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The Secret Marriage is one of those lost treasures of late eighteenth century opera. First performed in Vienna in 1792 it was popular all over Europe for a few years then disappeared from the stage. There are a couple of fine recordings but London is fortunate to have wonderful small opera companies like Hampstead Garden Opera willing to take the risk of putting on stage such rare treats. And, though this is no masterpiece, it is a thoroughly entertaining evening of comic opera with a story full of fun and mischief and some fizzing music.
Geronimo has wealth, two daughters and a desire to buy his way up the social climbers’ ladder. With the help of his manservant, Paulino, he lines up the impecunious Count Robinson to marry his older daughter Elisetta but, when he arrives, the count’s roving eye is caught by the younger, Carolina. Both girls are appalled, Elisetta because she desperately wants to be a countess and Carolina because she has secretly married Paulino. The sixth character is Geronimo’s sister, Fidalma, a rich widow who has a secret passion for Paulino herself. The plot then revolves around the series of misunderstandings about who loves who and who knows what before – as in all proper opera buffa – we arrive at a happy-ish ending.
Jackson Lane provides a satisfactory space both for the action and – on a gallery above the stage – for an excellent chamber orchestra under the baton of the admirable music director Chris Hopkins. A simple set of archways, curtains, and chairs are entirely enough to convey the nature of the Geronimo household and the action – the entrances and exits essential for a farcical set of misunderstandings and even a fist fight between the two sisters – is well choreographed by director Sinead O’Neill. Best of all the story is told clearly and in a way that allows the singers every chance to shine.
Part of HGO’s mission is to provide young singers with the opportunity to sing roles in fully staged productions. Whilst this is an admirable aim, it sometimes leads to casting decisions that create difficult demands. Geronimo and Fidalma really do need to look a little older than the four lovers. On the press night (there are two alternating casts) Daniel Rudge sang Geronimo and Racheal Cox sang Fidalma and, while both sang with plenty of musicality and attention to text, even in some of the testing patter songs, they didn’t entirely convince as father and aunt. At one point it seemed entirely credible that Paulino might be tempted to transfer his affection to Fidalma – that cannot be right. Holly Brown and Madeleine Allsop were feisty and convincing as the warring sisters. Despite her “interesting condition” Carolina’s appetite for affection seemed a bit overwhelming for Paulino, played with a somewhat bewildered air by Andy Powis. Dan D’Souza swaggered his way through the role of the easily-influenced Count Robinson but relished his opportunities to show just how good is his mellow baritone voice. Indeed, for me, the highlights of the performance were in some wonderful moments when the six singers did full justice to Cimarosa’s music – the ensemble when the family is on the verge of sending Carolina to a convent was superb.
It’s perhaps unfair to compare Cimarosa with Mozart but given that The Secret Marriage was premiered only two years after Cosi Fan Tutte – and two months after Mozart’s death – it is almost unavoidable. The opera offers fun but lacks any of the moments of musical depth Mozart finds even in comedy. Even so, this production is a real achievement for HGO and its young singers – and well worth a ticket or two.
- By Domenico Cimarosa
- Directed by Sinead O’Neill
- Libretto by Giovanni Bertati, translated by Donald Pippin
- Cast includes: Holly Brown, Andy Powis, Madeleine Allsop, Dan D’Souza, Rachael Cox, Daniel Rudge
- Hampstead Garden Opera
- Until 25th November 2018