Donizetti’s one act opera, Rita, composed in 1841 formed the first half of last night’s double bill at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The second half comprised another late work, Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, composed in 1891 to a libretto by Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest.

Rita turns out to be far more entertaining than the plot outline promises and deserves to be more widely seen. Set by Yannis Thavoris in a 1950’s café, this production promised well from the start as a large painting of a stormy sea on the café wall was highlighted to dramatic orchestral chords; the first of many theatrically arresting lighting moments from lighting designer Colin Grenfell. There was clearly going to be trouble in this café!

Director Martin Lloyd-Evans gave great attention to comic detail including quite a lot of slapping (the opera’s other name is The beaten husband) which, as we all know, takes far more work than serious drama and he was fortunate enough to have in his cast singers who were physically adept and possessed comic timing. Anna Patalong as Rita gave a consummate performance – a soprano vocally nimble, vivacious and suitably exotic looking, with her singing apparently effortless and always at the service of her acting. The first character on stage, she set the scene, bringing laughs from the audience immediately. She was well matched by tenor, Alberto Sousa as Beppe, her hen-pecked husband who, despite occasional vocal tightness was similarly lively and engaging. Warm-voiced baritone Victor Sicard was suitably scheming as the returning first husband and stirred up trouble to great effect. Highly entertaining was Ciprian Droma in the speaking role of the local vagrant, Bortolo, exploding in a torrent of Russian- or was it Hungarian-tinged Italian. All the characters impressed not only with their singing but in their rapid spoken Italian and there were delightful cameo performances from non-singing café customers.

Conductor Clive Timms, director of the Guildhall Opera School, brought a stylish sparkle and fizz from the orchestra giving the whole a satisfying sense of pace and energy.

The story of the blind Iolanta originates in a Danish play by Henrik Hertz. It may be somewhat far-fetched but Tchaikovsky clearly responded to it with music at his most romantic and passionate best moving from the blackness of Iolanta’s blindness to a glorious shimmering as her sight is cured. The set in this production was a bizarre mix of a disused swimming pool with the root of a tree poking through and the feel of a mental asylum with white-uniformed nurses standing guard inside a wire fence. The set worked in that it posed questions (Was she metaphorically “under water” in her blindness or underground with the tree root?) and suggested an altered reality which fitted with the strange story.
There was a hint of swimming in the lighting effect as Iolanta went to sleep in her canopied bed to the charmingly lyrical duet from Ellie Laugharne and Kathryn McAdam as Brigitta and Laura respectively, joined by a ravishing chorus from the nurses.

Natalya Romaniw as Iolanta dominated with her glorious full lyric soprano, warm and deep in the lower register and thrilling at the top. She was ably supported by the rest of the cast. Baritone Koji Terada as Robert shone in the only aria from Iolanta that is regularly performed in concert, in which he extols the virtues of his love, Mathilde. Of the remaining cast, Sioned Gwen Davies was a reliable and warm-toned Marta, Stuart Laing an energetic Almerik, Ashley Riches was commanding as the Rasputin-like Ibn-Hakia and Matthew Stiff as King Rene was imposing but sang with a pronounced vibrato and was physically tense. Paul Curievici replaced Charlie Mellor who was indisposed and, while possessing a pleasing tenor voice, it lacked emotion and was a little pushed at the top. As an actor, Hungarian bass, Ciprian Droma as Bertran stole the show. Without upstaging, he was in character and motivated throughout and, as in Rita, had clearly made the decision that whatever was happening on stage was all about him!