New Opera Singapore
Esplanade Recital Studio
Wednesday (13 April 2016)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 15 April 2016 with the title "Spousal abuse Punch and Judy way".
This seems to be the month for chamber opera in
, as so soon after
L'arietta's debut with three operas in a hour, New Opera Singapore has
unearthed bel canto master Gaetano Donizetti's one-act comic opera Rita,
or Le Mari Battu (The Beaten Husband). Singapore
Created in 1841, it was not performed until 1860, well after the composer's death. Comprising a cast of only three singers and running for just 50 minutes, its farcical plot centred on one taboo subject: spousal abuse.
Rita (sung by soprano Felicia Teo Kaixin) takes perverse delight in berating and slapping her timid and ineffectual husband Pepé (tenor Jonathan Charles Tay), but the table is turned when Rita's abusive first husband Gasparo (baritone Sangchul Jea), orginally thought to have died, unexpectedly returns. Pepe sees this as a chance for bailing out, but learns a thing or two from Gasparo on how to love but keep a wife under control.
|Rita provides a new definition|
to the term "ballistic".
All this sounds almost sado-masochistic in a Punch and Judy way, and that was ironically what kept the audience mostly in stitches despite the grim subject matter. Large credit has to go to director Stefanos Rassios' simple yet brilliant staging, which saw spoken dialogue trimmed off but retaining all the music. Gaustave Vaëz's French libretto was sung with projected English surtitles which greatly enhanced the experience.
The classic bel canto singing to be found in Lucia Di Lammermoor or La Favorita was not on show here, but the short arias, duets and the final trio still needed agile and expressive voices to pull off the dark comedy.
Teo's taunt of “When it comes to husbands, simpletons are the best” came off as funny rather than cynical. Jea's brash and booming counsel, “You can beat your wife, but don't knock her out” seemed almost good advice in the self-confident way he put it. Even Tay's declaration of glee in his aria when he thought he had seen the last of Rita was genuinely sincere.
What equalled or even surpassed the singing was the actual acting. Every singer rose to the test, particularly New Opera debutant Teo, whose transformation from bored stage prop (she sat on stage throughout all the preliminaries before any music began) to sadistic husband-beater and ultimately submissive spouse was remarkable.
The casting of actress Carina McWhinnie as the silent Cynthia seemed a luxury, but she added a further dimension to the story by acting out the inner thoughts of each singer. Besides delivering an excellent accompaniment, the casually outfitted pianist Kseniia Vokhmianina also had a minor role, spouting phrases in Ukrainian, probably swear words.
Like all comic operas, all's well that end's well. Or is it? Rita is rid of Gasparo (who wants to marry someone else anyway) but gets to keep a “reformed” Pepé (who has been well taught by Gasparo). A husband-and-wife detente is re-established, but like many a workable or peaceable marriage, tensions still exist. But who has the upper hand now?
|The cast takes its bow together with|
New Opera Singapore founder Jeong Ae Ree
and director Stefanos Rassios (centre).