Preview: Rita, Royal Opera House, London

The battered husband who hits a high C
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A comedy about a battered husband sounds more appropriate to a soap opera or Jerry Springer than a bel canto drama from the mid 19th-century. But the ROH's Linbury Studio is to stage Rita, a little-known one-act opera by the great Gaetano Donizetti, which does indeed deal with the startling topic of spouse-beating.

It's top-quality, vintage Donizetti, featuring an aria, "Allegro io son", recorded recently by Juan Diego Florez, complete with dazzling high C sharps. The production team is drawn from the ROH's Jette Parker Young Artists Programme.

Rita came into being in 1841, in a rush of inspiration lasting one week. The story is that Donizetti, in Paris and frustrated while waiting for his next libretto to arrive from Italy, met the writer Gustave Vaëz and begged him for something – anything – to set to music.

Vaëz described an idea for a domestic comedy and presented the composer with words for an aria. By the next day, Donizetti had finished it and wanted more. By the end of the week, the 50-minute work was complete, but it premiered only on 7 May 1860, 12 years after the composer's death.

Rita (the Australian soprano Anita Watson), is the manager of a café. She begins by celebrating her happiness: she is free to tyrannise her second husband; her first, Gasparo, who had beaten her, is thought to be dead. Rita is married to Beppe (tenor Haoyin Xue), whom she regularly batters.

The director Thomas Guthrie (pictured) set it in the 1950s because this was the last era in which prescribed expectations existed for the way women and men should behave in marriage. "There were still little handbooks for women explaining how to be a good wife," he says.

The story's darker elements are reflected in the music, Guthrie adds. " The opening at first offers very tranquil, dawn music complete with birdsong – but then the darkness begins to rumble. It's rather like a Hammer horror movie. And some of the dramatic music is positively Verdian – certain passages remind me of La Traviata."

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