Domenico Cimarosa. Heard of him? Try humming your favourite aria of his. Drawing a blank, right? The composer has barely stayed afloat in the wake of the masters who surround him. Working in the latter third of the 18th century, he sounds enough like Mozart to be compared to him – unfortunate since Mozart is incomparable – and he just predates the vocal fireworks of the bel canto era so curries little favour with singers hoping to show off. He was a huge success in his day yet has all but disappeared to the modern public. Surely Cimarosa has champions looking to exploit his status as a forgotten gem. Perhaps it’s fortunate that director R.B. Schlather, leading Oper Frankfurt’s new production of Cimarosa’s L’italiana in Londra, isn’t one of them.
He doesn’t fetishize the work. L’italiana is a well-written farce and he treats it as such. Nothing highfalutin’, just tasteful, creative, well-timed comedy with a punch of drama at the end. His direction is tight, the cast is strong, the musicians are inspired, and the forgotten work comes alive.
Between the male characters, it’s a competition for the affection of the young Italian woman, Livia, who has left Italy for London after getting dumped by the young English nobleman Arespingh. She’s hiding out in Madama Brillante’s inn under the pseudonym Enrichetta. Both Sumers, a Dutch businessman, and Don Polidoro, a Neapolitan, are cooped up in the hotel and have devolved into horndogs. Having caught Livia’s scent, they’re on her trail.
Tenor Theo Lebow plays Sumers as part eccentric millionaire, part watchful uncle, part overeager middle-aged creeper. He preaches moderation and, in keeping with his philosophy, represses his desires so aggressively that a glance can shock him into a fit of giggling titillation. Lebow has an endearing aura that makes Sumers, despite his peculiarities, harmless and ultimately lovable.
Sumers’ foil is Don Polidoro, a Neapolitan moron desperate for a good time. With chest hair on display and sunglasses concealing a perpetual hangover, Polidoro tumbles across the stage like a hammered ballet dancer, elegant but out of control. Convinced by Brillante that he’s found a magical invisibility stone, he high steps the length of the stage in slow motion like Elmer Fudd hunting wabbits. Glee smears across his face as he’s convinced he can’t be seen. He has a man-child charm and toddler’s attention span that keeps him eternally in the present and earns him affection.
Given a heap of physical comedy, Canadian bass-baritone Gordon Bintner unleashes moments of all out silliness as Polidoro. Bintner has always been a thoughtful singer with a gorgeous instrument but has seemed restrained in roles that explicitly call for boldness. Inhabiting Polidoro allows him to show a fuller, less moderated, more spontaneous version of himself.
Bianca Tognocchi is a revelation as Madama Brillante, who begins as a tactful, buttoned up hostess but quickly proves to be an earthy prankster. Brillante is as her name suggests and Tognocchi puts the character’s cleverness in her eyes. She registers the absurdity around her with subtle, good-natured sideward glances and eye rolls. Spending the opera pining after Polidoro, who can’t take even the slightest hint, she tricks him into seducing an ‘invisible’ Enrichetta for her own erotic satisfaction. An ebullient physical presence with reliable comedic chops and a juicy vocal timbre, Tognocchi is the backbone of the evening.
All three of the supporting singers sing Cimarosa’s music with deep commitment to style. Firmly in the classical era, Cimarosa’s work demands that the singers have rock solid internal metronomes and incisive control over their instruments. The music forbids self-indulgence (though Lebow, to everyone’s delight, tastefully manages to sneak in two ringing interpolated high notes.) When sung well, as these singers do, the audience almost forgets the characters are singing at all and the opera breezes by like a favourite Netflix comedy.
The two romantic leads don’t quite have the verve of the rest of the cast. Angela Vallone as Livia wavers in her commitment to the character’s inner life. Livia has never faced such unstable circumstances, having lost the love of her life, abandoned her family, and found herself in a foreign land under an assumed identity with no money or contacts. Yet she comes off, in Vallone’s characterization, as mostly blasé about the whole ordeal.
Vallone handles the music admirably though and has moments of genuine turmoil in the character’s difficult final scene, the most extraordinary stretch of music in the opera. Cimarosa gives Livia a densely structured, drama packed climactic scena reminiscent of the great Handel operas, that vacillates between accompanied recitative and arioso. Cimarosa rips through a kaleidoscope of motives, each ratcheting the tension tighter. Vallone summons Livia’s indignation and rides it to the opera’s climax.
Iurii Samoilov is a mystery as Arespingh. He blusters through the evening emphasizing the spoiled young man’s anger and not much else. As the opera wraps, Samoilov cracks a smile and reveals the charm hidden beneath his macho façade, but it’s too little too late.
Nonetheless this production, Schlather’s second for Oper Frankfurt, is a runaway success and a rare delight. Let’s hope for everyone’s sake, Cimarosa’s included, that it enters and remains in Frankfurt’s repertoire for years to come.
More details on tickets and the production here.
Opera Canada depends on the generous contributions of its supporters to bring readers outstanding, in-depth coverage of opera in Canada and beyond. Please consider subscribing or donating today.