GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Rita (Deux Hommes et une Femme)—Katarina Karnéus (Rita), Barry Banks (Pepé), Christopher Maltman (Gasparo); The Hallé; Sir Mark Elder, conductor [Recorded at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, UK, in September 2012; Opera Rara ORC50; 1CD, 63:43; Available from Opera Rara, Amazon, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]
The history of Gaetano Donizetti’s Rita is a cautionary tale of the myriad of non-musical machinations that can keep an opera from the stage despite its merits. Poor Rita fell victim to perhaps the most ferocious circumstances imaginable, those of quarrelling relatives. In fact, the manic tribulations endured by Rita in the two decades between its completion in 1841 and its first performance in 1860 could almost have been the inspiration for the libretto of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi! The product at least in part of a chance encounter with Gilbert Vaëz, who contributed to the French libretti of Lucie de Lammermoor and La favorite, Rita provided Donizetti with a stopgap to distract him from the anxiety created by the wait for delivery of a long-awaited libretto for a commission from La Scala. It may have been a short-lived diversion: Vaëz contended that the famously prodigious composer toiled over the opera for eight whole days, and Donizetti’s correspondence—excerpted in the informative liner notes by Francesco Bellotto, who collaborated on the critical edition of the score—hints that Rita’s gestational period may indeed have been brief, though precisely when in his creative chronology that period may have occurred remains open to interpretation. At any rate, with the completion of the score began a path to performance that stumbled over obstacles of opera house politics, competing interests, and feuding heirs. When Rita finally reached the stage of Paris’s Opéra-Comique in 1860, it was not in Donizetti’s and Vaëz’s original form, Deux hommes et une femme, but with the subtitle Le mari battu, and after the traumatic journey the score endured it may well have felt like a ‘beaten husband.’ The handful of performances of the opera in the years since its première have mostly offered the public bowdlerizations of the Italian translation that Donizetti prepared for a production at Naples’s Teatro del Fondo that never came to fruition. At long last, Opera Rara—ever a source of innovative efforts at revisiting rather than revising overlooked gems of bel canto—have given Rita an opportunity to parade before the footlights in the clothes her composer cut for her, and what a chic lass she proves to be!
The authentic Rita has the Gallic tartness of citron pressé and much in common with the spirit of Auber’s Le toréador and even Ravel’s L’heure espagnole. Believing that her rightful husband Gasparo has been drowned at sea (and wasting no effort on mourning the loss), Rita has married the ne’er-do-well Pepé, who suffers every sort of indignity at her hands. Denied his presumed watery escape from Rita, Gasparo returns to his wife’s inn, fired by hope, to verify the veracity of a rumor that she has died. Pepé may not be the brightest stella in the cielo, but when he recognizes the name on Gasparo’s passport he concocts a plan: how better to unload an unwanted wife than by a timely reunion with her miraculously restored-to-life husband? The problem is that Gasparo already has designs on a Canadian girl. When the matter is not resolved via gaming and drawing straws, Gasparo provokes a fight he knows he cannot and does not want to win. Having beaten one lout of a husband and been beaten by the other (abuse begets abuse, after all), Rita is beguiled by what she perceives as Pepé’s sudden burst of macchismo, and thus reconciled with the lesser of two evils she is content to allow Gasparo to stay dead, married—unhappily, it seems certain—under the Maple Leaf. All’s well that ends well, then; not so well, perhaps, but quiet for a while, at least. In the hands of many composers, this story might well have inspired a tedious, heartless farce, but Donizetti crafted a delicious romp filled with music of top quality that makes the score a worthy little sister of La fille du régiment.
