In theory, it seemed like a good idea to stage Donizetti's rarely-performed one-act opera Rita for the Royal Opera's Young Artists as part of the annual 'Meet the Young Artists' week. But although I was delighted to have the opportunity to see the work in the theatre, neither the music nor the production quite lived up to its promise.
Rita tells the story of a wife and her two husbands. Rita was married to Gasparo, but as he was on a ship that sank she assumed he was dead and got remarried to Beppe. Meanwhile, Gasparo believes Rita to be dead because the village in which she lived burned down. However, it transpires that both of them managed to survive, as they discover one day when Gasparo walks into the inn run by Beppe and Rita. The theme of the opera is 'treat 'em mean and keep 'em keen': Gasparo used to beat Rita to tame her, and now Rita does the same to the rather timorous Beppe. So when Gasparo comes along, he teaches Beppe how to beat Rita in return.
The opera's eight numbers are all fascinating, but one is particularly unusual. Gasparo and Beppe sing a buffo duet in which they decide who is going to live with Rita - 'The loser is the winner: the winner takes the beating'. They draw lots and test each other in several ways, a complicated situation which Donizetti solves by setting the scene in a loose form of seven movements, each with a different speed, mood and time signature. Also of interest is the trio 'È moncherin', which similarly mirrors shifting moods with shifting speeds. However, there are no concerted numbers (concertati) in the work because there is no chorus.
Thomas Guthrie's production of Rita for his fellow Young Artists is colourful enough. He sets it in a 1950s café complete with chequered flooring and a bar/canteen selling 'brioche fresche', and several of the other Young Artists who were not singing appeared as lively extras at this performance. However, it says quite a lot that the most violent moment is when Gasparo takes out some Punch and Judy dolls and illustrates to Beppe how to keep women in check. There was very little slapping going on otherwise, and since domestic tension is the point of the piece (its subtitle being 'The Beaten Husband'), the production left me cold. I also felt that better direction - or perhaps more commitment in seeing the director's plans through - would have avoided the numerous clumsy exits and entrances and improved the interaction between the singers at times.
Perhaps they were tired from singing the opera three nights in a row, but two of the singers were out of tune quite a lot of the time, especially soprano Anita Watson as Rita. The part was written for a Cecilia Bartoli type, someone nimble and vivacious, and preferably exotic-looking, none of which really describes Watson; I would like to have seen Kishani Jayasinghe (who excelled as Rossini's Fiorilla in the Young Artists' Summer Concert) tackle the part instead. Watson's performance was not without its merits, of course: the voice can cut through the orchestra with power, and she has a bright personality. But with so much flat singing, and a complete inability to negotiate the ferocious fioriture, the overall effect was disappointing.
As Beppe, tenor Haoyin Xue fared much better. Although he was also out of tune sometimes and had a tendency to force the highest notes with worrying tension, his voice is ideal for the bel canto. He would make a fantastic recording artist who could rival Juan Diego Flórez with his easy projection and natural tone - and there's none of the blandness that can make Flórez's performances a little wearing. But Haoyin Xue does not have a particularly pronounced acting talent for opera, so I wonder what his future in the industry will be.
On the other hand, there was almost nothing but good news to be found in Krzysztof Szumanski's performance as Gasparo. A natural stage animal with a dark chocolate baritone voice, Szumanski showed up the other singers with his stylish, Italianate performance. As a bass-baritone perhaps the role lies a little high for him when it goes above middle C, but the sound in the middle octave is glorious. He has the makings of a great Don Giovanni and Eugene Onegin, and I would love to see him sing Macbeth one day.
Rita was first performed in French and contains extended sections of spoken dialogue between the musical numbers. Here performing it in Italian, Watson and Xue were cruelly exposed in the spoken sections. It didn't help that there were no surtitles and only a plot synopsis given, so that it was only possible to follow the story in its broad outlines. That's not desirable in an opéra comique, where moment-to-moment comic detail is the modus operandi, and it was a miscalculation to perform the opera in a foreign language without full translation.
Thankfully, Young Artist Andrew Griffiths conducted an excellent account of the score, inspiring the Southbank Sinfonia to give of their all. Both the balance of the instruments and the tempi were well handled, and the accompaniment was sensitive to all three singers (who were dogged, as ever, by the terrible acoustic of the Linbury Studio Theatre).
It was a shame to see two of the three singers at this performance looking and sounding so tired. At one point the tenor drank a huge mouthful of water before embarking on his taxing aria, and one could sense the stress that it caused him to reach for the Bs and C sharp. Perhaps if the Young Artists are scheduled to perform their own chamber opera next autumn, they might have a night off between performances?
Photo credit: Noah da Costa
Read our interview with Krzysztof Szumanski about this production here.