EquivocoGioachino Rossini - L’Equivoco Stravagante

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2012 | Jan Schultsz, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Sabina Willeit, Daniele Zanfardino, Enrico Marabelli, Laurent Kubla, Julie Bailly, Daniele Maniscalchi | Live Internet Streaming, 28 February 2012

Written when the composer was only nineteen years of age, Rossini’s third opera L’Equivoco Stravagante (“The Curious Misunderstanding”), a drama giocoso, premiered in Bologna in 1811, playing only for three performances before it was banned by the police. It hasn’t been performed very many times in the intervening 200 years, so it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to see this rare early Rossini opera performed at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège (via internet streaming during its run there in February 2012), see it performed so well, and have the chance to consider the curious nature of the work and its history.

One thing that is immediately evident from this production is that even at this very early stage, the Rossini style is immediately recognisable in L’Equivoco Stravagante. It romps along with jaunty melodies and individual arias, the arrangements gradually building up to entertaining group finales with tricky vocal deliveries that match the content of the comic drama. The drama itself is, depending on your viewpoint, the typical nonsense of Italian opera buffa or a delightful farce, but it’s one that in this case is particularly outrageous – the material controversial enough to have the work censured and banned. Initially, it seems straightforward, the usual romantic complications ensuing from a situation where a wealthy landowner, Gamberotto, hoping to make a suitable marriage for his daughter – ie. one that is beneficial towards elevating his social position – has promised the hand of Ernestina to the wealthy but stupid Buralicchio. Ernestina has another suitor, Ermanno, but the penniless and timid young man would seem to have little chance of winning the favour of the bookish young woman, or persuading her father that he would make a good match.

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That’s until the servant Frontino, hoping to assist Ermanno in his endeavours, comes up with an outrageous idea that is to lead to the “curious misunderstanding” of the opera’s title and, as it happens, the idea that also would lead to the work being banned. Buralicchio is fooled into believing that Ernestina is actually a man, Ernesto, the castrated son of Gamberotto, who only dresses as a woman as a means of evading military service. Buralicchio, incredibly, buys this rather implausible suggestion (he is extremely stupid after all), but when the military forces turn up at the Gamberotto household looking for the army deserter, it looks like Frontino’s plan could have backfired (and the composer’s when the police similarly brought down the curtain on the opera itself) .

Whether the libretto, by Gaetano Gasbarri, is as funny as it is supposed to be is difficult to say – there is a great deal of play on words and double meanings in the original Italian, but there were no subtitles on the performance of this production that I viewed when broadcast through the Opéra Liège web streaming service. The subject itself however is risqué enough, taking on two subjects that would have been controversial for its time through suggestions of castration (which was illegal), and dealing with desertion from the army. Without the ability to follow the original Italian libretto, it’s hard to say therefore whether the plot and libretto of L’Equivoco Stravagante is as funny as it is supposed to be or whether it’s just plain silly. All I can go on is the performances, and while they are all entertaining to watch and listen to, it’s obvious that the characters are broad buffo types – none of them particularly bright, and none of them entirely what they appear to be on the surface.

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What is evident however, brought out particularly in the fine production by Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera which sets it in Hollywood during the 1920s or 1930s, is that there is some amount of social satire here on the class pretensions of the nouveau riche. The setting, in a Hollywood mansion adorned with fine art and a swimming pool at least makes that aspect of the aspirations for glamour and status from the non-hereditary wealthy more evident than it would have been if it were set during the Napoleonic era in which it was written, but it also means that the production looks wonderful. The casting is also good for the necessary appearances, and the singers, without exception, are marvellously adept at the buffo roles, as well as singing this particular work with the requisite Rossinian spirit and verve. Like most works of this type, it can be dramatically rather static on the stage, but the director and cast do their best to keep it all highly entertaining, as does the terrific performance of the music score by the Orchestra of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie under the musical direction of Jan Schultsz.