Having set about the business of righting the wrongs to which Rita was subjected during the past 160 years, Opera Rara sealed the deal by recording a performance in which every piece of the musical puzzle falls into place with naturalness and rollicking high spirits. Under the confident, consistently stylish leadership of Sir Mark Elder, the impeccably-trained musicians of The Hallé play with such sheer fun that they might be mistaken for the residents of an Italian opera house pit—except, that is, for the indefatigable accuracy of their playing. Nothing that Donizetti asks of them is an insurmountable challenge, and Maestro Elder makes no demand that they do not meet as though it were as easy as playing scales. Owing to the dedication of both orchestra and conductor, a thoroughly engaging atmosphere is established: the piquant aromas and clinking glasses of a roadside inn ripple through the performance. Maestro Elder conducts with an easy grasp of Donizetti’s style, and the dependable sophistication of his pacing of the performance enables the cast to focus on getting inside their rôles. Rita was created by Constance-Caroline Fauré-Lefèbvre, who sang the old woman Taven and the trousers part of the shepherd Andreloun in the première of Gounod’s Mireille and was a veteran of Opéra-Comique productions of operas by Adam, Auber, and Meyerbeer. A more suitable 21st-Century stand-in for Fauré-Lefèbvre than Swedish mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus could not have been found. In her opening number, ‘De mon auberge ainsi,’ Ms. Karnéus sets the tone of the performance at once: mastering every technical aspect of her music, she portrays a stern but not unfeeling woman very much in full governance of her own fate. Dramatically, if there is a defect in her performance it is that it seems unlikely that any man would have given this Rita a beating without receiving a trouncing in return. Most importantly, Ms. Karnéus meets every requirement of Rita’s music and does so with technique, charisma, and vocal beauty to spare. Seagoing Husband Number One, Gasparo, is sung with zest and a healthy dose of philandering swagger by baritone Christopher Maltman. Through vocal means alone, he creates a character who seems sure to have tormented poor Rita and given her a few blows for her trouble. Mr. Maltman’s vibrato sounds looser than in past, perhaps a result of microphone placement, but the muscular magnetism of his singing is unimpeded. His account of Gasparo’s Couplets, ‘Mon ménage pour modèle,’ a statement of his credo on the ‘appropriate’ treatment of women (beat them if they need it, but never knock them out), is sung with snarling good humor and ringing conviction. Husband Number Two, the pushover Pepé, is cannily sung by tenor Barry Banks, whose slender and slightly nasal but hearty voice rockets through Donizetti’s vocal lines with sparkle and wit. He sings Pepé’s air ‘Tra la la la la la la la la la…Je suis joyeux comme un pinçon’ with exuberance that he can barely contain, his delivery of the lines ‘Moi je suis veuf…sans que ma femme ait rendu l’âme’ (‘I am a widower…though my wife has not yet given up the ghost’) bursting with bumptious self-satisfaction. Mr. Banks remains one of the finest exponents of high-flying bel canto tenor rôles, and his Pepé is far more than a weak-willed sap. All three principals display admirable diction, spoken and sung, and there is none of the shameless mugging in their delivery of the dialogue that can cheapen comedy. It is in the ensembles that the cast sing most persuasively. Rita’s duet with Pepé, ‘C’est elle, je frémis,’ simmers with bumbling panic, annoyance, and exasperation, and both Ms. Karnéus and Mr. Banks exhibit perfect comic timing. The duets for Pepé and Gasparo, ‘Il me vient une idée’ and ‘Ô chère âme! Chère femme,’ bristle with subtly menacing sparring, but there can only be so much mettle in a fight in which neither combatant wants to prevail. The facility with which Mr. Banks and Mr. Maltman blend their very different voices is a testament to both gentlemen’s artistry. The centerpiece of the opera is the trio in which each character’s schemes are unveiled, ‘Il est manchot,’ and the singers relish the opportunity to trade vocal barbs with the jocularity of Savoyards. The curtain is brought down handily with ‘Mais il faut à mon programme,’ in which Gasparo and Pepé resolve their dispute—to their satisfaction, at least, if not quite to Rita’s. In comparison with Donizetti’s great masterpieces, this is an insubstantial entertainment, but the singing of these two men and one woman gives substantial pleasure.
Whatever the dimensions of its score, no opera by Donizetti thrives without excellent singing, and Katarina Karnéus, Barry Banks, and Christopher Maltman give Rita a performance that finally gives the opera the unblemished outing it deserves. They even manage to make of a free-willed harridan, a pusillanimous idiot, and a intemperate womanizer interesting, three-dimensional, and affable characters. In the end, this is a performance in which it seems that each character gets what she or he deserves: laudably, so, too, do Donizetti and his long-suffering Rita.