Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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Trouble in the Henhouse
Il matrimonio segreto Comes to Roost in Innsbruck

August 15, 2016

A chicken opera?  That was the premise of the clever production of Domenico Cimarosa's Il matrimonio segreto (1792) that clucked into the Tiroler Landestheater as a central production of this year's Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik (Innsbruck Festival of Early Music).  Cimarosa's evergreen opera buffa is based on a 1766 comedy by George Colman, the Elder, and David Garrick, The Clandestine Marriage, which is itself based on William Hogarth's sharp satire of upper class marriage for money, the "Marriage ŕ la Mode" paintings (1743-45).  Giovanni Bertati's libretto for Cimarosa, however, removes most of the biting satire to bring us a quick paced and funny opera buffa with a typical plot wherein the attractive young people get to marry instead of having the girl married off to an older, rich nobleman.

Old Geronimo, a rich merchant of Bologna, has two daughters, Elisetta and Carolina, while  his household is managed by his widowed sister Fidalma.  Geronimo is excited by the ideal of marrying off Elisetta, the elder daughter, to Count Robinson, his patron, and the Count is excited by the idea of getting his hands on the generous dowry that goes with her.  Unbeknownst to everyone, Carolina has fallen in love with Geronimo's young secretary Paolino, and the two have been married, secretly, for two months.  Paolino is promoting the marriage of Count Robinson and Elisetta with the idea that once the older daughter is married off, he and Carolina can reveal their situation and obtain Geronimo's blessing.  But when the Count arrives, he falls for pretty Carolina and declares that he wants nothing to do with the plainer Elisetta.  Trouble in the hen house!  Meanwhile, Fidalma has her eye on Paolino, because "con un  marito via meglio si sta"--'you're better off with a husband', wink-wink.  Of course all is revealed in the end when Carolina and Paolino are discovered together in her coop, er, bedroom, at night, and they are forced to reveal their marriage.  Count Robinson, as "un uom del mondo," 'a man of the world', does the right thing and pleads the lovers' case while agreeing to marry Elisetta afterall--and getting her dowry (a large golden egg in the production).  All is forgiven, and even Fidalma gets a lover--a pigeon (mute role).

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The production by Renaud Doucet (stage direction) and André Barbe (sets and costumes) set the show in an old barn with outsized discarded books and an outsized broken chair, apparently so big because they are seen from chicken-perspective.  Up on the left was the chicken coop, and on the right, on the seat of the huge broken chair, was a basket where the hens laid their eggs.  All of this was depicted in black and white or sepia, cartoonish designs for the barn and its furnishings.  For the costumes, M. Barbe designed outfits which were crossovers between eighteenth century garb and chicken finery.  Thus the breasts and bustles of the women were exaggerated, and the dresses were colorful representations of various kinds of chicken plumage.  The men of course were roosters, with bright "plumage" woven into their eighteenth century frock coats and hose.  Even the wigs were a cross between period wigs and rooster crests.  Count Robinson, as a rooster from Scotland, wore a tartan kilt along with his chicken accoutrements.  I think that the chickenish outfits were intended to suggest particular varieties of hens and roosters, but although I can do opera history and analysis, literary history and analysis, a bit of general history, and a few languages, I am weak on poltrology, and I beg the reader's pardon for not being able to identify singers with specific poultry breeds.

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M. Doucet continued the chicken theme into the stage direction.  The singer-chickens strutted, occasionally moved their heads and necks back and forth the way chickens do when they walk.  They scratched at the dirt with their 'feet' (colorful chicken-colored shoes), the way chickens do when they are agitated, they ruffled their 'feathers', and they even crowed once or twice.  There were silent roles too, pigeons seemingly, some of whom performed remarkable gymnastic flips and leaps.  The concept was carried through so deftly, so musically (in accord with the music), and so consistently that the line between eighteenth century comedy and  barnyard satire seemed scarcely to exist.  Of course, using animals to satirize human behavior has a long and honorable history, at least back to Aesop, and there is something supremely satisfying about turning prima donnas into squabbling hens and tenors into bantam roosters.

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The cast was, by and large, excellent.  At the top were the two buffo basses, Renato Girolami as Count Robinson and Donato Di Stefano as Geronimo.  They are old pros, and they sang and acted the classic roles most amusingly, and with the addition of chicken-ness,which gave the buffo mannerisms and traditional visual jokes added piquancy.  Giulia Semenzato was a pert and pretty chick; she has a pure soprano that easily filled the hall, and was often silvery.  It seemed to me, however, that she tired noticeably by the time of the great Quintet which she leads late in Act II ("Deh, lasciate ch'io respiri").  Klara Ek, another soprano, sang Elisetta, the snobbish sister who wants to be a countess at all costs, with a good dose of coloratura, although she too seemed tired by the time her big "vengeance" aria, "Se son vendicata," comes up in Act II.  Fidalma, a mezzo-soprano  role, was supposed to be Vesselina Kasarova, but an announcement in the Program said that she had had to withdraw from all performances due to her having suffered an injury.  She was replaced by Italian mezzo Loriana Castellano, a young singer from Altamura in Puglia.  She seemed perfectly attuned to the production, acted well and sang well too; she must have joined the production in time to participate in extensive rehearsals because she did not seem at all tentative.  Weakest of the singers was tenor Jesús Álvarez (Paolino), whose voice was smallish for the house; he got through his lovely Act II aria "Pria che spunti in ciel l'aurora" ("Before dawn tints the sky") with some difficulty.

Best of all was the superb Academia Montis Regalis under Alessandro De Marchi.  This orchestra, using period instruments, is always wonderful, and De Marchi kept everything moving along.  The long passages of secco recitative were accompanied at the harpsichord by Mariangiola Martello.  De Marchi made a point of performing the score absolutely complete, including all recitatives and all musical repeats.  Since Cimarosa's style relies on repeating lines and phrases over and over, the opera is usually cut, but not this time.  It was originally announced for three and one-half  hours; then a Program note lengthened that to three hours and forty-five minutes, but the actual performance was just short of four hours, including one intermission.  Four hours is a lot of opera buffa!  A Wagner-length opera buffa!  It boggles the mind to think that at the world premiere in 1792 in Vienna, Emperor Leopold II was so pleased that he ordered the cast to encore the whole performance--the longest bis on record.

Thank heaven that the charming production, the fine singing and the excellent orchestral  playing made it all seem lively and fun.  Cluck-cluck.

Photos courtesy of Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik

Charles Jernigan

Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network