Oper Frankfurt – Cimarosa’s L’Italiana in Londra – Monika Buczkowsk, Mikołaj Trąbka & Bianca Tognocchi; directed by R. B. Schlather; conducted by Julia Jones

<div>Oper Frankfurt – Cimarosa’s L’Italiana in Londra – Monika Buczkowsk, Mikołaj Trąbka & Bianca Tognocchi; directed by R. B. Schlather; conducted by Julia Jones</div>

The Italian Girl in London (1778) is one of the earlier operas by the prolific older contemporary of Mozart, Cimarosa. Although termed an intermezzo, as a comedy essentially it follows the same conventions of an opera buffa, and is as fluent and lively in its musical setting as any up to its time (the only comparable achievement by Mozart up to this date is his La finta giardiniera of 1774).

Already at this stage it seems that Cimarosa and his librettist started to subvert those conventions – where an opera buffa typically features a father or other patriarchal figure who obstructs the romantic happiness of his daughter or ward with the man of her own choosing, here such a role is entirely omitted from the cast. The drama arises from the fact that Livia (the Italian of the title) was in love with the English Milord Arespingh, but when he was called away by his father to Jamaica, Livia thought he voluntarily disappeared and so abandoned her. Although that father whose actions have causes the aggravating situation is never seen in the opera, their consequences continue when Arespingh returns to London, where he encounters Livia again. But after various misunderstandings and altercations (such as that his father has arranged for him now to be married to be somebody else), Arespingh and Livia successfully re-establish their relationship.

The absence of the father from the drama itself is paralleled by the opera’s comic idea of the heliotrope, which is the ruse of Madame Brillante (the keeper of the hotel in which Livia has set up home) to make the gullible Don Polidoro believe that its possessor can be made invisible. By these means, although Polidoro is interested in Livia in her disguise as the mysterious Mademoiselle Enrichetta, Madama Brillante can indirectly channel his attentions towards herself (choreographed here with quite suggestive self-caressing), which eventually works as she and Polidoro pair off together at the end. As a stone with supposed magical properties, it’s cause to wonder whether this widely popular opera was an influence upon Mozart and Da Ponte for Despina’s trick in Così fan tutte with the magical philosopher’s stone. Elsewhere, in R. B. Schlather’s production for Oper Frankfurt (revived from 2021) the influence of Mozart appears to work the other way with the brief introduction of a figure in silver armour, seemingly an incarnation of Arespingh’s father, but as though coming in from another world like the Commendatore of Don Giovanni. But that point is not developed, so it remains a cryptic idea.

More typical of some instances of opera buffa was the parody of various nationalities, and in this case it’s the English character that comes in for ridicule.  Schlather doesn’t milk that, but there are a few amusing scenarios such as Brillante’s making tea and learning Italian vocabulary in hope of an escape to warmer climes, all while dressed in the somewhat old-fashioned way of the keeper of a boarding house so as to appear to contemporary eyes as perhaps modishly camp; and the Dutch businessman Sumers likens the confusion around him to war, while reading a copy of the Daily Mail whose front page declares, in its constant paranoid insecurity, ‘It’s war’, though that’s evidently not so serious that it doesn’t preclude a sports column on the back page carrying some unedifying innuendo.  One curiosity of the libretto that doesn’t strike true today (if it did in the 18th century) is that Polidoro (Italian, but clad here in the blood-red chinos beloved of English public school young fogeys) claims that the miserable English have no sense of humour; if we do have cause for misery, then it’s precisely with our famed sense of humour and irony that we ward it off. His observation that it’s possible to eat better and more cheaply in Italy than London may well still be correct, however.

The setting doesn’t otherwise create much sense of place, and it’s daring that the stage is mainly taken up with a huge rotunda, whose geometric lines make it look rather like the Fachwerk or half-timbering of so many historical townscapes in Germany as much as anywhere, not least the Römerberg in the centre of Frankfurt. But there is a vivacity on the part of the performers which ensures that the production doesn’t stall, even as it suggests the almost claustrophobic world of Brillante’s hotel. Livia first appears suspended halfway up the rotunda, draped in a huge Union Jack as it revolves, not quite crucified upon it but bound to it, as though to Ixion’s wheel, by adverse circumstances. A (white not red) telephone box is the only apparent link to the outside world.

The singers engage well with the energy and elegance of Cimarosa’s composition. Monika Buczkowska’s account of the title role is laden with vibrato, but not excessively. It brings out the pathos of her Act One lament about being abandoned, and underlines the confidence she later finds in a notable Act Two aria which ends in a section of renewed vigour after a period of inspection, like Mozart’s ‘Dove sono’ for Countess Almaviva and Fiordiligi’s ‘Per pietà’. The nobility of Mikołaj Trąbka’s singing almost belies the perceived dishonesty of Milord’s actions within the drama at the start. But he does modulate from an initially forbearing disposition to a more passionate one within Act One, and maintains a forceful vigour during Act Two suitable to his aristocratic status (fairly unusually, the principal male role in this opera is for baritone rather than tenor).

Bianca Tognocchi brings a lighter, friskier touch to the role of Madama Brillante, which is akin to that of the wily servant in many comic operas, and she rises to the flights of colourful high notes effortlessly. Polidoro is a correspondingly jovial personality, played and sung with a witty facility by Dennis Chmelensky. By comparison Theo Lebow is a more reserved Sumers, the businessman somewhat bemused by events, but he responds to that with continued deadpan humour as the character provides help and resources to protect Livia.

Performed with a larger orchestra than is often encountered in eighteenth-century operas today, and on modern instruments, there is a good sense of occasion and urgency in this account by the Orchestra of Oper Frankfurt under Julia Jones. She doesn’t impose anachronistic or volatile effects, so the score remains an ebullient and crisp backdrop for the vocal numbers, after a generous three-movement Overture which establishes the essentially urbane nature of the work. This is a welcome opportunity to appraise the work of an inventive composer who was at least as well-known as Mozart in his day, enabling us to put the latter’s remarkable achievements into a useful perspective, as well as offering an entertaining evening in its own right.

Further performances to May 3

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