Arts & Events

New: 18 Year-Old Rossini’s First Opera: LA CAMBIALE DI MATRIMONIO

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday April 20, 2015 - 03:06:00 PM

On Saturday, April 18, I attended a performance of Rossini’s very first opera, La Cambiale di Matrimonio, which was offered in Berkeley’s First Congregational Church by Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in partnership with the San Francisco Opera Center. Miraculously, all the verve, wit, madcap energy, and sparkling musicality that would be the trademark of Gioachino Rossini’s mature operatic output are already abundantly present in this opera-composing debut by the precocious 18 year-old Rossini. La Cambiale di Matrimonio is a one-act, 70-minute piece in the tradition of the Neapolitan farsa. Music Director Nicholas McGegan led the orchestra and singers in a brisk reading of this engaging farce, which enjoyed an uproarious staging by director Ted Huffman. 

The story of how young Rossini got the commission to compose La Cambiale di Matrimonio is so naughtily delicious it’s worth telling here. At age 14 Rossini played cembalo as accompanist at the opera in Sinigalia. One evening, this company’s leading soprano, Adelaide Carpano, who was rumored to be the mistress of company director Marchese Cavalli, launched into a particularly florid bit of improvisation and sang blatantly off key. Young Rossini laughed out loud at this faulty execution. The outraged prima donna complained to Marchese Cavalli, who called Rossini into his office to deliver a stern reprimand. However, the irrepressible lad explained what happened and so hilariously mimicked the offending singing that he sent the impresario into gales of laughter. So taken was Cavalli by young Rossini that he promised to aid him in the lad’s hopes of one day composing operas. Four years later, a mutual friend of Cavalli and Rossini’s family, Maestro Giovanni Morandi, recommended that Cavalli, now heading the Teatro Giustiniani a San Moisè in Venice, turn to 18 year-old Rossini to step into the breach and compose an opera to replace one that another composer had failed to write. The result was La Cambiale di Matrimonio, usually translated as The Marriage Contract, but perhaps rendered more accurately as Marriage by Promissory Note.  

The plot of La Cambiale di Matrimonio involves a London merchant, Tobia Mill, who receives a prepaid order from Mr. Slook, a wealthy Canadian businessman, asking his London associate to supply him with a suitable wife, one with all the carefully enumerated attributes. Tobia Mill decides to fill this order with his own daughter, Fannì, who, unbeknown to her father, has marriage plans of her own which involve a handsome, young but impoverished beau named Edoardo. As the opera gets under way, Tobia Mill, sung by bass Matthew Stump, studies a globe in an attempt to figure out how far Canada is from England. When the letter arrives from Mr. Slook, Tobia Mill declares to his servants Norton and Clarina that he intends to supply his own daughter, Fannì, as the bridal merchandise ordered by Mr. Slook. Norton, sung by bass Anthony Reed, and Clarina, sung by mezzo-soprano Nian Wang, try to dissuade Tobia Mill from this course of action; but Mill is adamant.  

Unaware of her father’s plans, Fannì, beautifully sung by soprano Jacqueline Piccolino, launches a lilting love duet with Edoardo, splendidly sung by tenor Brian Thorsett. In this duet, “Tornami a dir che m’ami” (“Tell me in turn that you love me”), the lovers confide to each other they have not yet told Fannì’s father of their love because the impoverished Edoardo awaits the aid of his rich uncle in winning the approval of Fannì’s father. The servant Norton warns the young lovers of Tobia Mill’s plan to marry his daughter to the soon-arriving Mr. Slook. When Mr. Slook does in fact make his appearance, Rossini, working with a libretto by Gaetano Rossi, pokes sly fun at cross-cultural misapprehensions.  

Left alone with Fannì, Slook, very capably sung by baritone Efraín Solís, finds her altogether satisfactory as the ordered ‘merchandise’. However, Fannì ardently urges Slook to forego the contract and look elsewhere for his ‘merchandise’. Edoardo, who has been introduced by Norton as Tobia Mill’s new accountant, more strenuously tries to dissuade Slook from his intentions regarding Fannì, ultimately threatening to gouge out Slook’s eyes and slice open his veins should he persist. Slook, now afraid for his life, wonders aloud about the strange lack of courtesy among these ‘Europeans,’ who lack the Canadian’s ‘practical American simplicity’. 

Meanwhile, Clarina, liltingly sung by mezzo-soprano Nian Wang, muses aloud her sympathy for Fannì in the aria, “Anch’io son giovane” (“I too am young”). The servant Norton insinuates to Slook that the ‘merchandise’ is already mortgaged; and this perplexes Slook still further. Slook tells Tobia Mill the deal is off. This enrages Mill, who challenges Slook to a duel. Before the duel can take place, however, Slook discovers that Fannì and Edoardo love one another; and he magnanimously signs the promissory note making Edoardo his heir. By this move, Slook hopes to technically fulfill his ‘contract’ by passing on the ‘merchandise’ to young Edoardo. 

Fannì, now seeing her hopes about to be fulfilled, sings the beautiful aria, “Come tacer, come frenere i palpiti” (“How to silence, how to curb the throbbing heart”). As Fannì, Jacqueline Piccolino sang this aria with equal doses of passion and limpid tonality. At first, Tobia Mill balks at Slook’s endorsement of Edoardo. Ultimately, however, he sees the light and approves the marriage of Fannì to Edoardo; and the opera ends on a happy note with a lively sextet involving all the characters. While the plot of La Cambiale di Matrimonio may be preposterous, there is no denying the admirably supple musicality with which the 18 year-old Rossini brings this farce to life. 

The first half of this program, before intermission and La Cambiale di Matrimonio, featured music by Mozart. Instrumental renditions of his contredanses from K. 106 were interspersed with concert arias sung by various young artists from the San Francisco Opera Center. Bass Anthony Reed sang the aria “Per questa bell mano” (“By this lovely hand”), accompanied by double-bassist Kristin Zoernig. 

Soprano Julie Adams sang the aria “Nehmnt meinen Dank” (“Take my thanks”); but her lovely voice was so marred by her poor diction that it wasn’t clear whether she was singing in German or Italian. Finally, baritone Edward Nelson joined together with members of the cast of La Cambiale di Matrimonio in a brisk quartet. On the whole, this first part of the program, while enjoyable, seemed somewhat scattershot, almost as if these pieces were thrown together as filler. The evening might have been more thoroughly satisfying with only the delightful La Cambiale di Matrimonio on the program.