Gioachino Rossini - Il Signor Bruschino
Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro - 2013
Daniele Rustoni, Teatro Sotterraneo, Carlo Lepore, Maria Aleida, Roberto de Candia, Francisco Brito, David Alegret, Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore, Chiara Amarù
Opus Arte - Blu-ray
Irony can be used to good effect in opera in certain circumstances. It's always a good fallback when an opera is a little too immersed in period attitudes and behaviours, or when the musical style is no longer in fashion. You'll see irony used a lot with modern productions of Meyerbeer, for example, as in Laurent Pelly's Royal Opera House production of Robert le Diable. Not everyone will agree that it's the best way of viewing all such works, but it helps if the opera in question is a comedy and an entertainment and not expected to be taken seriously.
The good people at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro aren't afraid of applying a little ironical distance to their productions when the occasion demands it. It's not just a case of being clever and modern, as much as the only way of reaching back and finding a way to revitalise works that in the present day would seem a little stagy and conventional. Certainly many of Rossini's early works are far from masterpieces, but there are wonderful innovations, humour and techniques in them that a little judicious irony can bring out and highlight without getting too carried away.
Such an example would be the composer's very first opera, Demetrio e Polibio which the Rossini Opera Festival, with the clever hand of Davide Livermore directing, characterised as a backstage ghost version of a long "dead" opera. With such techniques, creating their own little world where Rossini's works can be appreciated for what they are worth (and sharing them with the world in the form of wonderful Blu-ray releases), the Rossini Opera Festival can be said to have created their own kind of Rossiniland. In Rossiniland, the spirit of Rossini is celebrated and might even have something relevant to offer the modern world, even if that's just mildly diverting entertainment.
The one-act 'farsa giocosa' Il Signor Bruschino is such a minor work that would probably otherwise forever be consigned to obscurity if it were considered in terms of its modest surface merits. It's pleasant, inoffensive, contrived, conventional in the extreme, and running to just over an hour in length, there's no real reason to put on above other great works by the composer other than for the sake of completeness. The Rossini Opera Festival's remit goes far beyond dusting down creaky obscure works for an airing now and again, but really researching new Critical Editions and giving the works the best possible presentation to a modern day audience. There's not a lot of point in trying to recreate their appeal to an early 19th century audience after all, is there?
With this kind of adventurous spirit, the festival are willing to look more widely at how opera can be presented and engage a young collective theatre group with no previous experience of opera directing called Teatro Sotterraneo (Underground Theatre Group) to try to bring something fresh to Il Signor Bruschino. It's a work that could really do with not only a bit of a dusting down, but a bit of restoration work and a good polish as well. It's Teatro Sotterraneo who come up with the ironical Rossiniland concept here, seeing the work in the context of it being performed by guys in suits in a theme park dedicated to the works of Gioachino Rossini.
In the Rossiniland theme park, visitors, tourists and school groups can wander around and see little scenes from in the maestro's works performed by actors in outrageous wigs and colourful 'period' costumes. They munch some popcorn, take a few selfies and then move on to the gift shop or to the next attraction. Inevitably, when there are signs advertising Il Barbiere di Sevilla, La Gazza Ladra and Guglielmo Tell, there's not a lot of reason to hang around the Il Signor Bruschino too long, but a few adventurous souls or couples who have wandered off the beaten path and ended up there seem to enjoy the modest charms of this unusual work.
Within this kind of setting and with such a work, Il Signor Bruschino can seem like a bit of a pastiche or a parody. In terms of music and plot development it's by the numbers romantic farce with confusion over assumed identities and marriage intentions that runs as smoothly and entertainingly as a Haydn comic opera, with some notable Mozart influences in there. Gaudenzio, the father of the bride to be, has some very Sarastro-like moment of intoning gravely, while his daughter Sofia bemoans the cruelty of her situation with a Donna Elvira-like character and occasional Queen of the Night flourishes.
It's never going to be thought a great opera, and even a little ironical distance isn't going to bring out any surprise revelations here. The comedy still falls flat more often than not, raising little more than a chuckle now and again. There is some genuine engagement that comes through however between the 'actor's performance' of the opera and the visitors who stop by. A young couple, for instance, soon lose interest in the plot and are more interested in each other, but it ties in well to Gaudenzio's infuriation with young people being oblivious to those who are trying to act in their interests, or at least think they are. It's nothing profound, it's not particularly clever, but it connects the world of Rossini with the modern world in a nice way.
Musically too there are of course some wonderful Rossini-isms. The overture is a delight (as they always are with Rossini), and has little hammering interludes with the back of the bow on the violins - Rossini far ahead of avant-garde modern composers in that respect. And even though it is only one act long, follows a familiar sequence of numbers and is occasionally weighed down with recitative, Rossini still fills the work with vivacious music, catchy melodies, the occasional bravura aria and a particularly wonderful trio involving Gaudenzio, Bruschino and Florville.
There's a danger that ironical distance can introduce a measure of singing by numbers, not really giving the performers anything substantial to engage with in characterisation that is already insubstantial to begin with. You feel this is the case initially with the bland romantic leads of David Alegret's Florville and Maria Aleida's Sofia, but the singing is wonderful and beautifully suited to the roles, Aleida in particular making rather more of the role with some virtuoso singing. Carlo Lepore and Roberto de Candia however bring great comic vitality to the father roles and Chiara Amarù is a bright Marianna.
On Blu-ray, the opera is given the usual high standard of presentation. The image is perfect and the sound in particular gives a fine indication of the quality of the score and how well Daniele Rustoni conducts the performance. It could be a little less 'classical' and a little more free and energetic though you feel. The extra features on the BD include a Cast Gallery and a short Making Of that explores Teatro Sotterraneo's thoughtful and irreverent approach to directing the production. The BD is region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.