tue 28/05/2024

Le Donne Curiose, Guildhall School | reviews, news & interviews

Le Donne Curiose, Guildhall School

Le Donne Curiose, Guildhall School

Youthful charm and a witty production keep Wolf-Ferrari's prolix comedy afloat

Wrangle over a pasta lunch: Nicola Said, Elgan Thomas, Katarzyna Baleejko and David IrelandAll images by Clive Barda

Scintillating gems scattered rather thinly through long-winded operas: that superficial impression of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s often delectable music isn’t going to be changed greatly by seeing his first success of 1903, Le donne curiose (“Nosy Women”, perhaps, or, if you want a better English title “The Merry Men of Venice”).

It takes an enormous amount of charm to make you want to stay with this inconsequential adaptation of Goldoni – no proto-Feydeau when it comes to comic plotting – and fortunately this Guildhall team have it in spades.

Perhaps a music college’s first duty to budding opera singers is to make them feel, or seem, comfortable on stage; their whole lives up to that point have been about studying music, not drama. Past student productions have pointed up the fact that if the performers aren’t relaxed enough not to overdo it, certainly in comedy, the audience won’t go with them. Last night, in a cast with a few first-rate replacements for Monday’s team A, director Stephen Barlow hit the mark throughout, making of the nine principals of uneven vocal talent a true ensemble. In this he was vibrantly assisted by Yannis Thavoris’s 1970s designs (did anyone else of my age have a bedroom entirely in orange?). The malleable set offers one remarkable coup, a swivel from club entrance to club proper, the sort of thing that would get Met audiences applauding. The gags, not least Arlecchino's fart to two bassoons and the threat of kicking a football into the audience, are always neatly timed to the music.

Le donne curiose at the GuildhallBarlow's set-up is charming and funny. The first two-thirds of Wolf-Ferrari’s delightful Overture are accompanied by tourists buying carnival masks, postcards and gondoliers’ outfits from a Venetian shop while men furtively go through the door at the back and suspicious women try to see what’s going on. Then we have the film titles for an Italian sitcom, its stars grinning at the camera. The dramatis personae are assorted businessmen and their aides, and four women – two wives, a pert daughter and a mezzo servant (pictured left from top: Bethan Langford, Elizabeth Karanyi, Nicola Said and Katarzyna Balejko). The line-up of Verdi’s Falstaff, in short, without the main character – though one of the evening’s two most striking vocal stars, and certainly the most charismatic, bass-baritone Milan Sijanov as Arlecchino, could take on that role right now.

The patter and parrying of Verdi’s miraculous last score are emulated, though not alas the pith; Wolf-Ferrari’s own dimension is an early neoclassicism pipping his fellow Italian-German Busoni to the post, well in advance of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. It could have done with more spring and lightness of touch from Mark Shanahan in the pit, though he did get the Guildhall Orchestra to convey the atmosphere and romanticism of Act (here “Episode”) Three’s night in Venice. Goldoni’s 18th century inclusion of characters from the commedia dell’arte has to do without the original improvisation, but it’s fun to catch their Venetian dialect – and it’s a joy to hear well-projected and clearly well-understood Italian between two ENO operas doggedly in English (Puccini’s La Bohème and Verdi’s The Force of Destiny, opening on Monday). Language coach Matteo Dalle Fratte has done excellent work here.

Elgan Thomas and Nicola Said in Le donne curioseNothing much happens: the men meet to eat pizza and to celebrate football, fast cars and amicizia (“friendship”); the curiosità of the women leads them to imagine floozies, occult dabbling and buried treasure. It takes them an awfully long time to see what’s through the keyhole, but most of that time – at least until the later stages of the last act – is beguilingly spent. Do the women get to join the club at the end? Of course not, but then this version is set in 1970s Italy, and to judge from RAI now, feminism still doesn't have that much of a hold there.

It’s frustrating that Wolf-Ferrari refuses to settle on a proper set-piece or a musical highlilght in “Episode” One, but the second opens out to a wonderful ensemble around the spaghetti lunch in Eleonora’s kitchen, Wolf-Ferrari’s harmonic sideslips adding piquancy, and a very pretty duet for the young lovers. Vocally, second-cast tenor Elgan Thomas (pictured above with Nicola Said) steals the show here: he’s a fully-fledged tenore di grazia who can both grandstand, at least as much as the composer lets him, and sing sweet, soft nothings as girlfriend Rosaura (Nicola Said) hands him the lunchtime plates to dry.

Of the women, Bethan Langford as chief housewife shows the most promise, but that’s almost irrelevant when they all work so well as an ensemble. There are other promising baritones among the men, whose characters aren’t so fully-fledged. Although it only has one chorus of even less consequence than the ones in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Le donne curiose is otherwise the perfect opera for student teamwork. Next, please, if Glyndebourne won't do it, a double bill of Busoni’s Arlecchino and Turandot.

Next page: listen to Toscanini conduct the Overture to Le donne curioseToscanini in 1947 conducting the Overture to Le donne curiose


It’s a joy to hear well-projected and clearly well-understood Italian as well as Venetian dialect


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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I think the author of the review got two of the names mixed up. The chief housewife- Beatrice was played by Bethan Langford and Eleonora was played by Elizabeth Karani. Therefore the description of the second picture is also wrong - from the top it's Bethan Langford then Elizabeth Karani and then the other two.

Thanks for the correction, now made in the text. Easily done, perhaps, but important to get it right.

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