A father having marriage plans for his daughter of which the latter does not approve may not be the most original plot, but it has inspired operas throughout the centuries, with well-known examples being The Bartered Bride and Arabella. It is also used as a side story in Tancredi and La donna del lago, the two Rossini operas last staged by the Theater an der Wien, but to less enthusiastic audience reactions than this première of La cambiale di matrimonio (“The Bill of Marriage”) at the Vienna Kammeroper.

Gaia Petrone (Clarina), Oleg Loza (Norton) © Rolf Bock
Gaia Petrone (Clarina), Oleg Loza (Norton)
© Rolf Bock

With this one-act farsa giocosa, his first opera, 18-year-old Rossini came to the rescue of the Teatro San Moisè in Venice, penning the score in only a few days, albeit using some previously written music like the popular overture with the horn solo. Despite his lack of experience, the work became an instant success following its 1810 première.

Jacopo Spirei’s production opens to a stage-filling billboard with the portrait of a pretty woman, titled “Mill’s will get you anything”. It advertises the enterprise of Tobias Mill who is eager to marry off his only child Fanny to his Canadian business partner Slook in return for a lucrative marriage contract. Fanny, who is in love with the penniless Edoardo Milfort, learns the news from the servants Norton and Clarina (what would opera’s poor motherless heroines do without faithful servants and nurses?) only shortly before Slook arrives – in this staging, by breaking into Mill’s warehouse through a wall of cardboard boxes which reveals the backdrop of an ocean liner, a symbol of the New World. But Fanny is not impressed and openly shows her aversion to Slook’s attempts to kiss and hug her, as seems to be the custom in then-exotic Canada. She is remarkable in that unlike other operatic daughters, her way of dealing with the matter is not subtle: when she fails to change Slook’s mind about the marriage, she and Edoardo threaten to scratch out his eyes and rip open his veins, instead of conspiring or simply lamenting their cruel destiny. The businessman Slook, however, remains set on his goal; only when Norton tells him that what he is about to buy is already mortgaged, does he abandon his marriage plans. This in turn infuriates Mill and he challenges his former partner to a duel.

Luckily, before the situation gets yet worse, Slook finds out about Fanny’s true love for Edoardo and is so touched that he gives his marriage contract to the latter and even makes him his heir. After some more twists and turns, the couple is finally free to embark on the ocean liner for a honeymoon.

The staging evokes the aesthetics of silent movies, albeit in pleasing colours. This approach makes sense for a farsa as both genres indulge in dramatic excitement and exaggeration. Costume designer Nikolaus Webern styled everybody accordingly, with attention to detail down to the hosiery worn by the singers: ironically, the capitalist Slook wears red socks under the innocent white of his suit while the secret lovers wear striped leggings and socks that match Fanny’s sailor dress.

Singing in this production was very good with outstanding performances by Ben Connor (Slook) and Igor Bakan (Mill), who both mastered the Rossini coloratura impressively and also excelled in the secco recitatives that push the story forward. Anna Maria Sarra as Fanny and Andrew Owens as Edoardo were also very good, albeit a bit nervous at the beginning of their first duet; Gaia Petrone and Oleg Loza made the most of their supporting roles as the servants.

The duets and trios are the highlights of the score and were sung with absolute mastery. Even the most demanding coloratura parts came together effortlessly, when one knows very well that impeccable singing technique aside, a strict répétiteur (Gelsomino Rocco) and competent conducting are necessary to achieve strong results. Konstantin Chudovsky’s athletic conducting got the most from every player and singer, and he had the Wiener KammerOrchester savouring the crescendos and taking care of nuances.

Minor flaws like the lovers’ rather tame attack on Slook or a single coloratura line not being in total sync with the orchestra are negligible when the audience leaves the performance with happy smiles on their faces – no greater and no lesser effect should be expected from a buffo piece in which love wins.