Rare – and not so rare – Rossini is rampant this autumn. While his opera seria are celebrated by Welsh National Opera with new productions of Guillaume Tell and Mosè in Egitto, the Royal Opera keeps things light and frothy. Figaro rules the roost on the main stage, but buried in the Nibelheim of the Linbury Studio, his early comedy La scala di seta receives its first ever production in the House. It is staged as a vehicle for the Jette Parker Young Artists, part of the annual Meet the Young Artists Week, and they largely succeed in delivering it with a good deal of sparkle and Rossinian wit.

© Mark Douet
© Mark Douet

What is remarkable is that this early opera (from 1812, Rossini’s first full year writing for the stage) already displays many of the characteristics of his great comedies: witty patter, dextrous coloratura, garrulous string writing and a pair of zinging ensembles where the action accelerates, building to a crescendo. Not for nothing was Signor Crescendo one of Rossini’s nicknames.

The plot involves the plight of Giulia, a beautiful Parisian, whose guardian (Dormont) is determined to marry her off to the dandy Blansac. He is unaware that she is already married to Dorvil, who visits Giulia each night via the silken ladder (la scala di seta) which she lets down from her bedroom window. Giuseppe Foppa’s libretto grows into full-blown farce as characters hide to spy on events, drawing false conclusions which just complicate events further. Towards the end, Dormont bursts into Giulia’s bedroom and uncovers four characters in hiding… which in a cast of six isn’t bad going!

Greg Eldridge directs his cast cannily. He doesn’t fall into the trap of making his characters daft, but permits the situation to create the comedy. Holly Pigott’s simple set places Giulia’s bed centre-stage, with a balcony above, from which she can cast the silken ladder. A solitary table, a chair and a mannequin dress stand offer just about enough hiding places for the cast. A sprig, offered to Giulia in the stage business choreographed to Rossini’s quicksilver overture, miraculously becomes a tree growing through her bed after the interval. Costumes are colourful and in period.

Lauren Fagan (Giulia) © Mark Douet
Lauren Fagan (Giulia)
© Mark Douet

The cast was better suited to Rossini than the last Jette Parker effort (a Viaggio a Reims in which only one singer seemed remotely at home in the vocal writing). As Dorvil, Luis Gomes displayed a bright, plucky tenor, full of Italianate ardour and ‘ping’. He’s not the finished article yet – his breath technique and aspirates meant his coloratura wasn’t always clean – but he has bags of raw potential.

Australian soprano Lauren Fagan was a charming, light-voiced Giulia, central to the plot. Although she sang well, I doubt Rossini will form the core of her repertoire; she lacked strength in her lower register and the ornamentation didn’t always come easily. She does have a lovely purity of line, though, and I suspect she would make a very fine Pamina. Anush Hovhannisyan, in her second year of the JPYA programme, was a sparky Lucilla, Giulia’s cousin who is successfully paired up with Blansac by the end once Giulia’s marriage to Dorvil is revealed. Hovhannisyan’s bright soprano and alert characterisation impressed, particularly in the infectious aria “Sento talor nell’anima”.

Basses and baritones fared well. James Platt (Blansac) sang with full, rich tone and displayed nimble agility through Rossini’s patter. Ukrainian bass-baritone Yuriy Yurchuk, as the slightly ‘slow of study’ servant Germano, found negotiating the cascade of notes trickier, but showed neat comic timing. The quartet “I voti unanimi” at the end of the seventh scene found Yurchuk, Fagan, Platt and Gomes sparking off each other well. Samuel Dale Johnson’s firm, suave baritone and confident stage presence made ones regret that Dormont is given relatively little to do.

Lauren Fagan (Giulia) and Luis Gomes (Dorvil) © Mark Douet
Lauren Fagan (Giulia) and Luis Gomes (Dorvil)
© Mark Douet

Jonathan Santagada conducted the Southbank Sinfonia in a lithe account of the score. Strings negotiated the twists, turns and tricky cornering safely, while woodwinds leant characterful support, not least in the limpid cor anglais introduction to Giulia’s aria “Il mio ben sospiro e chiamo”. Pit/stage co-ordination faltered once or twice, the sort of thing that is ironed out in a longer run, which this production sadly doesn’t receive. This is a pity because this Rossini comedy – so well vivaciously performed – can charm the grumpiest of souls. 

****1