The Secret Marriage has been a hit from its earliest days. At its 1792 première in Vienna, King Leopold II was so delighted by the performance that he ordered the whole company to repair to his mansion, be treated to a magnificent dinner, “and then play the entire opera through again, immediately”. Later, Verdi called The Secret Marriage “a perfect comedy, which contains everything that an opera buffa should”. And although more complicated, interesting and profound operas are of course available to the modern opera-goer, The Secret Marriage sparkles anew with effervescent charm and vitality in this superb production from British Youth Opera at the Peacock Theatre, London, with the Southbank Sinfonia conducted by Roy Laughlin in the pit.

Heather Lowe, Frazer B. Scott and Rosalind Coad © Clive Barda
Heather Lowe, Frazer B. Scott and Rosalind Coad
© Clive Barda

I have a confession to make: I’m not a fan of opera buffa. Recently I sat through the (admittedly superb) Glyndebourne production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (from a Clapham cinema seat), and felt: nothing at all. I admired the singing, of course. I loved the costumes. Thought the set was clever. But I didn’t care about any of it; least of all did I care about the entirely predictable fate of the entirely predictable characters. So I settled down to The Secret Marriage in a mood more idle curiosity than excitement: and I was absolutely blown away.

The plot is your usual ABCDA format: A – people are in love with each other; B – other, wrong people fall in love with the lovers from A; C – confusion ensues; D – denouement; and we finish back at A – the right people are back in love with each other, possibly plus an additional set of lovers. Roll credits. And we’ve met all the characters before: Paolino, the amorous valet whose love is threatened by circumstance; Carolina, the sweet young innocent he loves; Geronimo, her socially ambitious old father; Elisetta, her grumpy, vampish older sister; Fidalma, her mature but eccentric aunt; and Count Robinson, the noble, desirable and wealthy hero, who provokes phase B. But there is some magic vivacity at play in Bertati’s libretto (here skilfully translated with a Gilbert and Sullivan feel by Donald Pippin), in Cimarosa’s music, which sounds like Mozart but isn’t, and, above all, in Martin Lloyd-Evans’ brilliant direction which made me sit up, listen, watch, care, laugh and sigh. The tension, suspense and hilarity build smoothly and powerfully throughout: every scene has a freshness and an excitement which creates the illusion that, even if we know what’s going to happen, we don’t quite know how.

This is a vibrantly kinetic production, set in the 1920s (with gorgeous costumes by Laura Jane Stanfield), against a Mondrian-inspired set by Ellan Parry, in which people are not afraid to slurp soup, kiss, hug, fight, play (hilariously rigged) croquet, dress, undress, eat doughnuts, even roll in the sack: Mandy Demetriou, the movement designer, must have been almost as busy as Martin Lloyd-Evans in rehearsals. This constant physicality has two immediate benefits. The first is tension. In one scene of marvellous bravura, Paolino (Nick Pritchard) and Count Robinson (Bradley Travis) have a real badminton volley, while singing a duet. My heart was in my mouth: the shuttlecock did not land in the orchestra pit; they did not miss a note or a shot. It was spellbinding. Secondly, it brings the comedy to vivid life. The sheer brilliance of the Long Gallery scene had me (and many others) in hysterics: servants (all expertly acted) adorned with various props, holding frames around their faces, became the pseudo-ancestors of the social-climbing Geronimo – but had to shuffle about while the characters “walked” down the gallery, and run round the back to “reappear”. It became a human art gallery version of Grandmother’s Footsteps – and was genuinely hilarious.

Everyone’s singing is a delight. Nick Pritchard and Alice Rose Privett are wonderfully tender and believable lovers. Rosalind Coad was a viciously jealous, triumphantly seductive Elisetta, who sang one aria so perfectly she had to be instantly applauded. Frazer B. Scott is a brilliant, bristlingly moustachioed, paternal Geronimo. Heather Lowe, as a gin-soaked, chainsmoking Fidelma, thrums desperately with her misplaced passion. Bradley Travis’ magnificent entrance as Count Robinson steals all hearts, as does his wonderful singing. And the quality of everyone’s acting shows in the little details: during a wonderful duet between Count Robinson and Carolina, he tries to take her hand with a faltering smile, which then remains when she delicately twists her hand away: if that doesn’t break your heart, you don’t have one.

I have a personal mantra, which is: it’s not opera until your hands hurt. I.e. if you haven’t clapped until your palms are stinging, whatever you just saw wasn’t an opera. It was just a play with music, or a concert with a story, or possibly three hours in purgatory, but it wasn’t opera. At the end of The Secret Marriage, I am delighted to announce, I clapped until my hands hurt. It may be buffa, bursting with joyous buffoonery, but it is also romantic, charming, and utterly compelling. Vibrantly energetic, genuinely funny and beautifully sung, British Youth Opera’s charming, vivacious production of Domenico Cimarosa’s The Secret Marriage will warm the most cynical heart – and give you an unparalleled, early view of some truly exciting future talents for British (and indeed international) opera. Get ’em while they’re hot.

****1