Every July and August, the French are known to migrate south to the midi; at the same time, Italians migrate south to the mezzogiorno. For nearly half a century now, opera lovers amongst them – augmented more recently by an increasing clutch of foreigners – make their way to the olive groves, vineyards and hill towns of Puglia, in particular to Martina Franca, the home of the Festival della Valle d’Itria, where they will find opera that’s not in the mainstream repertoire sung by aspiring performers whose careers haven’t yet taken them to the biggest houses. If you’re from the British Isles, you can view it as a cross between Garsington and Wexford, with the addition of a lot of white marble; the operas are performed in the gracious courtyard of the ducal palace.

Benedetta Torre (Carolina), Alasdair Kent (Paolino) © Clarissa Lapolla
Benedetta Torre (Carolina), Alasdair Kent (Paolino)
© Clarissa Lapolla

For anyone brought up with the general impression that the classical period comprised only Mozart and Haydn, here’s a name to add to the list: the Neapolitan Domenico Cimarosa, who fetched up at the court of the Emperor Leopold II in Vienna after a spell in St Petersburg as music teacher to Catherine the Great. We were treated here to his biggest hit, Il matrimonio segreto, written in 1792.

Maria Laura Iacobellis (Elisetta), Ana Victória Pitts (Fidalma © Clarissa Lapolla
Maria Laura Iacobellis (Elisetta), Ana Victória Pitts (Fidalma
© Clarissa Lapolla

The standard rom-com plot is varied disposing of the “boy meets girl, boy marries girl” section, which has happened before the curtain comes up. The snag is that the boy (Paolino) and the girl (Carolina) haven’t told anyone, most notably Carolina’s father Signor Geronimo, a doltish and wealthy merchant much in the mould of Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain or Rossini’s Don Magnifico. But Paolino has a cunning plan: to set up a marriage for Carolina’s older (and uglier) sister Elisetta to his new boss, the genuinely noble Count Robinson. All goes well until the Count arrives and falls for the wrong sister…

Benedetta Torre (Carolina), Vittorio Prato (Robinson) © Clarissa Lapolla
Benedetta Torre (Carolina), Vittorio Prato (Robinson)
© Clarissa Lapolla

Every one of our six singers had lovely-sounding voices in their varying registers; every one was perhaps a size too small for an outdoor opera: director/designer Pier Luigi Pizzi could have helped their projection by providing some cover over the rectangular box-shaped construction of the set. I most enjoyed the lightness and freshness of Alasdair Kent’s tenor, which rang most sweetly in his high notes: his Paolino was disarmingly charming. Benedetta Torre was equally charming as Carolina, who provided secure phrasing and intonation and similar sweetness – although not above a bit of vicious sibling rivalry with Maria Laura Iacobellis’ equally sweetly sung but predatory Elisetta – a hilarious moment was provided by the Count’s conspiratorial aside that he will have to watch out for this furba sopraffina (top-class minx). Plenty of quick fire basso buffo fun was added by Vittoria Prato as the Count and Marco Filippo Romano’s Geronimo. However, the show was stolen by Ana Victória Pitts as Fidalma, Geronimo’s wealthy widowed sister, who reveals her secret passion for Paolino at a critical moment. While everyone did well at playing up the comedy, Pitts did particularly well at accenting the voice to add that extra sharp edge to the wit. These are all singers who I would like to hear again.

Cimarosa’s music has all of the grace and elegance of Mozart’s and much of his ability to combine that with fun and vivacity. It provides more than enough opportunities for the singers to show their stuff and more than enough changes of pace to match the comedy. What it lacks is Mozart’s ability to touch the sublime and take you away from the comedy to a moment of pure musical bliss. Michele Spotti and the Orchestra del Teatro Petruzzelli di Bari kept everything light and entertaining without, perhaps, providing the last word in intensity, but also without in any way overpowering the singers.

<i>Il matrimonio segreto</i> © Clarissa Lapolla
Il matrimonio segreto
© Clarissa Lapolla

Pizzi’s design splits the stage artfully into sections and provides lots of side doors to assist the farce, the sets are easy on the eye and amusing in the casting of Geronimo as an art dealer whose house is festooned with modern art which is indubitably colourful but of doubtful artistic merit. It all adds up to a lovely night of opera in the warmth of a Mediterranean evening.

****1