Royal Academy of Music – Rossini’s La cambiale di matrimonio

Rossini

La cambiale di matrimonio – Opera in one Act to a libretto by Gaetano Rossi [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Tobias Mill – Charles Cunliffe
Fanny – Luiza Willert
Edward Milfort – George Curnow
Joseph Slook – Johannes Moore

Norton – Duncan Stenhouse
Clarina – Chloe Harris

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Johann Stuckenbruck

Sam Brown – Director
Joshua Gadsby – Lighting designer
Teresa Poças – Costume designer


Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 16 May, 2023
Venue: Royal Academy of Music, London

La cambiale di matrimonio (The Marriage Contract) was the 18-year-old Rossini’s second opera, but his first to be staged (in 1810) since the earlier Demetrio e Polibio didn’t receive its premiere until 1812. It was the first of five farces commissioned by the small Venetian theatre of San Moisè, and already pre-empts the great operatic comedies which the composer would write in the years to come (and some music would be reused in them).

The moral which the opera ultimately delivers is warm-hearted, as it exalts the happiness and joy that radiates outwards from a harmonious relationship, as well as simply celebrating the conventional happy ending of the reunion of such a couple, Edward and Fanny, after her father, Tobias Mills, makes a futile attempt to enrich himself by fulfilling the eponymous contract proposed by his client, Joseph Slook, a rich Canadian businessman who effectively attempts to buy himself a wife. It is apparently lightweight as a drama, but as a farsa it doesn’t necessarily claim to be anything more profound; it encompasses all those typical themes of an opera buffa of one Act of barely 80 minutes making it a pleasantly concise, if late, example of a venerable theatrical genre which had been around for eight decades or so by the time of its composition.

Although director Sam Brown’s programme note primly indicates that the gender politics of the work are outdated, that misses the fact that the libretto’s ironic metaphorical trope of Fanny and the institution of marriage as ‘merchandise’ to be contracted and invested in is intended to satirise the bourgeois conventions of the time in relation to wedlock (and honour defended to the point of a duel if need be). That comment also appears not to realise, therefore, that the whole tradition of opera buffa hardly needs any apology as itreveals a nascent feminist consciousness in elevating the social and emotional status of women as equal partners in human relationships, making the female characters the driving forces of these comic dramas. No less an authority than Brigid Brophy made such a point in her astute study of Mozart’s operas.

The original work is set in London and Slook is meant to be a Canadian, neatly embodying a new and apparently gauche challenge to the existing world order. Brown’s production claims to be about English snobbery (Mills was also created as an English merchant) but the sparse set here – with just a few nods to the period of composition – really leaves it (and all the more effectively in doing so) as a more general and abstract satire upon the assumptions about marriage in all European societies at the time as an act of barter, usually dependent upon the whims of patrician avarice. That is implied by the overall golden yellow colour, like bullion, for Mills’s chambers, with its floor, day bed, and the livery of the servants Norton and Clarina. Tellingly Fanny and Edward retain their individuality with their own characteristic dress; although Norton is temporarily clad in a yellow jacket to fit in with and recede into that background while Fanny’s suitor, Slook appears in brash red to press his bargain, he removes that jacket once Slook generously recognises the authenticity of Fanny and Edwards’s love and renounces his contractual claim to the former in favour of the latter by making him his heir so that he will no longer be poor.

What Brown preserves, then, is essentially a comedy of manners, with its slapstick elements played up, with the upstart and raffish Slook unsettling expectations by jumping up from within the auditorium to make his first entry. The tempo increases in the latter stages of the opera as Mills’s propensities to violence in the duel are dissipated after its comical outcome: as the music works up to a distinctively Rossinian high, that is counterpointed on stage as Slook brings out a pair of alembics with laughing gas to bring everyone to a state of euphoria.

The cast capture well the idiosyncrasies of their characters, both in their singing and acting, above all Johannes Moore’s energetic portrayal of Slook. Both his and Charles Cunliffe’s baritone voices project an easy vigour as they come to blows over what they each hope to attain from the contract for Fanny’s marriage to the former. Luiza Willert asserts herself with some force in that role, particularly in the brazen delivery of her high notes, showing that she means to remain mistress of her own heart. George Curnow and Duncan Stenhouse turn in more gently witty accounts of the two male lovers, with Chloe Harris as the latter’s sidekick, Clarina, lustrous and a good complement to Fanny in the work’s only two soprano parts.

Johann Stuckenbruck conducts the Royal Academy Sinfonia in a lithe, clear account of the lively score, showing how indebted Rossini was to Mozart’s operatic comedies, not least in the first duet for Edward and Fanny with both sustained and pizzicato strings, and in the engaging writing for woodwind and horn elsewhere. But there is room for more sparkle and to push the momentum on in the ensembles and the final scenes of the work to evoke fully the nature of slapstick farce rather than a sentimental comedy. Even so, the overall production is a rare and welcome chance to encounter Rossini at the beginning of his remarkable career.

Further performances to May 19 with alternate casts

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