Anyone familiar with the antics of Classical comedic plots knows their tendency toward absolute silliness in the eyes of modern audiences, but Boston University Opera Institute’s February 23rd opening night performance of Domenico Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segreto finessed clunky devices of Giovanni Bertati’s libretto to prove delightfully accessible through its naturalistic warmth and its 1950s-placed, pre-Felliniesque flamboyance.
In the program notes, the reader is informed that this opera, premiered a year after Mozart’s death in 1792, is “Cimarosa’s only work still regularly performed.” When listening to the overture for the first time, one is immediately struck by how Mozartean it sounds, at the same time anticipating the compositional style of Rossini and his “…vocal pyrotechnics that would soon come to vogue…” Conductor William Lumpkin masters and rides his extremely capable chamber orchestra at a very sharp clip.
Sitting in the Huntington Theatre in the dead of winter with its Edwardian ornamented décor in dim hues of French blue, the audience sees the curtains open to reveal a truly inspired set by scenic designer JiYoung Han, created to transport the audience to an idyllic Italian winery and villa so romantically lit by lighting designer Eric Watkins that you could almost feel the peach light of summer in Tuscany bask across your face, and the spray of citrus in the air from the orange tree branches bowing gently over a leonine, gargoyle fountain carved into a wall of pale stone. The illusion of summer was further realized by just one of the many ingenious touches by Stage Director Amy Hutchison, as when a planted piece of edible fruit is plucked off a branch by a character onstage to be peeled and enjoyed while another character sings. Many gestures were done with such naturalness of movement and posture that you could completely forget the rigors of vocal technique, language, and diction and simply enjoy the comedic and innocent spontaneity of each singing actor’s collaborative generosity toward their “fellow playmates.”
Although not all these young singers are at the same level of feeling comfortable with the drama and movement component of their training, they were very balanced as an ensemble, both musically and dramatically. And even the silent servants were infinitely watchable. Lauren Ashleigh Lyles as Fidalma and Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek as Count Robinson were really exceptional, deserving special commendation as highly professional, truly outstanding performers. Both are sensitive, timely musicians with beautiful instruments in which, without packing a surplus of volume, you could hear every word as well as see every nuance in their facility of language, their comedic timing, their facial expressions, and notably in their physical movements — constantly fresh and completely organic responses, mannerisms, and athletic agility.
Lyles was both a pleasure to listen to and physically stunning as a classic Italian ‘cougar’ bombshell with glamorously set, flaming auburn hair; costume designer Daisy Farrant took full, elegant advantage of Lyles’s slender and perfectly proportioned figure with magnificent costumes (while providing a little extra ‘support’ for the choreographed utilization of cleavage). Lyles has the glamour of a great stage actress and would make a very fine Baroness in The Sound of Music. Perhaps her most impressive physical feat was her effortless leap and wobble-less landing back and forth in the most hazardously spiked set of stiletto heels imaginable over her supine partner – a truly commendable exercise in trust on the part of John Irvin, who played her unwitting subject, Paulino.
Irvin, whose Paulino is a sweetly convincing, tender young lover lacking confidence due to his station, has a remarkably beautiful tenor voice highly suited for bel canto yet notably powerful. But he wants for facial expression, and clearly there was some confusion about his cues on opening night — when to climb up and down from the balcony in the opening duet. Nonetheless, for his willingness to risk the rickety, wooden ladder he had to safely maneuver multiple times, and to fearlessly lie under the threat of being trampled in stilettos, he deserves special recognition.
Soprano Sonja Krenek as Carolina has one of the most difficult and thankless jobs in the cast. As the ingénue, she has the most music to learn and the hardest coloratura, and she is onstage for the longest stretches of time while having the least dramatically to do. Practically every scene she was in was written in the same emotional color that demanded she do something spontaneously ‘new’ with it while tediously staying within character of the terribly upset, terribly indignant, innocent, artless young female. She managed to keep it relatively interesting, and for that someone should give her a medal.
Krenek’s counterpart, soprano Celeste Fraser, as Elisetta, provided her with an exciting opponent; the two engaged in a truthfully cantankerous banter between sisters that was not only very funny and effective but written as an Italian patter to be just as amusingly shrill. Fraser had a wonderful slouch and frumpy hairstyle that added to her awkwardness as the less attractive sister, and her vintage Italian pajamas had to have been one of the most heinous costumes ever donned onstage in a relatively well-budgeted production. Perhaps some suspension of authenticity in the form of ‘60s Parisian baby-doll chiffon might have been kinder.
Baritone Adrian Smith, as Signor Geronimo, had a powerful and expressive voice, but little expression in his eyes. He did not seem completely comfortable in the physical challenge of playing a character beyond his years; however, he made excellent use of comedic moments and cultivated a comical Italian disposition that served the role of patriarchal buffoon well.
Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek’s performance as Count Robinson can only be described as effortless. Completely convincing in his gestures as a British aristocrat, he had such litheness of movement that it made you long to see him dance, gliding across the floor like Fred Astaire with a beautiful woman, preferably Fidalma; but alas — spoiler alert — they don’t ever get together. Then again, as Director Amy Hutchison pointed out in her program notes, “Bertati’s libretto… pushes at the confines of tradition with its working class, merchant class and aristocratic characters all vying to love each other without respect for boundaries between social strata.”
There is this really handsome, blond, house servant. Maybe Fidalma will get together with him.
Remaining performances are on February 25, at 7:30 p.m., and February 26, at 2 p.m., at the Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston.
Janine Wanée holds a Bachelor’s degree in Voice from USC and Master’s degree in voice from Boston University. She is currently a member of the Copley Singers under Brian Jones.