Rossini: Il Signor Bruschino and La Scala di Seta

British Youth Opera

Peacock Theatre, 17 September 2009 3 stars

British Youth Opera British Youth Opera is now a thoroughly grown-up institution and over the years its summer season productions have showcased a number of young professional singers who are very definitely main stage material nowadays. Former alumni Lucy Crowe distinguished herself in The Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne this summer, and Claire Rutter was a hugely admired Norma at Grange Park. So the opportunity to see the class of 2009 in two early Rossini one-act comedies was a welcome one, and by and large they did not disappoint. With very decent production values, and sterling support from the Southbank Sinfonia in the pit, under the experienced baton of Robert Dean, this year’s crop of principal singers had every opportunity to make their mark. If the results were uneven, that is merely the nature of things at such an early stage in incipient operatic careers.

Il Signor Bruschino is a relative rarity onstage nowadays. Like Verdi’s early comedy Un Giorno di Regno, it was a complete failure on its first night in January 1813. Unlike Giorno, it has some genuinely original and striking effects – the tap-tapping of violin bows on music stands during the opening sinfonia (in this instance, cleverly staged to a breakfast ritual that put smiles on faces from the word go), the inversion of melodic lines for tenor and soprano as soon as they meet! It is of course of stock construction, but none the worse for that when done with pace and verve. The plot is gossamer-thin: ardent young lover Florville foils Gaudenzio’s attempt to marry off daughter Sofia to young signor Bruschino by paying an innkeeper to keep the latter detained while he impersonates his rival. Florville gets his girl with a combination of quick thinking (his plans constantly threatening to derail) and boldness: Gaudenzio accepts him at the last and all ends happily. The dupe is old signor Bruschino, onstage for much of the act and unable to understand why everyone takes a perfect stranger to be his son. And what a hot day it is (as he repeatedly explains, his confusion growing by the minute)!

As Florville, Thomas Herford started rather foursquare. His opening aria, 'Deh! Tu m’assisti, amore' was stolid rather than graceful – he had all the notes, but no real sense of Rossinian style. As the evening progressed he relaxed and improved considerably, in part helped by a growing sense of ensemble playing. As the knowing (perhaps slightly too knowing) maid Marianna, Adriana Festeu made a good impression: she is almost the finished article, with attractive dark mezzo tone and incisive delivery. But the girl who absolutely stole the show was Elena Sancho as Sofia – this was a terrific leading lady performance. Her attack was precise, her tone production rock solid and in her showpiece aria she delivered pure Rossini. The notes have to glitter, the articulation has to be spot on – Sancho took centre stage and delivered. I shall watch out for her progress with interest.

One of the inherent difficulties of a youth opera production is the casting of the older men, and none of the senior citizen protagonists in Bruschino really escaped the vocal traps Rossini sets – these were young voices trying to muster a gravitas that is not really there yet. Thomas Kennedy as old signor Bruschino had the added problem of a throat infection, so I have to reserve judgement on the real quality of his voice. As Gaudenzio, Sofia’s father, Michel de Souza sang cleanly and with distinction of tone, but was on the light side for a figure of paternal authority. But I liked the baritone of Benjamin Cahn in the cameo role of Filiberto the innkeeper, and he shaped his melodic lines in a way that was always pleasing to the ear.

La Scala di Seta was written six months earlier than Bruschino and is in many ways a better crafted piece. Its overture is of course a standard concert opener in the symphonic repertoire: here it was staged, quite elaborately, to give the back story and to leave us in no doubt that the young lovers Giulia and Dorvil are actually husband and wife in a thoroughly modern manner. Once again there is a dupe, Giulia’s guardian Dormont, who wants to marry her off to Blansac: once again the young lovers get the better of authority and Blansac settles instead on Giulia’s cousin Lucilla. The buzzing fly in the ointment throughout is Giulia’s servant Germano, who has designs on his mistress and who thinks he is being encouraged.

The scheduled Germano being indisposed, Peter Brathwaite stepped in and had an excellent debut in the role. He has an attractive stage presence and managed – just – to carry off that difficult trick of acting the drunk with a bottle onstage! His baritone is strong in the upper register, the sound he produces clean and attractive. He contrasted nicely too with his ‘rival’ Blansac, played in the grand manner by Aaron Alphonsus McAuley. McAuley has an imposing stage presence and a sonorous bass-baritone voice, which he focuses well forward in the lower register. This was an impressive sing.

The two female leads were well contrasted, Hanna Hipp as Lucilla a tall and statuesque mezzo who moved well and who sang, to my ears, well within her capabilities. The tone she produced was pure and well-rounded, although rhythmically she was occasionally slightly behind the beat. No such problem for Natalya Romaniw as the heroine Giulia: she has an incisive sense of attack, a light soprano that verges on the soubrette at times, but she brought a sense of conviction to the role that gave the production great momentum – which it has to have. This was a confident, assured performance and brought her a deserved ovation.

Opposite her as Dorvil, her secret husband, Carlos Noguiera produced a very individual, somewhat exotic tenor sound. He is definitely not a mainstream tenor! The voice is fine but the tone has a dark, almost cloying quality to it that definitely marks him out (once heard, I suspect, not easily forgotten).  I shall be interested to see how he develops and where he goes with such an individual voice. Completing the line-up, in the dupe role of Dormont, Eliot Alderman made what he could of the part but his voice is simply too young to have the sort of gravitas that the role requires.

The detailed criticisms notwithstanding, I found it immensely encouraging to see work of this quality and ambition being put on – to a near-capacity audience – by British Youth Opera. They delivered a really fun evening. For the singers it was of course important to learn the roles in Italian (and as far as I know, there is no modern, idiosyncratic English performing version of Bruschino). But the surtitles were a bit approximate and a bit creaky, and a lot of Rossini’s wordplay was lost – literally – in translation. Never mind – it was a genuine pleasure to see these two operatic comedies onstage again.

By Mike Reynolds

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Review of La Cenerentola at the Royal Opera House
Review of La gazzetta on DVD
Review of La pietra del paragone on DVD