October 12, 2008

As Dull As the Dimmest of Debs’ Delights

By Anna Picard

It may be slick and prettily dressed, but Cimarosa's marriage- market opera sorely lacks substance Classical Theatre Royal GLASGOW Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique/Gardiner Royal Festival Hall LONDON

Among the greatest and best-loved operas, very few depend on behaviour unimaginable today. Rape, revolution, murder, suicide, infidelity, exile, corruption, poverty, sickness and greed still make the headlines, and a good production of a good opera can make a 400-year-old drama seem to happen in the now. Altogether trickier are those operas in which nothing of particular consequence happens, in which characters of apparent spunkiness run their lives as parlour games, and in which the score is second-rate. Such an opera is The Secret Marriage: Domenico Cimarosa's Beaumarchais-lite comedy about love between the classes.

Harry Fehr's production of this quasi-revolutionary cream puff follows the pragmatic model of setting a flimsy drama in the most recent era in which its events might have happened. The year is 1958, when, in the words of Princess Margaret, "every tart in London" was being presented to the Queen. Elisetta (Renate Arends), elder daughter of the cash-rich but title-poor Geronimo (Andrew Slater), has entered the marriage market of the London season. Count Robinson (Quirijn de Lang) is her passport to aristocracy. Sadly, he falls in love with Elisetta's sister, Carolina (Rebecca Bottone), who is secretly married to the butler, Paolino (Matthew Garrett). Did I mention that Geronimo's widowed sister, Fidalma (Wendy Dawn Thompson), is also in love with Paolino? No? Never mind.

I'm as happy to look at lovely dresses as the next woman, and designer Tom Rogers provides plenty of these in his handsome split- level Adam interior. Incidental action from the silent Housekeeper (Shuna Sendall) distracts from the ennui of some of the fluffier arias, and the movement direction is consistently slick. Is this enough to sustain three hours of attention? No. Superficially charming but as dull as the dimmest of debs' delights, Cimarosa's score strikes a stylistic mid-point between The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville and is reminiscent of the old A-level exercise in which students are asked to complete a 16-bar melody in the style of Mozart (a mug's game).

Contemporary music-specialist Garry Walker fails to inject any vivacity into the orchestral playing, and, excepting Slater's lovable blusterer, much of the singing is as brittle as the relationship between the sisters. With an A-list cast and some serious editing, The Secret Marriage might draw Scotland's opera lovers out of hibernation. As it stands, I'd rather wait for David McVicar's new Traviata instead.

It was a tempestuous weekend at the Royal Festival Hall: a weekend of blanched sopranos, wild rubato, drilled-to-death diction, comb-and-paper natural horns, heaven-sent woodwind, bodice-ripping cellos, austere violins, vibrato-free portamenti, dangerous tempi, near-incoherent transitions and, just occasionally, interpretive brilliance. Faultlessly, fabulously played, and sung with the discipline of an elite military unit, John Eliot Gardiner's two concerts with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir argued that Isaac, Zirler, Schtz, Eccard and Gabrieli had as powerful an influence on Brahms's Third and Fourth Symphonies as Bach and Beethoven, whose Coriolan Overture was here almost unbearably exciting.

Let's pass over the pseuo-historicity of the violins and violas playing standing up. Of the lesser-known works, the womens' voices setting of "Einfrmig ist der Liebe Gram" (opus 113) - a reworking of Schubert's "Der Leiermann" - was the most arresting, and the best defence of Gardiner's tight control of his singers. (No room for natural bloom in this bleak work.) "Fest- und Gedenksprche" was thrilling too, while the sun-warmed, grass-scented Andante moderato of the Fourth Symphony was sublime. The landscape here was more Czech than German, the nearly unrecognisable Third Symphony a babel tower of thematic blurts. Some of it I hated, some I loved. But it certainly wasn't boring.

The Secret Marriage (0870 332 3321) to 31 Oct, then touring

(c) 2008 Independent on Sunday, The. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.