The enticing fizz of Rossiniesque champagne lifted the spirits of a large audience at the Paramount Theater Saturday night with what counts, in a sense, as the world premiere performance of the complete version of a virtually unknown comic opera by Rossini, elegantly sung and staged with theatrically comic brilliance. On the basis of this production, mounted by the New England Conservatory Opera Studies Department last night, I would not only be happy to see it again as given here, but I also hope that it will re-enter the repertory of popular Rossini works.
How is it possible for any full-scale comic opera by Rossini—let alone one composed smack in the middle of his prime period (right after Il Barbiere di Siviglia in 1816 and right before La Cenerentola in 1817, two of his most frequently performed operas)—to be so totally unknown?
Of course La Gazzetta was performed under Rossini’s direction in his own lifetime at the small Neapolitan theater for which he composed the work, where it was successful at the premiere, but it had only one further production in his lifetime, a decade later in Palermo. After that it remained forgotten until it was published as part of the new critical edition of Rossini’s works in 2002 by the Fondazione Rossini in Pesaro, under the editorship of Philip Gossett and Fabrizio Scipione.
But even that edition left a major problem: there was a hole in the middle of the opera where the libretto gave the text for an important quintet—but music was entirely lacking. No musical source—not Rossini’s autograph or any copies, or published vocal scores—contained the quintet. Evidently Rossini had never set it to music.
This evidently happened because the opera was intended for performance at the Teatro dei Fiorentini in Naples, a house where the tradition was for much of the dialogue to be in the Neapolitan dialect, especially roles written for the house star, a buffo bass named Carlo Casaccia. It was common for operas premiered in Naples and written in the local dialect to be translated in to standard (Florentine) Italian when taken elsewhere. Donizetti did this as a matter of course. But Rossini, who spent seven years composing for Naples, had his heart set on writing serious operas, which would be in Italian as a matter of course and more easily exported. In any case, he himself hardly understood the Neapolitan dialect, and La Gazzetta turned out to be his only comic opera written for Naples.
The question of the “hole in the middle” was answered in 2011 when, providentially, a librarian in Palermo (where La Gazzetta had its only other performance in Rossini’s lifetime) found a bundle of manuscripts including an unidentified quintet in Rossini’s hand; this was subsequently identified as the missing number from La Gazzetta. Clearly Rossini had composed it and then chosen to cut it. To our taste, this seems inexplicable. But the first act ran so long, with all the material prepared for the star Casaccia, that something had to go. So—no doubt with some regret—Rossini dropped the quintet to allow Don Pomponio, Casaccia’s comic character, to amuse the audience for perhaps ten minutes of recitative between musical numbers. Evidently Rossini hoped to have the quintet reinstated for the performance in Palermo and sent the manuscript to that house for the second production, but apparently it was not included there either—and there the manuscript remained, entirely overlooked, for nearly two centuries.
Following the publication of the critical edition, La Gazzetta was produced in Pesaro, Rossini’s home town, where a Rossini festival is held annually. This was directed by the Nobel Prize-winning Italian playwright and director Dario Fo (a later version of this production, from Barcelona, is available on DVD). But it took place before the discovery of the lost quintet. Fo found an imaginative way to include the text of the quintet by having the performers speak it rhythmically while the continuo group plays a well-known Rossini tarantella from the much later collection, Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of Old Age); in the context, it sounds like Italian rap!
But the NEC production of La Gazzetta is not only the first American performance of the opera’s critical edition, but it is also the first to include the rediscovered quintet. It is a fine number, brilliantly presenting the complex farcical situation shortly before the first act finale, and it unquestionably maintains the lively pace of an already lively first act in a way that a long stretch of recitative (lacking a superstar comic actor and an audience that understands the Neapolitan dialect) would not do. This was the “world premiere” in the NEC production, but it also makes the entire opera something of a world premiere in this complete—at last!—version.
Having provided this unusually detailed background, it is time to deal with what is actually offered in this series of performances (double -cast, with repetitions Sunday, April 7, at 3pm, and Monday and Tuesday at 8pm).
In sum, I have to say that there are so many utterly delicious comic touches, both musically and theatrically, that it is barely possible to remember them all. The NEC Opera Studies Department has assembled two casts that have been superbly prepared in the musical side by conductor Joseph Rescigno, abetted by Philip Gossett, who advised on matters of Rossini’s performance practice, and then rehearsed into an effective and very funny ensemble by director Joshua Major, who plays up the many elements of the plot that are almost pure farce, particularly as these are reflected in Rossini’s music.
