Rita

Music by Gaetano Donizetti with libretto by Gustave Vaez
Charing Cross Theatre Productions
Charing Cross Theatre

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Phil Wilcox a Gasparo, Laura Lolita Perešivana as Rita and Brenton Spiteri as Beppe Credit: Charing Cross Theatre Productions
Laura Lolita Perešivana as Rita and Brenton Spiteri as Beppe Credit: Charing Cross Theatre Productions
Phil Wilcox a Gasparo and Brenton Spiteri as Beppe Credit: Charing Cross Theatre Productions

This short opéra comique, written in 1841 when Donizetti was waiting for completion of the libretto for an opera commissioned by La Scala, was never performed in his lifetime and not often in the century that followed, though it has become more popular since.

Its farcical handling of domestic abuse may put off those who find The Taming of the Screw offends today’s mores, but director Alejandro Bonatto gives this production a light touch with only stylised violence.

Bonatto is also responsible for the English translation and the orchestration for the eleven-strong Faust Chamber Orchestra conducted by Mark Austin.

Rita (Laura Lolita Pereśivana) is hostess of a hostelry, married to Beppe (tenor Brenton Spiteri). He is her second husband; her first was lost at sea, then her village burned down so she moved to Tuscany. Husband number one used to beat her, but now it is she wears the metaphorical trousers.

She confronts us with red hair and bold eyes as in a long opening aria she declares herself the happiest of women and calls Beppe feeble-minded then (this being opéra comique) goes over the details in spoken dialogue. With further spoken text and all three performers singing with clarity, you get every detail.

Bullied Beppe is not so happy. A traveller arrives tells him to stand up to her, but it turns out that this is actually her first husband Gasparo (baritone Phil Wilcox). He didn’t drown but thinks she died in the fire. He has come back from Canada for her death certificate so that he can marry a Canadian lady.

Beppe sees a new way to escape, for if Rita is still married to Gasparo, she has no hold over him. Now, turning a stock plot upside down, the two men will vie not for a lady’s hand but to escape her.

Bonatto and his designer Nicholai Hart-Hansen mount Rita very simply. The orchestra is placed on stage behind a gauze, on which a simple painting of a Tuscan landscape is projected, and the front rows of the seating removed to create a deep acting space where three red doors and a table and chairs are the only other scenery.

The doors are on wheels and the singers frequently reposition them for no obvious reason other than to add vitality to the action, though their locking and unlocking matches the 'who is boss' theme and there is a lively chase through them. Theatrically, multiple doors signal farce and that’s what we have here: one that turns things topsy turvy.

The playing is natural but it has a zany edge with movement and gesture often matched to the music. This is a slight piece but the singing and playing both sparkle. Today, we view domestic abuse very seriously, but the production’s style softens that element; it isn’t abuse that you laugh at and there is a loving ending. Most of its 70 minutes (no interval) are great fun delightfully presented.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton