On the Rossini Opera Festival’s third and latest visit to Muscat, they brought Graham Vick’s splendid 1994 production of ‘L’Inganno Felice’ (The Fortunate Deception) in possibly the season’s finest performance so far. Even before the Overture began, glimpses of a bleak mining landscape were revealed beneath a half-drawn curtain as miners and children, performed effectively by seven Omani extras, toiled or played to set the scene under a grey, watercolour sky.
Using the Royal Opera, House of Musical Arts’ smaller auditorium allowed for a more intimate audience experience, bringing them closer to the singers and action. As the curtain rose gradually, a small boat on the horizon began its 90-minute journey across the back of the stage. Mining characters wore beige clothes which blended with the subtle washes of Set and Costume Designer, Richard Hudson’s brilliantly understated, minimalist scenery. It was the attention to detail without fussiness which really set this production of Rossini’s first farsa, a bitter-sweet, ‘drama giocoso’, apart.
Musically, both performances at the weekend were superb. The 33-strong ‘Filarmonica Gioachino Rossini’ provided a perfect execution of the score from the pit, with excellent intonation from the strings. There was a tender opening under the outstanding young Venezuelan conductor, Diego Mattheuz, immediately recognisable as having the sweet stamp of Rossini’s early musical language.
From the cavernous iron mines and dressed in drab working overalls, Omar Montanari emerged as Tarabotto (foreman of the mine) and sung the introduction, ‘Cosa dite! Il nostro duco’ in his consistently confident, controlled baritone. Completely at home in the barren wasteland, Isabella, Tarabotto’s ‘niece’ nicknamed Nisa – and the only female character in the opera - whom he rescued from the sea, was performed by Laura Giordano. Her first Aria, gazing out to sea, was full of pathos as she sadly recalled her husband, Duke Bertrando, and wondered why so devoted a wife had been banished ten years before. Ms Giordano’s high lyrical soprano was beautifully placed with perfect delivery throughout, its mournful quality like honey, often accompanied by the plaintive timbre of the oboe (Stefano Rava).
Isabella and Tarabotto balanced well in ensemble. The duet which followed blended her descriptive arioso with his sillibato (patter-style) of fast basso buffo in a perfect pairing. The recitativo passages were accompanied by no stranger to Muscat, Italian-American harpsichordist Vincenzo Scalera, and Nisa’s drafted letter for the Duke was spoken by Tarabotto, realising the extend of her grief and suffering.
The second scene brought contrast of style and colour: Soldiers in blue, performed by eight ROF Mimes, assembled a shelter on stage with poles and canvass to Cristina Flenghi’s delightful flute obligato.
The role of Duke Bertrando was played by the young Brazilian ‘tenore di grazia’, Daniel Umbelino, with convincing panache and presence, even as the soldiers went about their business silently behind. His interpretation of the highly decorated and demanding, ‘Cavatina Bertrando: Qual tenero diletto’ was impressive, employing a virtuosic bel canto style in his agile high register.
The comic role of Batone was performed by the young Spanish Carles Pachón with an equally agile and lyrical versatility. At first he flirted with Nisa, but as he realised she was indeed the Duke’s living wife whom he had tried to kill, his confidence faded. He became dizzy in the lovely, “Una Voce m’ha colpito”, exploiting the controlled trills and runs in his rich baritone and developing a sincere, almost shy persona.
When the Duke first set eyes on his former wife in the ‘Map Scene’, he was visibly shaken and confused, doubting it could really be the woman he believed had died years ago, and for whom he still had strong emotions despite her reported infidelity. Isabella desperately wanted to reunite with him, confessing her love, and Tarabotto decried Ormondo as a rogue. Their conflicting emotions were cleverly woven together in the Trio, ‘Quel Sembiante quello squardo’ - performed in Giordano’s magnificent coloratura with an impossibly high conclusion, and sillibato commentary from Tarabotto.
The treacherous, Iago-like antagonist, Ormondo, provided Shakespearean elements of intrigue and betrayal as he confessed his plan to abduct Isabella. The light was fading as young Azeri baritone, Elcin Huseynov, on his second visit to ROHM, imbued the role with serious gravitas. His Aria, ‘Tu mi conosci e sai’ was iconic Rossini. He threatened Batone’s life if he did not comply with his villainous demands, but Tarabotto was hiding under a bench - the only functional prop on stage – and overheard the plot.
There followed a brilliant piece of Rossini comic buffa writing, a delightful sillibato duet, ‘Va taluno mormorando’ between the compatible Batone and Tarabotto now sitting on the bench, which earned the best laughter of the night! In steep contrast, Isabella told her dramatic tale, ‘Al più dolce e caro oggetto’ in a tremendous performance with such poignancy. Laura Giordano’s tender, plaintive phrases and controlled coloratura cadenza were breath-taking.
A woodwind and horn entr’acte introduced the final scene and the plan to intercept Ormondo. Batone sung a famous lyrical aria as the other characters hid and watched, with Isabella dressed in her shipwreck attire. The tension built until Ormondo arrived and gave himself away. The Finale Quartet, ‘Tacita notte oscura’ performed by lamplight (superb lighting by Matthew Richardson) melted into a red sunrise, Batone confessed his part in the subversion, and the dawn hailed a new light for true love.
This one-act, comic opera was small but perfectly formed in every way. Though not ‘opera buffa’, rather an ‘opera semiseria’, this first of five commissions for the Teatro San Moisè in Venice in 1812 was still an unequivocal success for ROHM. Aficionados in the capital look forward to the next performance of the series by Rossini Opera Festival in 2021 with suspended anticipation.
PHOTOS BY KHALID AL BUSAIDI