With Halloween just around the corner, it was the certainly the correct season in which to stage the bloodthirsty opera Maria de Rudenz by Donizetti. Described as the “most resounding fiasco of Donizetti’s career” at its première in 1838, tonight’s performance with its magnificent singing and highly inventive, humorous production proved why it should be a regular in the operatic canon.

Given that Donizetti’s operas are well noted for their melodramatic histrionics, the plot of this opera is no exception. It is neither the most credible nor, what with all the gore, in the best of taste. Before the opera begins, Maria elopes with her lover, Corrado, but the villain abandons her to die in the catacombs as he suspects her of being unfaithful. He returns to the Rudenz Castle and woos Maria’s cousin Matilde who will inherit on account of Maria’s supposed death. However, Maria makes it back to the castle and prevents the impending nuptials but naively tries to blackmail Corrado with an incriminating letter. She will not make the letter public which proves he is the son of a murderer in exchange for Corrado’s love. True to previous form, Corrado, after fruitless negotiations with her, stabs her, leaving her for dead. Corrado duly marries Matilde but not before Maria, who seems to be as indestructible as Jason Bourne, appears once more, dishing the dirt on Corrado and finally expires.

Director Fabio Ceresa’s ironic approach to the opera’s ridiculous plot was terrifically effective; by taking none of the melodramatic moments seriously and playing it in ironic exaggerated fashion, Ceresa brought a novel, comedic element to this opera. He also did a magnificent job of minimising the potential for gore by narrating the majority of the deaths (or attempted deaths) through puppets often to wickedly humorous effect. The beheading of the puppet which represented Corrado’s father was transformed into an occasion of much mirth.

This mock-serious approach informed the Game of Thrones style costumes by Giuseppe Palella with their lurid greens, purples and black, each one bedecked with a red heart pierced with pins. The sets, too, by Gary McCann were likewise slick and sumptuously over-the-top, with three different levels that possessed stairs, doors and windows, and could be spun around very effectively.

The singers were all top-notch with Gilda Fiume  giving an excellent portrayal of the eponymous heroine. Donizetti sets the tessitura for the soprano high, at times scarily high, though that did not daunt Fiume as she soared with great technical brilliance to the high D. Possessing a golden tone and finely graded dynamic control, what impressed most was the ability to use both of these things to deeply move us. Her dying aria in Act III (the time where she actually does pop the clogs) featured stunningly beautiful pianissimo singing that ravished our ears while her declaration of love for Corrado in Act II was heart-melting. Fiume displayed a comic side to her character too: at the start of Act II, Maria is playing with two puppets which represent herself and Matilde. The slaps she bestows on the puppet Matilde had the audience in guffaws.

For all Corrado’s despicable character traits, one understood why Maria kept coming back for more with singing this good from the former lover. Joo Won Kang delivered a fine performance of a difficult role, his honeyed baritone voice ringing true from the start as he confides in Enrico regarding his love for Matilde. While Matilde (Sophie Gordeladze) has a more minor part, when she did get a chance to shine as she presented Corrado as her future husband in Act I scene 2, she displayed a silky lyricism and an equal fine capacity to reach the stratospherically high notes.  There were some limitations to Jesus Garica and Michele Patti as Enrico and Rambaldo respectively, the former’s delicate projection in contrast with the latter’s sometimes overly powerful voice. The musical highlight for me comes in the quintet at the final section of Act I where the mellifluous tapestry of the five voices intertwined with extraordinary delicacy creating something of irresistible beauty.   

Much kudos goes to chorus master Errol Girdlestone for his work. The chorus, with their white headgear and exaggerated make-up, sang lustily, revelling in the humour of every part, whether it was forcibly ejecting Corrado or dramatically pointing upstage or peering randomly through the door to listen to conversations.

As the melodramatics occupied the action on stage, conductor Andrew Greenwood was holding it all together in the pit. The orchestra of WFO made the music fizz with energy and excitement throughout bringing this opera to a triumphant close.