San Carlo/Rousset: Il marito disperato

Date: March 16, 2013
Conductor: Christophe Rousset
Production: Paolo Rossi
Location: The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong.

Il marito disperato (The Desperate Husband) is an opera buffa whose libretto triggers plenty of transitory laughter but whose score, while pleasant, offers very few memorable moments. It is thus not surprising that Amazon lists a grand total of one recording, and that the opera has been sitting in the library archives for as long as anyone can remember until San Carlo, in collaboration with director Paolo Rossi, brought it back on stage in 2011.

This production represents the fruits of a project by the Naples/Campania government aimed at restoring the city’s cultural tradition. The opera has roots in Naples: its premiere occurred there in 1785, and its composer, Domenico Cimarosa, launched his career in the city and is considered to be the finest embodiment of the Neapolitan school of music.

Il marito is rarely performed anywhere, but its subject matter is universal: a story of love and deception that exemplifies aspects of the human condition. Its delivery is rendered through commedia dell’arte, a method of stagecraft that dramatizes fixed social types, such as the funny old men, the scheming servants, and men with an outsized libido. In Il marito, exaggeration of clichés rules the day, in stark contrast to verismo’s naturalism, but as a communication tool of the human condition, the result is no less effective.

The desperate husband is Don Corbolone, who believes that Gismonda, his wife, must be locked at home to avert flirtatious intrusions. The scheming servant is Dorina, who takes the Don’s Machiavellian absolutism so personally that she is determined to avenge Gismonda, her mistress. Dorina first makes up slandering stories about the Don in front of Gismonda’s father (funny old man), and then encourages Gismonda to pretend to be in love with Count Fanfaluchi (the man with an outsized libido) so as to further annoy the Don. Gismonda also conspires with her friend Eugenia in a honey trap to solidify her case against the Don. Valerio, Eugenia’s love interest, represents a powerless spirit of innocence amidst all these trickery. As these archetypes cross paths, various aspects of the human spirit – jealousy, selfishness, and ultimately compassion and forgiveness – are laid bare for all to see.

These themes are so universal that they take place not just in Bourbon times but all times – it is with this premise that Rossi sets the piece in what he calls a contemporary “near future”, complete with dark shades, microphones and Nike headbands. While modern, the production is quite traditional in a sense that dramatic cues are aligned with the libretto. When the libretto calls for rain, weapons and clothing, they were sure to be ready onstage. Paolo Rossi, as a live-in director, breached the stage often, as if he was directing the whole thing as it soldiered on. His stage presence was not intrusive, but rather superfluous as he added very little to the flow of drama other than as a form of concept art. Video projections as well as colorful props on either side of the stage provided some embellishing flavors, but were neither impactful enough nor directly involved in pushing the story forward. The unique and winning concept, however, was the frequent appearance of a male dancer representing onstage the masculine ideal that lived in Gismonda’s psyche. Dressed like an aerobics teacher in those cheesy sports videos in the early 90s, the un-credited dancer would rollick, move about, and flex his muscles onstage just as Gismonda sang about loneliness (in Dove mai, dove si vide) or desire. The dancer became an onstage mental archetype in Rossi’s post-Freudian analysis.

Andrea Concetti, as the Don, exhibited a prominent Italianate baritone with full control of his vocal goods, especially in legato. Concetti is the kind of singer who does not fuss with embellishments, and more specifically tends to keep his vowel endings short but clear. This trait works to Concetti’s favor in the role because the Don’s spirit cannot appear too brash and ornate in the midst of a grand scheme against him. Maria Grazia Schiavo sang Gismonda, who as the outsider under house arrest early in the opera lamented wasted life in Dove mai, where her voice effused with hints of melancholy and youthful nervousness. As her participation in Dorina’s scheme became more pronounced, her vocal dispatch adjusted. In Da mille furie sono agitate, her big number in Act III, Schiavo’s Gismonda, now an insider with full knowledge of the scheme, exploded with full abandon. Here, her lines had conspicuously more support and clarity, with a fast, steady vibrato and a vocal top made of solid gold. Elena Belfiore seemed to thoroughly enjoy her stage time as the anything-goes Dorina. Her voice was buttery and smooth, but often times lacked projection whether paired with Gismonda or in ensemble singing. Filippo Morace, as the outlandish Count, had some of the best comedic moments of the evening, often by interacting directly with the audience and revealing him as the real butt of the joke. Alfonso Antoniozzi, as the father, sang well but impressed further with his acting and animated facial expressions. Patrizia Biccirè, as Eugenia, was a reliable singer and a savvy actress who naturally commanded the stage through her exaggerated body movements. Shi Yijie, as Valerio, polished his phrases with a gentle diligence and a fine metallic top. The promising young singer should find a bright future ahead of him.

The music in Il marito may not be truly memorable, but there are beautiful snippets, especially in ensemble efforts. The quartet at the end of Act I, where the avengers are about to begin their exploits, and the septet in Act III, where the schemers relish their scheme against the Don, are good examples of Cimarosa at his finest; this ensemble cast happily obliged, resulting in enjoyable, syrupy delight. Christophe Rousset, baroque expert with few peers, had the reliable San Carlo Naples orchestra in complete control. His tight leash provided the necessary law and order to rein in the overflowing comedic abundance onstage.

Il marito disperato, in Hong Kong.

Il marito disperato production still. Bruno Praticò (left), did not make it to Hong Kong, and was replaced by Andrea Concetti, who allegedly had to learn the entire role in a few weeks. Photo credit: San Carlo and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.


Il marito disperato production still. Photo credit: San Carlo and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.


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