Vicenza’s Teatro Olimpico, designed by Palladio in 1580, is Europe’s oldest indoor theater. It is based on Vitruvius’s description of the theatres of Ancient Rome, and therefore, Classical in style. It has an elliptical, steeply-raked seating space as found in Ancient Greek and Roman open-air theatres, which provides for unrestricted views of the stage. Its auditorium is decorated by plaster and stone statues. The stage is dominated by a fixed scene: a huge Classical edifice, which stretches its full length, from the floor to the ceiling, and from which seven streets of ancient Thebes radiate. For someone who has never seen the theater before, it is, indeed, a remarkable sight. The sheer magnificence of the setting, however, gives rise to a question: how can the theatre successfully accommodate the performance of a staged work that is not set in antiquity?
Directors have the option of simply ignoring the ancient scene, with the possibility of creating a serious negative impact, with modern props seated incongruously among ancient Thebes. Alternatively, they can embrace the scene, and risk forcing the work into an unfamiliar and unconvincing context. Both approaches, of course, can work but will require imagination and sensitivity on the part of the director and his team. In this production of Rossini’s farse, “L’Inganno Felice,” lasting around 90 minutes, director Alberto Triola took a low-key approach.
Finding the Right Approach
By keeping props to a minimum, he managed to avoid any jarring contrasts between the Classical scene and what should have been an early 19th-century coastal mining village, and therefore, was able to deflect attention away from the overbearing scenery. The only incidence in which a visual disconnect was noticeable was at the very beginning (and ending), in which Isabella was sleeping on a black 1960s/70s lounger, as her bad dream was about to unfold (and come to an end). Otherwise, the props were generally neutral: woolen sacks, candles, a fishing rod and the hull of Isabella’s wrecked ship, and significantly, they were not at odds with the scenery. Likewise, the low-key costumes, designed by Giuseppe Cosaro, and Sara Marcucci, which were generally, although not exclusively, 19th-century in style, had a fairly neutral impact. The lighting, designed by Giuliano Amerighi, cleverly kept the focus on the drama itself, but occasionally covered the scenery in a variety of colors, which added to the atmosphere without overly highlighting its Classical design.
Dancers As a Window to the Soul
Such a production, based around minimal props and a static set, could easily have given the impression of a concert performance, especially as the main action happens before the opera even begins, with very little happening in the opera itself. However, Triola’s imaginative use of the stage space, his emphasis on movement, in which the singers were only occasionally required to simply stand and deliver, as well as his use of two dancers to mimic the souls of Isabella and Bertrand meant that the drama maintained a lively pace, and was always engaging. The dancers acted as light into Isabella and Bertrand’s unconscious selves, signaling their real feelings as opposed to the postures they adopted to the world. During the overture Isabella’s soul dances, trapped inside an inflated transparent plastic ball, from which she is eventually released. Visually engaging and nicely summing up the entire drama. Aided by some fine acting from the cast, Triola created strongly defined characters, which again helped keep the focus on the drama.
Although this production of “L’Inganno Felice” was not the most visually spectacular, Triola and his team did manage to present the work so that it was not overwhelmed by the theater’s imposing fixed set, nor did the props create an incoherent impression. Moreover, he successfully displayed his ability in bringing to life a drama which is not the most lively of works, and captured the essential conflict between good and evil that lies at the heart of the piece; of all Rossini’s farses, “L’Inganno Felice” is the least comedic and contains a distinctly dark undercurrent.
The musical side of the production, in the hands of Maestro Giovanni Battista Rigon, was of a high quality. Rigon elicited an intimate yet vibrant sound from the Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto. The strings and wind sections blending and sparring wonderfully in typical Rossinian fashion. The dancing rhythms, the rushing strings and the welling sound of the crescendos all delivered with sparkling clarity and brio. But “L’Inganno Felice” is a work by the young Rossini, and although many of his stylistic traits are certainly in evidence, they do not yet possess the consistent quality of the mature Rossini. In fact, Rigon’s sensitive reading also successfully brought out the clear influences of Mozart, to the extent that it is immediately understandable as to why Rossini at this stage in his career was sometimes referred to as “Il Tedeschino (“The little German”).” Throughout the evening Rigon maintained a sensitive balance between the musical forces; singers and orchestra always complemented each other, and the ensemble pieces were nicely constructed so that individual singers were rarely lost.
It was mainly a young cast that had been engaged for this performance, each singer having only had a few years of experience. They, nevertheless, all sang with a great deal of success.
Standout of the Night
Sergio Foresti, singing the part of Ormondo’s sidekick and henchman, however, was the one exception, having already established for himself a successful career – and his greater experience was clearly in evidence (which is not in any way to disparage the achievements of the rest of the cast). Playing the role with true buffo spirit, Foresti produced an excellent performance, although it could be argued that his sympathetic characterization sat uneasily with his role of a would-be assassin. He has an expressive and flexible voice, which was particularly in evidence during the recitatives, which he delivered with a great deal of skill and swagger. His duet with Tarabotto, “Va taluno mormorando,” in which they engage in a superficial light-hearted vocal combat, was the highlight of the evening. The exchanges were fresh, light, and full of energy, and beautifully captured the hidden meanings within their words. Moreover, it was choreographed splendidly; sitting next to each other, with their legs hanging over the stage, they swung them back and forth in tandem, in time to the music.
Other Strong Performers
Eleonora Bellocci was a feisty Isabella, rather than a naïve innocent, and produced an impressive performance. She has a strong soprano, with an attractive range of textures, which she used intelligently to characterize Isabella’s changing emotions. In the ensembles her voice shone brightly, climbing with apparent ease above the orchestra to deliver the final flourishes. Her aria “Al più dolce” allowed her to show off her talents; singing of finding her true love once again, she sang with tenderness, adorned with pleasing embellishments. Bellocci also backed-up a fine vocal display with an accomplished acting performance.
Daniele Caputo gave a secure and nuanced interpretation as Tarabotto. His voice has a pleasing timbre and his phrasing was consistently well-crafted. His interactions with the rest of the cast, either in the ensembles or in recitatives, were always vocally convincing and well-acted.
In the role of Bertrando was the Congolese Patrick Kabongo. Although his acting was little stiff at times, he gave a pleasing vocal performance. He possesses a youthful, light, sweet-sounding tenor which maintains its consistency over the whole range, with an ability to inject interesting colorful shadings, notably in the lower register. The only slight blemish is that he occasionally disappeared in the trio “Quel’sembiante, quello sguardo”
Lorenzo Grante convincingly essayed the role of the malevolent Ormonde. Although not a large role he had enough stage-presence to cast a dark shadow over the drama, and sang the part well.
This production of “L’Inganno Felice,” at the Teatro Olimpico, formed part of Vicenza’a XXVII Settimane Musicale 2018 festival, which presents a range of classical music events over a four week period. The opera also forms part of the festival’s intention to present all five of Rossini’s farses by 2021, continuing next year with “La Scala di Seta.”