Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali

Gaetano Donizetti
Opera de Lyon

Go to film/video...

Laurent Naouri (Mamma Agata), Pietro Di Bianco (composer) and Enea Scala (tenor) Credit: Stofleth
Patrizia Ciofi (Daria, Prima donna)and chorus Credit: Stofleth
Pietro Di Bianco, Enric Martinez-Castignani (poet), Patrizia Ciofi and Piotr Micinski (impresario) Credit: Stofleth

It’s been staged rather mundanely as "An unconventional rehearsal" and as "The prima donna’s mother is a drag" while the BBC—drawing on its own period drama—called it "Upstage and Downstage".

The literal-minded at Opus Arte have translated Donizetti’s farce straightforwardly as Conventions and Inconveniences of the Stage. They might alternatively have called it Carry on at your convenience—except that might give the wrong idea, and anyway someone got there first—or with an eye to a currently popular vogue The opera that goes wrong.

Donizetti wasn’t the first nor last to satirise behind-the-scenes theatrical events, or the sufferings of the poor composer at the whim of tempestuous tenors and insufferable sopranos, Mozart having set a similar story in Der Schauspieldirektor.

I don’t know whether he would have seen it, but in 1825, he had witnessed a near-farcical occasion in Palermo when the prima donna fell ill and a famous baritone stepped in to sing the role.

Two years later, he wrote Convenzione, poking fun at the inadequacies of a small touring opera company, and added the second part, Inconvenzione, around 1830.

It’s as well that he did, for there aren’t so many laughs to be had in the first half, despite the valiant efforts of Patrizia Ciofi as the prima donna Daria, a woman not to be overshadowed by anything as trivial as the score. She has timing all her own, accentuated by grand gestures of a scale to make the young Netrebko seem like a wilting flower.

But the main gag of the show is the casting of a buffo baritone, the ebullient Laurent Naouri, as Mamma Agata, the protective mother of Daria’s rival, seconda donna Luigia, beautifully sung, winsomely performed by Clara Meloni.

On her first startling appearance in a floral housewifely dress—I was reminded of the monster cook in Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges—the redoutable matriarch instructs Pietro di Bianco as the long-suffering composer exactly how he should write the music. Her arietta is of course banal, but it naturally takes a real composer of Donizetti’s comic genius to pull it off.

There is never a dull moment when Naouri is on stage, in prestissimo patter with Enea Scala as German tenor with a poor command of Italian (a joke that doesn’t come off, at least not in the English subtitles), or in a ludicrously misremembered, perfectly ill-sung version of the "Willow Song", from Rossini’s Otello that Mamma Agata sings as an audition piece.

Director Laurent Pelly, best known for his Offenbach series at Lyon, stages the first part in a parking lot that has been set up in the ground floor of a disused theatre. For the concluding action, the theatre has been restored and a dress rehearsal is to begin.

There are pleasant solos for each of the principals: Scala demonstrates again his skill in coloratura; Meloni sweetly delivers a gentle, contrasting piece, but concerned at the same time about the view her short skirt affords the man in the prompt box; and Charles Rice, as Daria’s spaniel of a husband, shows what a decent singer he is before lurching out-of-tune and out-of-tempo to good effect.

The dress rehearsal at the end, so disastrous that it destroys the company, is the best, most hilarious part of the piece, and serves incidentally to highlight Di Bianco’s excellent performance throughout, as a singer, an actor and no mean pianist to boot.

Overall, the singers are good enough for this breezy comedy, and while the silly antics in the first half can drag, it’s worth holding out for the prima donna’s mother, who in this production is definitely not a drag, and for the splendid farcical finale. Especially if you happen to be a composer.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

Are you sure?