Classical review: The Secret Marriage - British Youth Opera triumphantly deliver a rarity by Cimarosa


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The Independent Culture

While the big companies trundle out their hackneyed revivals, British Youth Opera ploughs its own furrow, first with a large-scale production of Britten’s “Paul Bunyan”, now with Domenico Cimarosa’s “The Secret Marriage”, an 18th century opera buffa which no major English company has staged in recent memory.

This latter work holds the world record for the longest encore in history in that, at its premiere in Vienna in 1792, Emperor Leopold II is said to have ordered a second performance of the entire piece the same evening after dinner.

Moreover, that premiere took place in the theatre where Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” had premiered five years earlier, and two of Cimarosa’s roles were delivered by singers who had starred in Mozart’s opera. And the parallels between the plots are strikingly close, as are their compositional techniques and devices. The rhythm of the recitatives, the structure of the ensembles, and the modulations and moods of the arias in Cimarosa constantly give a sense of deja entendu. But that sense is punctured just as constantly by the realisation that it’s not by any stretch Mozart, because it doesn’t have an atom of his magic.

That interest doesn’t flag until the end of a long evening – and then only because the denouement threatens to go on for ever – is due partly to the charm of the music, but principally to the verve with which Roy Laughlin conducts his Mozartean orchestra, and to the inventiveness of Ellan Parry’s Art Deco designs and the cleverness of Martin Lloyd-Evans’s direction.

Carolina has secretly married her lover Paolino, but her ambitious father Geronimo promises her to the eligible Count Robinson; her plain sister Elisetta and her randy widowed aunt Fidalma make up the rest of a sextet of meaty, vocally-demanding roles. Our first sight of the lovers mid-coitus sets the tone: all the characters are believable caricatures, with everything that happens being slightly off-the-wall.

It helps that three of the singers are accomplished farceurs – Heather Lowe’s commanding Fidalma, Bradley Travis’s improbably debonair Count, and Frazer B Scott’s Geronimo, a figure crackling with self-importance. Alice Rose Privett as Carolina and Rosalind Coad as Elisetta deal competently with their high-lying coloratura, while tenor Nick Pritchard finds the perfect pace and tone-colour for his ardent recitatives. All successfully negotiate the sight-gags bestrewing their path like land-mines: just try playing croquet, then cricket, then badminton while singing an aria.