The three main opera companies in the Netherlands – Opera Zuid, Nederlandse Reisopera and Dutch National Opera – have all, to various degrees, suffered crippling budgets cuts over in the last five years. That they would unite in a talent development project to co-produce this Il matrimonio segreto is undoubtedly a political statement: L’union fait la force. The team of young opera “makers”, singers, musicians and designers, involved in this co-production surely shows that, on the stage and in the pit at least, the future of opera is bright. And, judging by the roaring reception from the audience in a sold-out Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg, there is a public too.

The choice of Domenico Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto (The Secret Marriage) for such a project was a bold one. The only opera by the prolific, but mostly forgotten, Neapolitan composer that is still performed with some kind of regularity is hardly a proven crowd-drawer. To modern audiences so familiar with Mozart, it is quite unconceivable to think that Domenico Cimarosa was, both in his time and way into the following century, the far more popular composer. The première of Il matrimonio segreto in 1792 in Vienna  was even the occasion of probably the longest encore in opera history as Emperor Leopold II (that’s the one that found that Mozart’s Die Entführung had too many notes) enjoyed the performance so much he ordered it to be played again from start to finish. Comparisons with Mozart are unavoidable, but Cimarosa’s music, interestingly, pre-announces Rossini. It does not reach the genius of either, but is still very effective in suggesting a mood and supporting dialogues and action. This was particularly evident in the National Jeugd Orkest’s lively playing under the baton of Benjamin Bayl.

The secret marriage in question is the one between Carolina, Signor Geronimo’s youngest daughter, to his clerk, Paolino. The two young lovers do not dare reveal their recent conjugal bond because Geronimo, a rich merchant craving status, has other plans for his two daughters: marrying them into the nobility. His wish is about to be fulfilled when an English lord, Count Robinson, asks for the hand of the eldest, Elisetta. However, when he meets both sisters, Robinson changes his mind and becomes infatuated with Carolina, provoking Elisetta’s jealousy and Carolina’s despair. Add to the plot Geronimo’s sister Fidalma, a rich widow who is intent on asking Paolino’s hand in marriage, and you get the farcical mayhem typical to commedia dell’arte.

Directed by Monique Wagemakers, this joyous mayhem turns into a fast-paced succession of finely choreographed scenes in which characters enter and exit the stage, run and jump, argue and embrace, dress and undress, kiss and kick, holding the audience captivated at all times. The stylish sets by Francesco Cocco and colourful costumes by Federica Miani, young designers who won the Dutch Opera Design Award 2015, complete the spectacle. The soloists rise to the challenge of an often intricate actors’ direction and deliver in style. Scenes like the quartet “Sento in petto un freddo gelo” in which the three women and the Count express their inner confusion, are loaded with fun, and I find it hard to remember when last I heard an audience laugh so whole-heartedly.

Lilian Farahani (Carolina), Mikheil Kiria (Signor Geronimo) and Michael Wilmering (Robinson) are arguably the ones thriving the most in Ms Wagemaker’s fast-paced, finely-detailed direction. Ms Farahani portrays a quick-witted, resourceful Carolina, rendered utterly endearing by her sweet-timbre soprano. Mikheil Kiria’s naturally imposing baritone and stature successfully portrays the comic figure of Signor Geronimo – a character that, in many ways, could be the ancestor of Rossini’s Don Magnifico. With an appealingly warm timbre, baritone Michael Wilmering, as Count Robinson, expertly manages to balance flamboyance with cockiness.  

The rest of the cast is certainly not outdone by those outstanding performances. Florie Valiquette’s Elisetta is a quick-tempered and venomous brat of a sister. Miloš Bulajić’s timbre is too nasal to be to everyone’s taste, but the tenor has some stylish singing to offer. Not at all the matron which one so often hears in this type of role, mezzo-soprano Hanna-Liisa Kirchin is, in spite of her wig and skirts with panniers, a sexy and coquettish Fidalma with an appealing timbre.