The third and final opera at this year's Donizetti Opera Festival was L’ajo nell’imbarazzo (The Tutor in a Jam), an opera buffa which sealed the composer’s success in Rome in 1824. The silly plot is typical of the opera buffa at the beginning of the 19th century. An old-fashioned Marquis (Don Giulio) keeps his two 20-something sons completely secluded in their palace, convinced that they should not enjoy any female company until they reach 40. But the youngest son, Pippetto, has a flirty affair with a maid, and the eldest, Enrico, is already secretly married to their neighbour Gilda, and they already have a baby son. Enrico confides in his tutor, Don Gregorio, putting him “in a jam”. The tutor tries to help the young couple, unleashing the wrath of Don Giulio, who will eventually relent and forgive the youngsters for the customary happy ending.

L’aio nell’imbarazzo
© Gianfranco Rota

Francesco Micheli, artistic director of the festival, transposes this story into the future. During the overture, we are in 2022 and we meet Don Giulio, a politician who made his career based on traditional family values. His wife leaves him for a young hunk, and he wins the custody battle for the two small children. His career is in a shambles, but then he meets Don Gregorio, alias Greg, a powerful social media influencer who helps him revive his political fortunes. Fast forward to 2042, and Don Giulio ends up as a vice-minister in government. Gregorio starts a “political school” where Giulio’s two sons are enrolled, and we understand that Don Giulio’s absurd opposition to female company is rooted in his beloved wife’s betrayal and abandonment. Most of the interactions between the characters are virtual: they each sit in their own cubicle, each in a different primary colour, and chat using virtual-reality glasses, “typing” in the air. On the upper part of the stage, we see some interpretation of their chats, in form of pictures, symbols, rarely words (video by Studio Temp, animation by Emanuele Kabu).

L’aio nell’imbarazzo
© Gianfranco Rota

All this is imaginative and, at times, beautiful to watch (the lighting by Peter van Praet is remarkable), but it ends up being very distracting. Also, the concept requires the action to stop and stand still for longer than an opera buffa can take. Vincenzo Milletarì conducted the Orchestra Donizetti Opera with competence and enthusiasm, for a very good performance. However, he didn’t have a chance to drive the action forward with the necessary unabated pace, seemingly due to the clumsy staging – perhaps also due to some less-than-perfect timing on stage at the first performance.

Humour got lost in the endless movements of these cubicles and in the singers staring into the void through their glasses. Moreover, the depiction of Gregorio as a powerful influencer, clearly a partner of Don Giulio in his political ambitions, does not sit well with the dialogue where he is terrified of Giulio’s reactions, as a true subject/employee.

Alex Esposito (Gregorio) and Alessandro Corbelli (Giulio Antiquati)
© Gianfranco Rota

As Don Gregorio, Alex Esposito was heroic in his effort to make the humour shine through. A masterful stage animal, he was the protagonist of all the (alas, too few) truly funny moments, with perfect comic tempi, intelligently exaggerated grimaces, and an extraordinary bel canto style. His sillabati and coloratura were perfect throughout, and his powerful bass-baritone made him the star performer. Unfortunately, his valiant efforts were not quite enough to raise the fortunes of a show with too many shortcomings. Alessandro Corbelli was Don Giulio; he is an old glory, specialising in the buffo baritone repertoire, and the signs of wear in his voice hindered his otherwise brilliant performance. His know-how and experience allowed him to navigate the role, and his natural likeability made his performance a success with the audience.

Marilena Ruta (Gilda)
© Gianfranco Rota

The rest of the cast were young artists from the Bottega Donizetti, the Accademia directed by Esposito himself. They all seemed a little raw and immature, although we heard some promising voices. Marilena Ruta, as Gilda, showed a very good coloratura in the final aria, where we see her, in 2046, running for prime minister. Both tenors, Francesco Lucii as Enrico and Lorenzo Martelli as Pippetto, held their own, Lucii with a more powerful voice, Martelli making the best of singing with an affected lisp and dressed as a schoolboy, in short pants. Both had the most outrageously nerdy haircuts. The cast was completed by mezzo Caterina Dellaere, singing a spunky maid Leonarda and bass Lorenzo Liberali as Simone, a servant of Don Giulio, dressed like Super Mario.