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Seen and Heard Opera Review

Rossini, L´Equivoco stravagante
, Garsington Opera, 11th July 2004 (H-T W)


What a delight, and what bravura entertainment at such a consistently high level of artistic integrity: the musical genius of Rossini, the Italian director/designer Massimo Gasparon (in his UK debut), the brilliant belcanto conductor David Parry, the six ideally cast protagonists, the twelve members of the male chorus, the thirty-two strong Garsington Opera orchestra, incorporating the Guildhall Strings, and the fortepiano continuo of Nicholas Bosworth all made this an unusually musical evening.

The 19-year-old Rossini wrote "L´Equivoco stravagante" ("The Strange Misunderstanding"), a drama giocoso in two acts by Gaetano Gasbarri, for the Teatro del Corso in Bologna in 1811; it is only his second opera and the first in the longer two-act form. `The misunderstanding´, which happens in act two, had been the reason, that after only three performances, the authorities prohibited the work. It was never performed in its original form during Rossini’s lifetime and subsequently the autograph manuscript became lost and, along with it, the overture. Garsington followed, in its edition, overseen by Marco Baghelli and Stefano Piana, contemporary tradition, that is to use the overture to "La cambiale di matrimonio" instead.

The story is silly, but effective. Gamberotto (Andrew Shaw), a rich and recently ennobled ex farmer, who now wants to be seen as an intellectual surrounded by books and philosophy, decides to betroth his pretty daughter Ernestina (Elena Belfiore) to another rich farmer, the slightly stupid, arrogant and ugly Buralicchio (Henry Waddington). Meanwhile, Gamberotto´s companion Frontino (Darren Abrahams) prepares the young and handsome, but poor, Ermanno (Colin Lee), who has long fallen in love with Ernestina, to be her new philosophy teacher, whom Gamberotto accepts with pleasure. Simultaneously, he introduces him and the suitor Buralicchio to his daughter. But Buralicchio soon realises that his bride-to-be is flirting extensively with her new teacher. Meanwhile, Ernestina puts her Ermanno to the test and while he watches from the wings in despair she accepts Buralicchio. Ermanno nearly commits suicide only to be saved by Ernestina. Both embrace in love, watched by the father and the suitor. The sound of advancing soldiers brings this pandemonium to a close. After the interval, Rosalia, Ernestina’s companion, and Frontino discuss the desperate situation, as Ermanno has been thrown out. But Frontino already has a plan. He writes a letter, which he leaves on the floor just before the nosy and jealous Buralicchio enters. It contains a warning that soldiers are on their way to arrest Gamberotto’s son Ernesto for being a deserter. Frontino re-enters and explains to Buralicchio that Ernestina is in fact a boy, who had been castrated to become a castrato singer, but by being kept at home as a girl he has been spared military service. Now, the devil is loose. (The whole vocabulary Buralicchio uses is difficult to describe, despite the witty and undisguised surtitles, among others "I thought she was a hen and it turns out she’s a capon.") Ernestina is taken to prison, but is soon smuggled out dressed as a soldier by Ermanno, which finally leads to the opera’s sumptuously happy ending. It is, of course, important to know that while the opera had its premiere the Napoleonic regime in parts of Italy had outlawed the castration of musically gifted boys and, therefore, this subject had to become a matter for censorship.

Massimo Gasparon’s design – long white walls fitted with white bookcases and filled with white books – resembled the age of enlightenment, while his beautiful, but grotesquely exaggerated rococo costumes, with huge wigs, forced everybody to move in a kind of artificial style which allowed for endless comic situations. In this case, it also made a lot of sense to have the entire male chorus dressed as women. But Gasparon’s most important achievement had been his tasteful undertaking to choreograph every movement on stage - from time to time it seemed slightly over the top, but without ever becoming ridiculous or embarrassing - as well as the detailed characterisation of the main parts. It was all so meticulous rehearsed that even the last performance I saw looked as fresh as the first night must have been. This director, being only 35 years of age and for many years the assistant of Pier Luigi Pizzi, has already staged many rare operas worldwide and I am looking forward to his next appearance in the UK. Originally, he studied architecture which seemed to be the reason that he handled an altogether not that well structured opera with so much charm and flair.

Ultimately, it is the conductor who recreates the musical spirit and keeps an opera on its feet. With David Parry in the pit there could not have been a better choice. He guaranteed a superb balance between orchestra and stage, with every detail of the orchestration coming across and he took risks without ever losing the overall control. His tempi and his instinctive feeling for the breadth and the colours of Rossini’s specific belcanto style were sheer joy. An evening to remember.


Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt  


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