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Rita (Deux Hommes et une Femme)
Karnéus; Banks, Maltman; Hallé Orchestra, Elder. Text and translation. Opera Rara ORC50
Donizetti composed his one-act comedy Rita in 1839, setting a French libretto by Gustave Vaëz. The Opéra Comique abruptly scuttled the premiere planned for late that year; attempts a few years later to produce the piece in Naples, in an Italian translation, came to nothing. Donizetti's death in 1848 left the ownership of the manuscript in limbo until 1855, when the matter was resolved in favor of the composer's brother, Giuseppe. Coming full circle, the work finally received its premiere in 1860, in the original French, at the Opéra Comique!
The plot has its roots in commedia dell'arte. The characters are the shrewish, self-satisfied Rita; her first husband, Gasparo, who used to beat her; and her second husband, Pepé, whom she in turn beats. As in a game of "who's got the button," each of the husbands schemes to leave the other with Rita, who, in turn, is trying to avoid ending up with no husband at all. The arias and ensembles are linked, in opéra-comique style, with spoken dialogue rather than recitative. Opera Rara's production also restores the original version of the libretto, without the sentimentalizing revisions adopted for the 1860 premiere.
Mark Elder leads a stylish performance. The tempos are generally well chosen. A recurring quirk is that the reprises of themes are more deliberate than the original statements, for no clear reason; the metrical scansion is also unclear at the start of Pepé's air. The Hallé Orchestra produces a softer-edged sonority than other, larger orchestras in this series, but their playing is responsive and characterful. The tutti outbursts are hearty, and the bustling figurations are spirited.
All three of the principal singers understand the technique and style the music requires — though I'd have liked them to "sing into" the patter sections more — and all of them sound at home with the French dialogue. The best singing comes from Swedish mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus. Her graceful phrasing, caressing legato and easy, text-based delivery make an initial charming impression, one dispelled as Rita's character more fully emerges. Karnéus's runs are fluent, moving easily into her bright, shiny top, although the occasional high note moves into an odd squillante "pocket."
The men do well, though they're both cast somewhat against type. Barry Banks, ordinarily associated with heroic Rossini tenors, is a vivid Pepé, agreeable but cowed. He gets overly character-ish in the duet with Rita but relaxes into the right buoyant lightness for his air, though the occasional bright, frontal high note is a distraction.
Gasparo is a buffo in spirit, if not in the actual writing, which mightn't immediately suggest Christopher Maltman. Maltman seems not to have worked out the role's vocal "sit" completely; some upper-midrange attacks lose color, and the slow legato in the duet with Rita is uncomfortable. Still, he projects a lively character, with much warm, authoritative singing.
The sound is fine, and (as usual with Opera Rara) the packaging and supporting apparatus are impressive.
STEPHEN FRANCIS VASTA
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