What do men really get up to in their private clubs? From P.G. Wodehouse’s zanily useless Drones to Phileas Fogg’s beloved, unchanging Reform, or the irrefutably Establishment Diogenes Club (favoured haunt of Sherlock Holmes’s brother Mycroft), the secret retreats of gentlemen hold a perennial fascination for those shut out of their select circle. But, contrary to certain recent political biographies, what happens inside those clubs is often disappointingly mundane, as the curious women of Wolf-Ferrari’s title are bound to discover. In fact, their husbands are not gambling, nor cavorting with unsavoury ladies, nor experimenting in search of the Philosopher’s Stone, nor digging for treasure; they are instead enjoying the simple pleasures of their club’s password and slogan, Amicizia – friendship, in peace and quiet, sharing football, pizza and beer, while swapping rueful tips on how to deal with the women in their life.

Nicola Said (Rosaura) © Clive Barda
Nicola Said (Rosaura)
© Clive Barda
Yannis Thavoris’ strongly eloquent design concept places this production at the forefront of 1960s Italian cool: with bold wallpaper designs, sleek plastic furniture and a circular shagpile rug, the club is an immaculate homage to men’s great pleasures: football, fast cars, music, and of course, there’s a (well-chosen) fashion photograph of a stylish girl. The emphasis is on a firmly masculine, exacting sense of fashion and taste: no squishy armchairs, dust or cigar ash here. The club’s entrance is hidden inside a tourist tat shop of Richard Jones proportions, with neat racks of Venetian masks on one side, gondolier outfits on the other, highlighting the ideas of disguise and gender stereotyping constantly at play in this work, while the tourists themselves (the Guildhall School Chorus) occasionally invade scenes and scene changes alike to comic effect. Dom Baker’s superb video designs frame the opera as a 1960s TV sitcom, an approach which suits the Commedia dell’arte-inspired plot exceptionally well: its stock characters, like Arlecchino (Harlequin) and Colombina, are effectively the Renaissance’s answer to Friends, after all. Each scene is titled like a sitcom episode, while a period-perfect opening credits video sequence (complete with cheesy grins from each “star”) had the audience rolling with laughter.

Stephen Barlow’s directoral efforts channel this aesthetic, keeping the tone light and sassy, notably assisted by Bethan Langford’s sourpuss Beatrice, whose expressive face and comic timing provide plenty of Stepford Wife energy in her rapid exchanges. While the TV comedy atmosphere works well overall, some lacklustre choreography means the purely slapstick moments don’t quite come off with the ribald vitality that Commedia dell’arte requires. Milan Siljanov gives us a gorgeously-sung and notably attractive Arlecchino, nicely matched by his charismatic foil Katarzyna Balejko as a finely-toned Colombina, but stronger direction would allow both singers to do more, and go further, with these demanding and rewarding characters. The final cream pie fest, accordingly, feels just a little more forced than ferocious. Nevertheless, the laughs are absolutely there, and keep on coming, the production evincing a burnished sense of humour throughout.

Nicola Said (Rosaura) and Thomas Atkins (Florindo) © Clive Barda
Nicola Said (Rosaura) and Thomas Atkins (Florindo)
© Clive Barda

Wolf-Ferrari’s postcard-perfect score, with tunes aplenty, feels aptly suited to the half-whimsical, half-nostalgic mood, but there is much more to it than sheer melodic prettiness: Mark Shanahan conducts the Guildhall School Orchestra with verve and attack through melodically driven passages positively surging with emotion and activity. Occasional sensitive additions of sampled sound (scraps of Italian football commentary, a cuckoo clock in Beatrice’s terrifyingly perfect kitchen) enhance, rather than detract from, the score.

Jennifer Witton’s deftly characterised Eleonora is the most finely-crafted presence on stage, her projection particularly impressive, her voice sounding softly natural. We have a fetching pair of lovers in Nicola Said as the irritating little Rosaura, and Thomas Atkins as her fabulous Florindo, with a characteristically Italian sob in his light and appealing tenor. Dominick Felix’s cheerful bachelor Leandro never fails to please, while David Ireland’s sanguine father Ottavio (who advocates agreeing with women at all times for a quiet life) is quietly jovial. Josep-Ramon Olivé gives us a brash and brassy Pantalone, in donkey coat and flares, treating his clients with unexpected harshness, his bitter intolerance of women never sufficiently explained.

Christopher Cull (Lelio), Josep-Ramon Olivé (Pantalone) and David Ireland (Ottavio) © Clive Barda
Christopher Cull (Lelio), Josep-Ramon Olivé (Pantalone) and David Ireland (Ottavio)
© Clive Barda

Christopher Cull has a slightly awkward job in Lelio, the alleged wifebeater who takes off his belt every time he feels irritated, only to beat the furniture instead; whether Lelio’s attitude has been forcibly toned down for modern sensibilities, or whether he is all mouth and no trousers, isn’t ever quite clear. I prefer to hope the latter, but it did sometimes feel more like the former. There is a dark energy to Commedia dell’arte which, like Punch & Judy, relies on a little savagery to see it through, however unpalatable it may be to us today.

Nevertheless, Le donne curiose is a riotous evening of deliciously Italian comedy, with fine detailing in the Venetian accents of Pantalone and Arlecchino, supported by Thavoris’s vibrant designs and given colour and character by Dom Baker’s elegantly apt video contributions.