Arts & Events

Island City Opera’s Dazzling Production of Rossini’s IL SIGNOR BRUSCHINO

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday March 31, 2015 - 08:09:00 AM

Alameda’s Island City Opera, an offshoot of Virago Opera, recently offered a double-bill of one-act operas, Puccini’s Il Tabarro and Rossini’s Il Signor Bruschino. As a pairing, this was a bit of a mismatch. Mind you, I’m by no means anti-Puccini. My eyes rarely remain dry when Rodolfo cries out “Mimi!” at the end of La Bohème, even if I’ve seen this opera fifteen times. However, never has Puccini sounded more coarse and vulgar than in this production of Il Tabarro. On the other hand, rarely has Rossini – and the infrequently performed Il Signor Bruschino in particular – been staged and sung with more effervescence, wit, and engaging knockabout farce than in director Erin Neff’s brilliantly staged version of Rossini’s 1813 comic opera. 

Puccini’s Il Tabarro, the curtain-raiser of his Il Trittico, opened Island City Opera’s program at the performance I attended on Friday, March 6. This one-act opera is set on a barge on the River Seine in Paris. Thirty-two bars of music pass before a word is spoken; and the first words, sung by Giorgetta, reveal a certain anxiety on her part in relation to her husband, Michele. Soon they engage in a tense dialogue regarding her recent coldness toward Michele. Eileen Meredith, who sang the role of Giorgetta, has a lovely soprano voice; but she is not given flattering material to sing in the opening moments of Il Tabarro. Likewise, baritone Michael Rogers, who sang the role of Michele, also has a fine voice; but he too suffers initially from the paucity of musical material. Moreover, Michele is withdrawn and brooding in this opera’s opening moments. 

Things got worse, in my view, once Luigi, sung by tenor C. Michael Belle, entered the scene. Mr. Belle is what I call a belter. A belter is NOT a singer. A belter simply belts out everything at the top of his lungs. Mr. Belle has powerful lungs. What he lacks is musicianship. It’s a pity, for beneath all the belting Mr. Belle has a good voice – if only he would occasionally tone it down a bit! I’m aware, of course, that some listeners are impressed by a belter. Mr. Belle actually got the loudest applause at the end of this opera. All I can say is that those listeners who lavished their loudest applause on C. Michael Belle never understood – or simply never heard – the German expression, “Gut is das nicht, aber laut.” (“Good it is not, but loud.”) 

Luigi’s fellow stevedores were sung by tenor Richard Bogart as Tinca, and bass Kiril Havezov as Talpa. Only the latter possessed a fine voice. As for the former, let’s be charitable and say that he played the part of a drunkard and sang that role convincingly. Tinca’s wife, La Frugola, came aboard the barge and showed Giorgetta the cache of faded and worn bric-a-brac she had scavenged in the back alleys of Paris. Sung by mezzo-soprano Alix Jerinic, La Frugola offered a sadly comic interlude, singing sentimentally of her cat. Meanwhile, a hurdy-gurdy player wandered along the quay and added his vulgar tunes to what was already a vulgar stretch of music. Then a song-seller wandered by and sang his latest composition. Sung by tenor Alfredo Rodriguez, this offered a mildly entertaining interlude, highlighted, if one may call it that, by a quotation from Mimi’s motif from La Bohème on muted strings. 

I have attended many other performances of Il Tabarro, most recently in Puccini’s hometown of Lucca, in which all this local musical color along the quays of Paris worked perfectly well. But somehow, in the confined space of Alameda’s Elks Lodge, with the orchestra under the direction of Michael Shahani blaring away alongside the audience rather than in a pit in front, the first twenty minutes or so of Il Tabarro just sounded tawdry. Things picked up a little when Giorgetta found a moment to be alone with her secret lover, Luigi, and they shared a passionate embrace. But even in these intimate moments, when the lovers should be whisper- ing lest their illicit rendez-vous be overheard by Giorgetta’s husband, C. Michael Belle as Luigi continued to belt at the top of his lungs. 

There remained only the few tense discussions between husband and wife that featured refined singing. As Michele, Michael Rogers sensitively conveyed his hurt and dismay over his wife’s coldness towards him. As Giorgetta, Eileen Meredith sang well in these exchanges with her husband; but she only truly allowed her voice to ring forth excitedly in her few passionate moments with her lover, Luigi. Particularly poignant were Michele’s reminiscences of happier times when he and Giorgetta had a newborn baby beside them. But Giorgetta cuts off Michele and won’t deal with the death of their baby. Giorgetta now thinks only of getting free of Michele and the stifling life on the barge, and hooking up with Luigi. Throughout, stage director Ellen St. Thomas managed to utilize the cramped space aboard the barge and along the quay in an efficiently flexible manner. 

Suffice it to say that Michele eventually discovers the truth of his wife’s infatuation with Luigi and, catching Luigi sneaking onto the barge for a late-night liaison with Giorgetta, strangles him to death. Initially hiding Luigi’s body under his cloak, (his tabarro), Michele flings open the cloak to reveal to his wife the dead body of her secret lover, bringing this Puccini verismo opera to a brutal end. 

