Le donne curiose

Wolf-Ferrari’s sly comedy gets a refreshing update from the Guildhall’s opera department

Le donne curiose
Credit: Clive Barda

As he embarked on a musical career, aged 19, Venetian Ermanno Wolf added his mother’s maiden name, Ferrari. I sometimes wonder if he’d dropped the ‘wolf’ altogether his operas would be better known. It’s the suggestion he’s not quite as Italian as he ought to be which is the killer. But, as this hilarious production of Le donne curiose proves, no one but an Italian could subvert their own tradition with such quicksilver comic sophistication. Toscanini, who conducted the Italian premiere in 1912, was a fan, and you can see why.

Based on a farce by the 18th-century playwright Carlo Goldoni, the story concerns a group of WAGs who are insatiably curious about their partners’ private club. Director Stephen Barlow is spot on with his 1970s setting: quite apart from inspiring designer Yannis Thavoris to run wild with the wallpapers and indulge in a riot of shag-pile, turquoise and tangerine (the set alone is worth the ticket price) the atmosphere of lazy sexism and smouldering female dissatisfaction fits as neatly as the swish kitchen. This is Venice as tacky technicolour tat-shop.

It is also an ideal ensemble opera for a group of talented post-graduate singers: there are no fewer than four couples at war, plus assorted lusty blokes and two commedia dell’arte relics, club-owner Pantalone (a lean and furious Josep-Ramon Olivé), and his side-kick, the ‘Figaro’ character, Arlecchino (Milan Siljanov, a bass-baritone of sonorous charisma, and ‘a total genius’ by his character’s own reckoning). The leading men were well-balanced, from the crossly commanding Ottavio (David Ireland) to the relaxed warmth of Leilo (Christopher Cull).

Three women, like Macbeth’s witches over a cauldron of pasta, indulge in an orgy of accusation: Eleonora says the men are gambling (mezzo Jennifer Witton, bringing focused authority), Beatrice (a polished Bethan Langford) swears they are invoking the dark arts; according to  Colombina (vivacious Katarzyna Balejko) they’re looking for treasure, while for young minx Rosaura (soprano Nicola Said) it has to be womanising.

As the unmarried daughter, she has the most to lose, and plays mercilessly on the affections of hapless young Florindo (latin-toned New Zealander Thomas Atkins) until he hands over his key. Though Said began with a slightly harsh edge, her performance warmed up impressively, petulance turning to persuasive sweetness, she and Atkins providing the touching dramatic heart of the piece.

The score is littered with delightful operatic pastiches, duets and terzetti: a blissfully lyric, but utterly absurd, quartet at the kitchen table is as brilliant as anything in Italian comic opera, and interludes are vividly coloured with tambourine, low winds and fiendishly fast – and exposing – string writing. Conductor Mark Shanahan’s pacy direction kept it flowing, though it challenged some of his instrumentalists.

If the over-stretched denouement lacks the intense mordant punch of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi (instead of fisticuffs, we descend into custard pies), no one emerged without a broad smile. A laugh-out-loud triumph from this young, but impressive cast.


Le donne curiose is playing until 9 November at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama




  • Article Type: | Blog |
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