The curtain opens during the overture. It is 14 November 1818, and we are at the Teatro San Luca in Venice. The premiere of Enrico di Borgogna is about to begin, the lead singer is missing and the Prima Donna is raging. The desperate impresario grabs a bewildered seamstress, who is busy fixing the costumes, and thrusts a score into her hands: she’s going to be Enrico tonight. This is the beginning of the opera as imagined by Silvia Paoli: a “theatre within theatre” concept – not the most novel of ideas, but witty and well executed nonetheless.

<i>Enrico di Borgogna</i> © Gianfranco Rota
Enrico di Borgogna
© Gianfranco Rota

Enrico is the first opera by Donizetti to be represented on stage; it was forgotten until 2012, when a staged version, and the only existing recording, were produced in Sweden. The Donizetti Opera Festival presented it with a period orchestra, the accomplished Academia Montis Regalis, which gave a thoughtful, nuanced and elegant reading of the score under the baton of Alessandro De Marchi. This choice is rooted in the music, with its Baroque elements  and early Classical features. Rossini is ubiquitous throughout, from the crescendo in the overture, to the structure of the duets, to the final rondo reminiscent of La Cenerentola's finale.

The libretto is based on a plot similar to Il re pastore by Mozart. A rightful ruler is killed by his evil brother, who rises to the throne. The rightful ruler’s son (Enrico) is saved and raised as a shepherd. When the tyrant dies, Enrico fights the usurper’s son (Guido) and is restored to power amid much rejoicing. The plot is spiced up with a love interest, coveted by both Enrico and Guido. The libretto is not the opera's best asset, but Paoli turned this weakness into a strength: by representing the first performance, she avoided the problem of making the plot believable. She directed the singers to act in an exaggerated, quaint way, which fits the old-fashioned plot and verses. We didn’t feel any emotional involvement with the characters of Enrico di Borgogna, but we did suffer with the cast of the premiere, who struggled with disorganisation, rivalries, an insolvent impresario and an extra in a bear costume who kept popping up on stage. It was hilarious, a splendid example of how a modern production can work if it doesn’t take itself too seriously and avoids pretentiousness.

Anna Bonitatibus (Enrico) © Gianfranco Rota
Anna Bonitatibus (Enrico)
© Gianfranco Rota

Anna Bonitatibus, the seamstress-turned-lead-singer, was splendid as the outsider who invested sincere effort into her hastily-cast role, making the best of it against a backdrop of professionals for whom the performance had long since taken a back seat to their own self-serving interests. She was busy studying the part when she was not on the stage within the stage, while the impresario was sweating profusely as he dealt with missing props, singers not showing up, and other visibly annoyed singers. She displayed a burnished, deep timbre, sparkling coloratura and wonderful phrasing, confirming her status as the most interesting mezzo of her generation. Her cavatina, reminiscent of Tancredi’s, brought the house down. Sonia Ganassi was Elisa, the love interest of the good and the bad guy. Ganassi was the perfect Prima Donna: she threw tantrums and tried to upstage everybody – a natural-born diva. Her light mezzo was a beautiful contrast to Bonitatibus’ darker voice; her middle register well supported and expressive. She generally managed the coloratura well, with some occasional strain. One of her best moments was the big aria in Act 2, where she displayed lyricism and emotional involvement.

Levy Sekgapane (Guido) and Sonia Ganassi (Elisa) © Gianfranco Rota
Levy Sekgapane (Guido) and Sonia Ganassi (Elisa)
© Gianfranco Rota

Guido, the tyrant, was Levy Sekgapane, with a very light tenor and easy high notes. He displayed a secure mastery of the style, with confident coloratura. He did not exude villainous quality but in this production that didn’t really matter. His duet with Ganassi, where the two singers were constantly trying to upstage each other, opening their arms in front of the other’s face, stepping on each other’s toes, each with a claque cheering for them from behind the scene, was laugh-out-loud funny. Pietro, Enrico’s putative father, was Francesco Castoro, whose tenor was darker and centred more in the middle than Sekgapane’s. He managed his several arias with confidence and beautiful high notes. Luca Tittoto was Gilberto, the jester, his arias a preview of Dulcamara’s, or Don Pasquale’s. Tittoto’s bass was powerful and agile, and his interpretation of the buffo character was funny and enjoyable. Federica Vitali was an irresistible Geltrude; Lorenzo Barbieri and Matteo Mezzaro completed the cast with committed, funny, well sung performances.

At the end, after the chorus manages to get their wages from a reluctant impresario, our seamstress is left alone on stage, singing the wonderful final rondo, while everybody hurries away, impatient to get home. But the audience is still with her, cheering her on.

*****