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A Superb Cast

Rossini's 'Mathilde de Shabran' at Covent Garden,
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


Rossini's Mathilde de Shabran is described as an opera semi-seria, which seems to mean an opera which mixes the serious and comic elements; the score refers to it as a Melodramma giacoso. Essentially the work is constructed like one of Rossini's serious operas, but the subject matter is treated in a more varied manner and never takes itself too seriously. Well, at least Mario Martone's new production at London's Royal Opera House (seen Friday 31 October 2008) did not take itself to seriously.

The production originated in Pesaro (at the Rossini Festival) in 2004. Martone and his set designer Sergio Tramonte were also responsible for the recent new production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera at Covent Garden; a production whose reception was decidedly mixed. For this production of Mathilde de Shabran, Martone took a distinctly light view of the plot and entirely failed to explore the darker potential of the work.

The plot dealt with a misogynistic lord, Corradino, (Juan-Diego Florez) who was feared by friend and neighbour alike and who shuns women. He ended up playing host to an itinerant poet, Isidoro (Alfonso Antoniozzi), and a young lady, Mathilde de Shabran (Alexksandra Kurzak). Needless to say he fell in love with Mathilde and much of the plot, when it finally got going, involved Corradino's bewilderment at being in love for the first time. His supposed fiancée, Contessa d'Arco (Enkelejda Shkosa) plotted to get rid of Mathilde and events included a battle (off stage), Mathilde's execution (faked) and Corradino's attempted suicide.

The only really comic character was Isidoro, and Martone encouraged Antoniozzi to play up and mug unmercifully. I found Antoniozzi's voice rather veiled and only average, but his deftness with the comic business made this forgiveable.

It would be possible to imagine a production which took Corradino more seriously and made him more fearsome. But this production was built around the slight form and stunning voice of Juan-Diego Florez. Florez played in the production when it was new in 2004 and had made his début at Pesaro in 1996 in the same role in an earlier production.

From the outset Rossini made life difficult for producer and singer by giving Corradino dazzling roulades and virtuoso feats; with singing as bravura as this it was difficult to believe anyone was frightened of Corradino. Certainly Florez did not cut a fearsome figure, and once in love seemed to delight in outrageous comic business and much mugging; some of it, unforgivably, when Aleksandra Kurzak was singing. His technical control of the role was astounding; because of this he was able to go beyond mere bravura and make Rossini's difficult lines mean something. My only nagging doubt was that his upper range had a tendency towards the monochrome and unvarying tone quality, but perhaps that is being rather picky.

It would have been easy for Florez to dominate the show but the Royal Opera provided a superb cast who balanced Florez beautifully. First amongst these was the Mathilde of Aleksandra Kurzak. From the moment of her first entry, Kurzak dominated the stage. She cut an attractive figure and displayed and appealing pert character, able to manipulate all the men around her. Kurzak allied to this a dazzling technique, in which her brightly focussed voice could rattle around Rossini's lines. Not only that but she made everything sound easy, attractive and natural, no clucking here. And she sang with a fine sense of line and an unobtrusive vibrato.

Enkelejda Shkosa made a suitably scheming Contessa. This role is not quite as dazzling as Mathilde, but Shkosa gave as good as she got in the opportunities that Rossini gave her.

The leading baritone role was Aliprando, Corradino's doctor, played by Marco Vinco. I am still unclear why Corradino had a doctor permanently on tap, perhaps I should have read the libretto more closely, but it hardly mattered. Vinco played the important role of counsellor and side-kick. He had a striking stage presence combined with an attractively grainy voice. Aliprando was a substantial but potentially thankless role, as the character got few really showy moments. But Vinco seemed to take this in his stride and contributed admirably to the ensemble.

Carlo Lepore provided able support in the semi comic role of Ginardo, Corradino's servant; at least, in this production it was played as semi-comic.

Then there was Vesselina Kassarova as Edoardo, Corradino's prisoner. For three quarter's of the opera this character was tangential to the plot rather like Oberto in Handel's Alcina. Only at the end did Edoardo get involved in the Contessa's plotting and was turned into something of a Deo ex machina. There was no doubting that Kasarova had a superb technique and her performance combined virtuoso bravura with the expressivity needed for this character. But Kasarova's voice was placed slightly oddly, slightly too far back, thus giving much of her utterance a hollow, veiled character. This was not unpleasant but slightly curious and took some getting used to.

Sergio Tramonte's set was dominated by a stunning pair of curved staircases descending from above the stage, both rotated (noisily) to striking effect. Martone used them imaginatively and the cast spent a lot of time running up and down them. Unfortunately their placement mid-stage was rather too far back for the voices, so that it was only when characters came forward that we heard them to best advantage.

Carlo Rizzi conducted an admirably flexible but swift performance, which never sounded driven. The Royal Opera Orchestra was on good form and provided the sort of light, fleet accompaniment that is becoming the norm, thank goodness, in this period of opera.

At two hours, the first act was around thirty minutes too long and I thought that the Royal Opera House could easily have cut it. As it was, the performance started at 6.30pm, despite only finishing at 10.10pm; a start time which is a bit of a challenge on a week night.

Martone's production treated the work uncritically, providing a well oiled mechanism for comedy, though he could have done with removing some of the more over the top stage business. By the end, though, I couldn't help but feel that there was a more interesting opera lying under the surface, if only Martone had cared to dig. Still, with such an array of fine singing talent on stage, one should not complain.

Copyright © 2 November 2008 Robert Hugill, London UK


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