Matilde di Shabran - Royal Opera House, 23 October 2008 (opening night)
Matilde di Shabran isn't really top drawer Rossini. Dramatically, its three-plus hours alternately drag and baffle as Rossini dawdles through irrelevances and skips key points in the preposterous plot. And Johnny Ramone would have admired its economy of chordage. Although Rossini went back and partially rewrote it after its hurried debut, it's tempting to say he didn't go nearly far enough. No wonder it's such a rarity on the schedules. But, with the right cast, it has enough tonsil-bending coloratura and other vocal Everests to gratify those of us who like that sort of thing. A 'singers opera' in other words.
The star attraction of this production is Juan Diego Flórez, whose stock in London is so high that he got a round of applause simply for walking on stage. (And I do hope that won't become a habit here).
Now, I <3 JDF greatly, but I didn't feel he was on the toppest of form tonight. Not that he did anything wrong - it's just that I've heard him better. Perhaps he was simply, wisely, conserving his fire - Corradino, the comic villain-turned-hero of the piece, is a long, arduous part, and he has five more performances to go.
Anyway, the sound didn't come out with its usual ease, and(surprisingly) lacked projection initially, though he did seem more relaxed and expansive in the second act. To be fair, there were far more pluses than minuses, and I am simply comparing his performance to my expectations of it. His technique is fabulous, and that steel diaphragm of his punched out every rapidfire note with precision.
Strangely (considering what his fame rests on) it was in the lyrical passages that he really convinced, displaying a greater conviction and breadth of palette than I've ever heard from him before.
Aleksandra Kurzak personified the flirtatious, cunning Matilde with charm and wit, skipping up and down double octaves with outrageous insouciance and deadly accuracy. Not hard to believe she could melt the flinty heart of the grouchy Corradino with a few bats of her eyelashes. Bar a couple of screamy moments at the top, this is the best singing I've heard in her several Covent Garden appearances. And she's somehow developed a real star presence, something that draws the eye even when there's competition for attention like Juan Diego Flórez.
Vesselina Kasarova too gave a standout performance. Edoardo is a bizarrely written part, roaming over three octaves, and Kasarova, with her pronounced register breaks and ripe, dusky sound made it seem even odder.
But she brought her own special brand of emotional conviction and outstanding technical control, and made a convincing teenage boy. Her two arias contain some of the opera's most attractive arrangements, including a beautifully-taken horn solo in the second, and one could almost sense the orchestra's relief at the break from the relentless rum-ti-tum.
But Matilde majors on ensemble pieces rather than arias, and it was clear that great attention had been paid to getting these perfectly co-ordinated and balanced. The singers in the minor parts may not have had Florez-standard finesse solo, but in ensemble they were perfect. The chorus too, always reliable anyway, seemed to have a special polish tonight.
Some of the performers, notably Alfonso Antoniozzi and his sketchily-sung but waggishly-acted Isidoro, clearly have the acting skillz in spades; others could perhaps have benefitted from more directorial attention in this area.
It seemed Martone's efforts had been focussed on careful blocking around the centrepiece, a (rather noisy) pair of metal spiral staircases - which incidentally had to be rebuilt for the Royal Opera House, as the Italian originals were so heavy they would have bust the ohso delicate English stage. Some of the performers enter the stage via the audience in the stalls - a tired idea in straight theatre perhaps, but something that's rarely done in opera, and it worked well from my perch in the amphitheatre. Some of those in stalls circle right got rather closer to the show than they expected though.
and here's a video from the first outing of this production, in Pesaro 2004 (with Juan Diego Flórez in top form):