Il Matrimonio Segreto is the sort of opera which is ideally suited to a sassy, whip-smart touring company with little money to spend. It should provide much pleasure around the country throughout the summer at the many unusual and attractive venues identified by resourceful producers Clementine Lovell and Fiona Johnston, and is more than worth seeing, quite possibly more than once.
Domenico Cimarosa may have written 80 operas, but only one of them has retained something of a place in the contemporary repertory. However, The Secret Marriage is not the sort of work that needs much justification or explanation. It is a comic opera first produced to great acclaim in Vienna in 1792, the year after Mozart’s death, and anyone familiar with the cloak-and-dagger hurry-scurry of the Da Ponte operas will feel at home.
Pop-Up Opera have put it into modern dress, and stripped it back to a minimalist setting, but the comedic archetypes and musical structures are so robust it can easily take this treatment, and indeed this bare-bones approach promotes the accessibility of the confrontations and encounters it contains.
We lose the delectable overture here, but there is a lot to be gained from plunging straight into the action. Recitative is limited too, but there is little need for commentary or explanation when the story is so lucidly and nimbly played out in front of us by the cast: showing, rather than telling or philosophising, is at the heart of the original work as well as the production.
The plot is the familiar one of the conflict between the generations. Geronimo (Peter Willcock), a wealthy Italian businessman, is seeking to marry both his daughters to advantage without having to pay a huge dowry. His sister Fidalma (Vivien Conacher) also has her designs on a suitable young man. Unfortunately, the younger generation has other ideas. Paolino (Peter Kirk), who works for Geronimo, has already married the younger daughter Carolina (Chiara Vinci).
They think they can overcome their problems if they arrange for one of Paolino’s friends, an English nobleman, Count Robinson (Matthew Palmer) to marry the elder daughter Elisetta (Heather Caddick). However, things quickly get out of hand as Fidalma falls for Paolino, Elisetta and Count Robinson fail to hit it off, and the latter pursues bespoken Carolina instead. It takes two acts to ring all the changes, and unravel the complications to the satisfaction of most, if not all.
The music is driven by a seamless flow of melodic invention and a real skill in blending different combinations and textures of voices. It zips along gratefully allowing the performers to indulge their acting skills to the full.
Accompaniment is provided as usual by the accomplished keyboard player Berrak Dyer, who compensates for the absence of orchestra with a lot of finely-calibrated Yamaha colours. Cimarosa lacks Rossini’s calculated cruelty in plotting and self-conscious technical bravura, but there are a number of gradually built finales, which anticipate his later style. These require careful management and their shoals are negotiated with flair by all concerned, but especially Dyer who holds everything together when it counts.
Great credit should go to Director Max Hoehn for finding visual tableaus at every point to amuse, entertain and keep things moving, while not putting the vocal production of the performers under strain. It is remarkable what can be done with four chairs, a couple of tables, and a scatter of props and placards, and this opera company are established masters now at enabling a little to go a long and imaginative way.
They also are not shy in breaking down the fourth wall and engaging the audience in various bits of business. In the setting of the Vaults Theatre, more formal than elsewhere in that complex, it certainly helps generate an atmosphere and empathy early on.
It may seem a bit of a back-handed compliment to praise the surtitles of a production, but in fact they have become a vital part of the democratizing appeal of this company’s style. Over a number of productions now Harry Percival has perfected a witty patter that is neither simply summary nor a literal translation of the text.
Combined with high-end computer graphic skills and a deep knowledge of silent-movie captions he manages to inform the audience while also keeping a lot of gags running and offering cheeky commentary on contemporary events in politics and the celebrity world. Certainly, Pippa Middleton’s wedding could not have come at more appropriate moment for an opera that revolves around real and imagined nuptials! So far from being trivial these captions offer very real ways of bringing new audiences to opera and demystifying the genre. Other companies should learn from this feisty example.
Pop-Up Opera asks for no special pleading on behalf of its musical values, which are, as ever, high by any standard, and better than many an established house and venue. By taking performers who are mainly just out of their years of training, the producers have assembled teams who are ready to embrace all and every challenge to the full, with mostly excellent results.
The opera is democratic in its demands: everyone gets their solo spots as well as ensemble workouts and this particular team had no obvious weak links (there are two casts).
Despite a bit of shrillness under pressure at the top Chiara Vinci gave a very winning and feisty performance as the younger and deliberately more glamorous sister. Carolina and Paolino are similar in role and vocal style to Susanna and Figaro, and both she and stylish tenor Peter Kirk got through a lot of demanding material while carrying through taxing gymnastics and comic routines.
Heather Caddick sang the role of the shrewish elder sister with a great deal of vocal power and more charm than the role really merited; but the acting honours among the women went to Vivien Conacher’s dippy Aunt Fidalma, who created a real comic grotesque out of a mixture of lust, yoga and The Joy of Sex, as well as vocal panache.
Kirk dispatched his taxing Act Two aria with real flair and energy and made you wish that the composer had written more for the lead tenor to do. Peter Willcock had a few moments of insecurity, but generally blustered consequentially as the stereotypical, put-upon, clueless patriarch.
Matthew Palmer might have made more of the carefully devised eccentricities of the Englishman abroad, but sang well in a role that is more reactive than active in the drama.
This is the sort of opera which is ideally suited to a sassy, whip-smart touring company with little money to spend. It should provide much pleasure around the country throughout the summer at the many unusual and attractive venues identified by resourceful producers Clementine Lovell and Fiona Johnston, and is more than worth seeing, quite possibly more than once.