Immediately after intermission, the difference in tone was striking. The overture to Rossini’s Il Signor Bruschino may not be one of this composer’s very best; but second or third best where Rossini overtures are concerned turns out to be far better than most of what we hear from other composers. Rossini was a master of the overture. Even having his violinists strike their stands with the wood of their bows in this overture couldn’t detract from what is a fine, effervescent piece of music, full of élan and verve. The wit and intelligence of Rossini are evident in the overture to Il Signor Bruschino; and this is a very early opera in Rossini’s career, coming in 1813 only a year after La Scala di Seta (The Silken Ladder), and a month before his first major success, Tancredi.  

Immediately following the overture, Erin Neff appeared onstage. Erin Neff serves in this opera as both a character, Marianna, and as director. When she initially appeared onstage, costumed as Marianna, Erin Neff addressed the audience in English, introducing us to the basic plot of the opera we were about to hear. I found this disconcerting. Was Il Signor Bruschino to be sung in English? I breathed a sigh of relief when, moments later, singers Darron Flagg and Kelly Britt began singing in Italian. 

Darron Flagg, the tenor who sang the role of the young lover Florville, quickly demonstrated that he was a singer, NOT a belter. Flagg’s opening duet with soprano Kelly Britt as young Sophia was sung with consummate taste and musicianship. Kelly Britt distinguished herself as a fine singer with a comedic flair, performing in a skin-tight leopard-skin dress and chewing gum all the while. These two young lovers, Florville and Sophia, plotted how they might overcome the many obstacles standing in the way of their hopes of marrying each other. Marrianna, sung by mezzo-soprano Erin Neff, joined the young lovers in their plot. 

The problem is, Gaudenzio, Sophia’s gaurdian, has promised to marry Sophia to the son of his friend Signor Bruschino. However, Gaudenzio has never met Bruschino Jr. So Florville hatches the harebrained scheme of passing himself off as Signor Bruschino’s son so he can marry Sophia. First, he forges a series of letters. Then he presents himself to Gaudenzio as Bruschino Jr. Gaudenzio, played as an aging, bead-wearing, pot-smoking hippie from Berkeley and beautifully sung by bass Kiril Havezov, is taken in by the ruse and instantly warms to young Florville, whom he takes to be Bruschino Jr. So far so good. Now the question is how will Florville manage to sustain his imposture ? 

Meanwhile, the real Bruschino Jr. has been partying it up at the local hotel and is now locked up in the hotel attic until he pays his enormous bill to Filiberto the manager. Learning of this, Florville pays a portion of Bruschino’s bill on condition that Filiberto keep Bruschino Jr. locked up and that Filiberto play along with the pretense that Florville is the son of Signor Bruschino. Musically, Rossini provides each of his major characters with outstanding arias. Francis Toye, in his book Rossini : A Study in Tragi-Comedy, writes of Il Signor Bruschino that, « There is one of the most alluring songs for tenor that Rossini ever wrote, and the main soprano aria is equally good. » As sung by Darron Flagg and Kelly Britt respectively, these arias were indeed impressive, as was the buffo aria sung by bass Kiril Havezov as Gaudenzio. 

The real test for Florville comes when Signor Bruschino arrives at his friend Gaudenzio’s house. Confronted with Florville, who calls him « Dad, » Signor Bruschino reacts with bug-eyed consternation. « I’ve never seen this fellow before in my life, » declares Signor Bruschino. Now the fun really begins, as first Gauden-zio, then Florville, and Sophia all seek to convince Signor Bruschino that this is indeed his son. When Filiberto, the hotel manager, sung by baritone Branislav Radakovic, arrives and plays along with the ruse, Signor Bruschino begins to think he’s losing his mind! 

In the role of Signor Bruschino, bass Bojan Knezivic was amazing. His eyes nearly popped out of his head at each new insistence that Florville was his son. Meanwhile, he slouched around Gaudenzio’s living room in a track suit over a tee-shirt and gold chain, perused a Playboy Bunny-of-the-month photograph, and lighted himself a joint from Gaudenzio’s stash. His encounters with the sexy, gum-chewing Sophia were priceless. She alternately seduced him and psychologically browbeat him into submission. Florville, for his part, frequently hid behind the sofa and frantically urged Sophia to work her wiles on Signor Bruschino. The knock-about farce here was worthy of the Marx Brothers, whom director Erin Neff cited as her inspiration. 

When the dénouement eventually came, Signor Bruschino saw a way of gaining a modicum of revenge against Gaudenzio for believing that Florville is none other than Bruschino Jr., by approving the marriage of Gaudenzio’s ward, Sophia, to Florville against the wishes of Gaudenzio. Moreover, when the carousing Bruschino, Jr. was finally released from his attic imprisonment, he arrivesd drunk out of his mind and could only stutter, « Son pentito-tito-tito, » («I’m sorry-sorry-sorry »), which Rossini comically set to music of a funeral march. Bruschino Junior’s drunken apology only wins him a slap in the face from his disapproving father, Signor Bruschino. In the end, even Gaudenzio accepts the marriage of Sophia to Florville. So there’s a happy ending after all. As staged and performed by Island City Opera, Rossini’s Il Signor Bruschino was nothing but sheer delight, full of effervescent music, excellent singing and spirited high jinks.