The plot, drawn from a Goldoni comedy, features a self-important Neapolitan, Don Pomponio, who is determined to marry off his daughter Lisetta, while they are visiting Paris. He has placed a “personals” ad in the local gazette describing her charms and inviting applicants. All of this becomes clear in an opening scene played on the forestage at an outdoor café in front of a hotel. The locals are surprised to read the notice in the paper, think it in poor taste, and, led by Madama La Rose, a woman of some evident experience in the arts of love, believe that the father needs to be taught a lesson. Meanwhile Alberto, a friend of the local crowd, has returned from a long search for the perfect woman. (The lengthy orchestral introduction to his opening aria is made amusing by a staging in which the local girls approach him one by one for an evaluation; it takes him but a few seconds to look and shake his head “no” after finding some all-but invisible flaw.)
But Alberto is curious about the woman described in the ad.
At this point, the scene opens to the lobby of the hotel, which is the setting for the rest of the opera. The owner of the hotel, Filippo, is in love with Lisetta and she with him. The only problem is overcoming her father’s insistence that she make a brilliant match through the newspaper ad. Another father-daughter couple, Anselmo and Doralice, arrive at the hotel. From this point on, the plot takes on the special qualities of farce, as the two young women are mixed up in the minds of the other characters. Which is the one described in the ad? A series of further misunderstandings occur—is Lisetta married to Filippo? (as he claims, to prevent Alberto from pursuing her); did Doralice’s father placed the ad? (as Alberto mistakenly informs her, to her anger). Whose father is Don Pomponio? (Alberto asks for his daughter’s hand, though he is thinking of Doralice).
On and on the mixups go; finally Don Pomponio gets so fed up with his daughter that he announces he will marry again, have a son, and leave everything to him, disinheriting Lisetta. Madama la Rose and Doralice overhear this and decide to teach him a lesson. Doralice even sings a number designed to seduce him (with a very funny comic-sexy approach to the surprised Pomponio). Who is really married, and who is only pretending to be? This question sets off the first act finale, in a typically Rossinian build-up to maximum confusion.
Rossini’s characters often find themselves in a state of confusion in which no one quite knows how to act. The music keeps pulsing onward, often at a rapid pace, and the human characters become automata, trapped in a funny “machine” of interactions that reflects the flow and rhythm of the music. In many passages in this production, this kind of mechanistic choreography produces smiles or even outright laughter. It happens in the first-act finale (among other places), which Rossini often builds in music of a moderately fast tempo to the moment of frozen confusion, leading to a slow section in which the principals express their different views. Here director Joshua Major builds the crisis to a point in which the entire cast freezes in a large clump of interlocked bodies. At this point the lights darken and one by one the principals extricate themselves from the jumble and move into a spotlight to address the audience with their present concern. After they have so expressed themselves, they carefully return to their previous positions, the lights come up again, and the music takes up a still faster tempo to accompany the wild mix up of characters and their intentions to bring down the act curtain.
The second act contains still more confusion and amusement, but its main purpose, of course, is to work out the issues to a happy ending. There are two major stages of the action. By this time the lovers have figured out who loves whom; the main issue left is to outwit the fathers of the two potential brides. First Alberto and Filippo drum up reasons to challenge Don Pomponio to a duel to the death—though none of the three men is an experienced swordsman. At first the young men argue about which will issue the first challenge; they decided, with the full concurrence of Don Pomponio, that they will fight one another first to settle that question. This motivates a trio presenting what must be the funniest swordfight in all opera, especially as staged here. Clearly no one wants to attack, and their maneuvers to avoid the actual fight lead at one point to a soft-shoe duet (with swords) between Alberto and Filippo that is utterly hysterical.
The final plan is to arrange for a party, a masked ball, in which everyone will appear in Turkish costume (Don Pomponio is told that a distinguished Turkish suitor for his daughter is arriving). The two fiancées will dress identically so that their fathers cannot tell them apart, and in the confusion of the party they will run off to be married. This is eventually what happens. Once there is nothing more to be done about it, the fathers give their consent with more or less grace and the rest of the cast rushes back to the local gazette to catch up on the news.
The opening night cast for this delightful comedy was skilled and very well drilled into the close requirements of a farcical comedy. Bridget Haile (Lisetta) showed off a bright, light coloratura in her entrance (an extended shopping spree) and later on was able to project the angry strength of the young woman who had no intention of following her father’s plan for her. Jaime Korkos (Doralice) was a similarly strong vocal character with a fine comic sense (especially her pseudo-seduction of Don Pomponio, which was one of the two numbers in the score not written by Rossini but by an unidentified composer, probably the assistant who composed the recitatives). The older Madama la Rose was an effective part for Sadie Gregg, who was herself quite seductive in explaining that, whenever the opportunity arose, she liked to answer “yes.” She also sang the opening aria in Act 2, the other non-Rossini number. As a dramatic composition offering something to characterize the singer, it is the flattest number in the whole opera, though she sang it very well.
