At just 90 minutes, Rossini’s One-Act comic opera, L’Occasione Fa il Fadro (Opportunity makes a thief) was guaranteed to win the hearts and laughter of even the most sceptical of opera-goers. The unrivalled authority on Rossini operas brought this gem-in-miniature from Pesaro in Italy to the Royal Opera House Muscat for just two performances. It is only the second time in 30 years that the Rossini Opera Festival has gone on tour, and all but Alfonso in the cast is home-grown in the company’s Academia. The story is a comic farce of stolen luggage, two pairs of swapped identities and the test of true love. Through a cleverly concealed web of amusing obstacles, cunning deceptions and serendipitous twists of fate, the enchanting opera reaches a satisfying conclusion as those who are meant for each other fall in love-at-first-sight and live happily-ever- after.
No better choice to present this opera then, than the celebrated ‘Rossini Opera Festival’ with their 1987 production under the eminent French Director, Set and Costume Designer, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. Ponnelle first designed scenery in 1952 for a production of Henze’s Boulevard Solitude and began directing in 1981 in Bayreuth. There was hardly an opera house in the world he did not work in, nor composer whose work he did not stage. Ponnelle was a workaholic and sadly died aged 56, but had a great sense of humour and exhaustive passion for music. So this innovative and inspired genius brought some fresh theatrical techniques to his interpretation of L’Occasione, such as characters appearing out of Count Alberto’s suitcase (through a cleverly concealed trap-door!), stage-hands visibly shaking scenery during the storms and changing scenery in full sight rather than behind closed curtains, and singers moving into the auditorium behind the conductor – a first for ROHM and suggesting a Brechtian approach to theatre-drama. The scenery returns to the days of painted cloth flats instead of the modern preference for solid structures. In charge of this revival was his long-time collaborator, La Scala-trained Sonja Frisell, present for both performances.
Rossini was only 20 when he composed this – and four other – burletta per musica in one act in 1812, and more incredibly, in only eleven days! The result is supremely Mozartian, in style, form and plot as one might expect from so youthful a composer, and the orchestra, with harpsichord for recitativo secco sections, had no percussion or brass, except two rather faltering horns. The band in the pit on Saturday night was the 36-strong, Filarmonica Gioachino Rossini, set up as a sister-company in 2014, and conducted by the renowned American maestro, Christopher Franklin, who has conducted in all the major Italian opera houses, and is in demand as a guest conductor by the world’s finest orchestras.
Heading the bill this weekend as the cute and cunning bride-to-be, Berenice, was the Russian soprano, Olga Peretyatko, one of the most sought-after sopranos of our times since her 2009 Toronto appearance in Stravinsky’s Rossignol in the title role. Small wonder; rarely has a more beguiling singer been heard flirting and cajoling her way through ‘patter songs’, belcanto arabesques and high coloratura ornamentation, all in one compelling role. She presented a very independent young lady for her day, not happy to be ‘married off’ without her consent. Ms Olga Peretyatko’s applause and curtain-call was thunderous – anticipating a hasty return in the near future, it is hoped. Opposite her as Count Alberto was the superb yet sensitive Russian lyrical tenor, Maxim Mironov, who has won international acclaim since he won the Neue Stimmen in Germany in 2003.
Rivalling the Russian duo were the equally confident, if more buffa, Cecilia Molinari as Ernestina, whose accolades include ‘appreciated for the “uniformity, emission and beautiful timbre” of her voice (Opera click)… is one of the most talented Italian mezzo-sopranos of her generation’. As Don Parmenione, the elegant, bizarre adventurer “living on his wits, waggish and enterprising” around whose cunning the whole tale revolves, the Bolognese baritone, Mattia Olivieri, was brilliant, cheeky, amusing and extremely attractive.
These voices are combined exquisitely in the great central Quintetto; Quel Gentil, Quel Vago Ogetto (That lovely, gracious creature) forming a sublime ensemble in the middle of the Act, beautifully sung and amusing in its presentation, juxtaposed against the Uncle’s interjections.
Borrowing much from the Comedia del Arte form, the Falstaffian character of the servant Martino was played superbly by the exceptionally talented Italian comic baritone, Alfonso Antoniozzi.
The confused buffoon of an uncle, Don Eusebio, was sung splendidly by Roman baritone, Alessandro Luciano.
The opera opened with a bare stage without curtains, and members of the orchestra entered the modified pit before the appearance of the conductor – but he has forgotten something, and Alfonso Antoniozzi rushes on as Rossini himself and calls down, “Maestro- the score”. He reminds him it is ‘L’Occasione fa il Fadro’ and the maestro duly hands out the parts to the musicians who react audibly to the “new” oeuvre. ‘Rossini’ places the luggage he is carrying centre stage and miraculously the singers step out in their underwear demanding costumes, along with scripts, props and scenery!
The scene is set at an Inn, and vintage thunder-machines announce the storm which heralds the unfolding drama. Antoniozzi is a perfect buffa baritone as the manservant or MC, and the opera concludes with all the scenery being returned through the mysterious trap door with the admonition that things happen for a reason – though not always what we intend. Well, let us hope that Rossini Opera Festival is invited back to perform another riveting production before too long – or before opportunity steals them away somewhere else.