s original scenario). Comedy is manifested more in the choreography rather than the serviceable if not especially memorable or ingenious English translation of the French libretto.
The men’s fecklessness is shown by their ambivalence, on the one hand as they both seek to surrender Rita (which suits both of them to do) by playing a game of ‘rock, paper, scissors’ (rather than a duel, as in the original), and on the other hand as they each estimate the blow to their pride and honour in losing out to their opponent. Jack Dolan gives a hefty account of Peppe, sometimes straining in the upper tenor register, demonstrating more musical force than his pushover character who is eventually reconciled with Rita, as they mutually recognise that their best interests are to remain together. Natasha Page is equal to the plucky role of Rita, particularly in her first aria where she asserts herself with steely vigour. Kieran Rayner’s confident, suave performance belies Gasparo’s violent past and makes him a more articulate and compelling personality.
For Wolf-Ferrari’s little comedy (1909) the scenario is brought up to date by staging Susanna’s guilty secret (her passion for smoking) as an illicit party held at home during a Covid lockdown, in which Sante and the three members of the Tik Tok Chorus hold a rave (in mime as the prelude plays) whilst her husband, Gil is out on essential work. The comic scenario neatly runs then more or less exactly along the lines of the original drama, as Susanna dashes out to obtain more cigarettes for the party (or necessary office supplies as Downing Street would doubtless have it) which is noticed by Gil and prompts his suspicions as to who Susanna has been entertaining, compounded when he detects the lingering odour of smoke when he comes indoors. The fact of Covid restrictions therefore makes the drama somewhat more credible to contemporary audiences in giving a more explicable ground for Gil’s suspicions about Susanna’s venturing outside, where otherwise it would be harder today to sustain any understanding of Gil’s oppressive expectations in relation to his wife’s behaviour, as compared with the situation one hundred years ago when it would not be so strange to assume that she has less cause to be outside home.
The choreography of Daisy Brown’s production is handled more energetically and wittily than in Rita, as the little squabbles of marital strife are played out between Susanna and Gil, Katherine McIndoe sturdily but flexibly voiced, and Philip Smith musically eloquent in depicting his character’s importunate, niggling demeanour, until both flourish in more sustained tone for their reconciliation. The emotional undercurrents of the opera are astutely and satirically realised as the pair reflect on the first glimmers of their love by sharing some hot chocolate as they had once done, sending up the banality of such amorous encounters, but those first steps in their relationship also symbolically represented by the risqué addition of a cherry to the cream on top of their drinks. Lurid pink colours in the lighting also suggest a rather heady atmosphere.
The reduced orchestrations of both scores are played with considerable relish by The Bristol Ensemble under Olivia Clarke. The conversational, humorous way with the prelude to Rita (shorter than a typical overture) sets an urbane measure for that opera, whilst the bubbling manner of the overture to Il segreto instils more sparkle and activity to that work which bears both the lyricism of late Romantic Italian opera and some of the harmonic and orchestral richness of the equivalent German repertoire at that time – something like a diluted mixture of Puccini and Strauss. Despite the small-scale ensemble, this performance conveys levity and earnestness in fine balance.