Marco Antonio Jordao (Alberto) was a charming “juvenile” (as this theatrical types is called by the British), a pleasant young man who is clearly going to end up with the girl of his dreams by the end. His clear tenor was well suited to this role. Jason Ryan (Filippo) has an attractive light baritone that was sometimes at the bottom of his range, especially in low opening phrases of several numbers, but once out of the basement it had an elegant clarity matched by his acting. Leroy Davis reveled in his pomposity as Don Pomponio, always ready to come back for more however often his plans were trounced by the combined efforts (so it must have seemed) of everyone in Paris. The smaller roles of Doralice’s father Anselmo and her unwanted suitor Monsù Traversen were ably taken by Christopher Weigel and Junhan Choi, respectively.
Joseph Rescigno, a very experienced operatic conductor, not only led the orchestra and singers in well-calculated tempi and excellent balance, but also dealt quickly and effectively with a few opening night jitters in a way which kept things moving smoothly.
I’ve already referred to the very imaginative staging of Joshua Major, who found many ways to invent the singers’ actions in ways that made the comedy come to life by reacting to what was going on in the music. He made this fine cast into a superb comic ensemble. Jon Savage’s sets brought cheerful fresh images of a hotel lobby and outdoor café in 1920s Paris (the period chosen for the opera’s setting). Katherine Stebbins’ costumes provided style and bright colors that fit the brightness of the music. And Christopher Ostrom’s lighting design matched the spirit of the rest of this bubbling opera.
With good reason the New England Conservatory was proud of this American premiere and world premiere. The members of the Opera Studies Department did Rossini proud, and themselves too.
In an earlier article about the opera, I mentioned that Rossini had reused material from several earlier operas as a way of testing the Neapolitans’ reaction to his style. Far and away the most familiar of these turns out to appear at the close of the rediscovered quintet, which is a recomposition of the finale in the first act of The Barber of Seville. But although the section begins with that familiar music, it is written so as to be taken at a faster tempo, and when the material returns at the end of the number, Rossini gives the older theme to the three men, while the two ladies add a new counterpoint that builds the work to a brilliant close.
See related article here.
Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.
The Second Cast Heard on April 9th
This reviewer also has nothing but praise for the performance he heard on Tuesday night. The opening Café Momusesque scene played before a highly detailed exterior façade as the staff rolled down the awning and prepared for the arrival of the guests. From the many well-timed comic bits, I take special pleasure in singling out the newsboy of Danielle Barger. She was hilarious. Another comedienne, Anne Simon, did a marvelous turn as the servant Tommasi. Her mugging, eye-rolling and ironic laughter never failed to amuse.
James Dornier’s Alberto evinced a fine lyric tenor as well as comfort with his assigned hapless stage persona. Jennifer Fijal’s Madame la Rose was a vision in a green cocktail dress wielding a fine, long cigarette holder as though it were a rapier. As the innkeeper Filippo, David Lee entered with efficiency and enthusiasm into the comic shenanigans and sang with a fine legato. The Doralice of mezzo Gillian Cotter was portrayed with a likeable vulnerability and was attractively voiced.
Soyoung Park triumphed as Lisetta. She had the looks of the screen actress Anna Mae Wong as well as the latter’s quality of seductive danger. Her crystalline and powerful coloratura carried a nice color. She also was a hilarious dominatrix. She gets my critical gold star.
Guest artist Kyle Albertson’s commanding stage presence and burnished baritone provided the comic sun around which all of the lesser planets spun. What a fine actor-singer and what fine savoring of the Italian language.
The orchestra, albeit in a too-deep and too-covered pit, played very well for conductor Joseph Rescigno.
The blocking of movements by stage director Joshua Major was quite musically attentive and detailed. It’s very unusual how well the staging actually followed the rhythms of the music.
On a shiny black upright piano Tim Steele gave fine support for the recitatives, though the amplification of his instrument (to enable the singers to hear it) bled into the auditorium.
The Paramount Theater has an ideal acoustic for small scale opera, with just enough resonance to warm the voices without smearing their articulations. The pit is a bit problematic and needs to be shallower and perhaps the stage apron could be perforated a la Bayreuth. It would be nice also, if the air handling could be quieted in future performances. Further, the MBTA could be prevailed upon to place vibration isolators under the nearby Orange Line tracks.
NEC deserves our thanks for its role in the rebirth of a neglected Rossini work which deserves a place in the canon.