L’equivoco stravagante - Dramma giocosa per musica
in two acts (1811)
Ernestina - Marina Prudenskaja (mezzo)
Gamberotto - Bruno de Simone (baritone)
Buralicchio - Marco Vinco (bass baritone)
Ermanno - Dmitry Korchak (tenor)
Rosalia - Amanda Forsythe (soprano)
Frontino - Ricardo Mirabelli (tenor)
Prague Chamber Choir
Orchestra Haydn di Bolzano e Trento/Michelangeli
rec. Pisaro Rossini Opera Festival, August 2008
Director: Emilio Sagi
Set designer: Francesco Calcagnini
Costume designer: Pepa Ojanguren
Light designer: Guido Levi
Picture format: NTSC / Colour / 16:9
All regions: 0
Sound: Dolby digital / Linear PCM 2.0
Notes and synopsis: Italian, English, German and French
Subtitles: Italian, English, German, French and Spanish
DYNAMIC 33610 [142:00]
One of the joys of opera is that there is always a saving grace. The libretto may be dire but the music a real pleasure; the directorial team’s efforts may be uninteresting but the soloists stimulating. And so it is here.
As written originally, Gamberotto, a nouveau riche farmer, and his literary daughter Ernestina, favour the rich and not very bright Buralicchio as Ernestina’s future husband. However, Ernestina’s penniless tutor Ermanno, loves her. To get rid of Buralicchio, servants Rosalia and Frontino, as friends of Ermanno, create the rumour that Ernestina is in fact Gamberotto’s son who was castrated as a young boy to become an opera castrati, a career move later abandoned, and now dresses as a woman. The accompanying booklet explains that it was only some years previously that this mutilating practice was prohibited - so not entirely fanciful at the time of writing. Buralicchio falls for the ploy, and is so incensed at how he has been deceived by his prospective wife and father-in-law that in revenge he informs the local army commander that Ernestina is a deserter. Ernestina is arrested and imprisoned. Ermanno facilitates her escape. All is explained and Gamberotto reconciled to Ermanno as the prospective son-in-law.
However, the original libretto was full of innuendos and puns to the point of scurrility to nineteenth century ears, such that it was ordered to be withdrawn after just three performances. Except for Rossini’s plundering for other operas, it then disappeared for nearly two centuries. It was revived recently in our continuing quest to hear and see all that the great composers wrote. Justified? On this evidence, probably, but only for the music.
In the plot for this production the story is updated to the 1970s. Gamberotto is a vegetable import/export merchant. According to the Dynamic website Ernestina is a seductive businesswoman. However when she first appears she drifts about reading a book entitled ‘Love’. Buralicchio becomes an Elvis rocker. Leave the rest of the plot alone, yes, including the castrati part, and you are indeed in the land of the ridiculous. Suspend disbelief? Essential if the plot is to have any relevance.
Bruno de Simone and Marina Prudenskaja are father (Gamberotto) and daughter (Ernestina). It would be so easy to say that they thereby lead the production; but the roles for Marco Vinco (Buralicchio) and Dmitry Korchak (Ermanno) are equally important; leaving Amanda Forsythe (Rosalia) and Ricardo Mirabelli (Frontino) as the complicit servants/employees. What can be said is that Bruno de Simone heads this comparatively young and enthusiastic team of singers who respond and meld in voice and acting.
As well as a distinctive timbre, de Simone has outstanding clarity of diction so important for the ‘patter’ ensembles and the rapid-fire exchanges with Vinco. His years of experience show with his faultless comic timing and excellent acting making one almost overlook the libretto – and some of the sub-titles. Not much need for vocal colouring here, just the ability to make the most of what is in reality an uninteresting character.
The young Italian Marco Vinco has that so very interesting voice: a bass-baritone that can speed with clarity into patter songs and turn into a coloratura spectacle. This is a gift of a role for him which he takes almost to the point of over-acting – but not quite. He saunters around the stage, the rocker with swaggering grace. Again no strong colouring but a warm open tone that misses not a syllable.
The Russian tenor Dmitry Korchak is the love-sick tutor Ermanno. His vocal strengths exhibited here are excellent breath control and truly smooth legato. Maybe not in the league of Florez in his runs, but delicate floating notes piano are second to none.
Both Forsythe and Mirabelli make the most of their respective roles. Forsythe has a light almost shimmering voice, which she uses to great effect particularly when lecturing Mirabelli about love. Mirabelli has little opportunity to shine vocally but together with Forsythe they both act well to convince of their involvement in the shenanigans.
As with any Rossini opera, it is the ensembles that command attention. This was his first comic two-act opera. Therefore you might expect a standard considerably below that which he achieved later: and you would be wrong. Maybe the contrasts, vibrancy or sheer quality of writing are not of his greatest, but still there’s much to enjoy. Of all, the quintet in the second act is outstanding and superbly delivered. The early quartet of de Simone, Korchak, Forsythe and Mirabelli sets the standard whilst the buffo duet of de Simone and Vinco can only be described as fun.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the updating and the production generally. The updating seems to me to exacerbate the nonsense of the plot and does little, if anything, to help the music. The opening scene is a back-drop of end-on shipping containers; meetings convene in a boardroom; Gamberotto climbs to a podium for an aria/address to the employees and Ernestina’s cell is a cage on wheels. To overhear stage events, when not around a corner, soloists peer through the top of the back-drop. All very dismal. The settee/bath of act two, also viewed through an overhead angled mirror, are gimmicks too far. Putting Prudenskaja in strapless topped trouser suits who then crawls across tables, looks silly. Add to that a surplus PA holding instruction cards for the chorus of employees and having tiffs with Rosalia, plus maids in short skirts who act as a silent ‘backing group’ for Rosalia. It all becomes a tedious distraction too far.
Whilst a little more control to rein back the volume would not have gone amiss, the orchestra paces the music well and produces a richer sound than you might otherwise expect from their size with patter songs that fairly buzz along.
With such a rarely performed work it is perhaps slightly surprising that the market place does provide an alternative recording. In 2001 the Francesco Esposito production at Modena was recorded and is now available with a bit of effort (Kicco Classic KCOU9007). The problem is the quality of the sound: levels varying by stage position, sometimes sounding as if in an echo chamber and the occasional accompanying rumble of set movement. But what stunning sets. Act one is quite brilliantly staged using huge frames to create ‘pictures’ of stage action. Thus ‘overhearing’ is simple: characters in one framed ‘picture’ turn to watch the events in another such frame. All is emphasized by lighting which in itself adds immeasurably to the overall effectiveness of the set. It is a pastoral delight, set at the time it was written with period costumes and a chorus of rustics for Gamberotto’s agricultural background.
Act two is more difficult to stage but no nonsense of a cage for a prison: just another frame but with bars and Ernestina behind it. When Ermanno brings ,the clothes for her to change into, he stays close to the prison bars well lit whilst the rest of the stage falls into darkness, she changes unseen and then together, for the escape, they hoist the huge frame aloft. So simple and yet so effective.
Thus the choice is on the one hand of directorial and design charisma with too frequent variable sound and a somewhat wayward Ermanno; on the other hand there's the DVD under review with its incredibly uninspiring sets and distractions but with rock solid sound and strong ensembles.