Chicago Classical Review » » Opera Festival of Chicago opens its second season with a Rossini rarity

Kenneth Tarver, Alexander Adams-Leytes and Katherine Beck star in Rossini The inganno felice, presented by the Chicago Opera Festival. Photo: Elliot Mandel

True to its mission to perform rarely heard Italian operas, the Opera Festival of Chicago opened its second season with The inganno felice, a one-act opera by Rossini that apparently never performed professionally in Chicago. Written in 1812, the opera was one of Rossini’s most performed operas during his lifetime, although it has now fallen into relative obscurity.

The inganno felice, which translates to “The Happy Deception”, tells the story of Isabella, who was accused of being unfaithful to her husband, Duke Bertrando, and thrown into the sea in a small boat. After capsizing, she was picked up by the kind Tarabotto, who tells everyone that she is his niece. The opera begins ten years later, when the Duke and his acolytes meet in the village of Tarabotto. Isabella immediately recognizes her husband and the men who cast her adrift; but presuming her dead, the men find her only an uncanny resemblance to the Duchess. The truth eventually comes out, Isabella and the Duke reconcile, and Ormondo confesses that he made up the story of his infidelity because she refused his advances.

The opera’s backstory—the alleged infidelity and Isabella’s banishment and shipwreck—would have made for a more dramatically engaging work. One can imagine this story as a complete opera, with the love story and the expulsion comprising the first half, and the plot of The inganno felice including the second half.

Without that backstory and investment in the characters, the unraveling isn’t particularly intriguing, and audiences don’t want the Duke and Isabella to reunite. Therefore, the opera, which had attractive but immemorial music, moved quite slowly. Fortunately, the cast, led by director Ella Marchment, rose to the occasion to overcome the opera’s dramatic shortcomings.

The expertly choreographed Overture presented a pantomime summary of the backstory through the lens of Isabella’s dream (or nightmare) ten years later. The comedic timing of the cast was brilliant, with movement and lighting cues perfectly in line with the music, especially when Isabella was shown giving birth. Here, the orchestra, led by musical director Emanuele Andrizzi, displayed luminous string sound and extreme precision.

The comic elements of this opera semi-series shone brightest, especially with character tenor Alexander Adams-Leytes as Tarabotto and baritone Matthew Ciuffitelli as Batone, the Duke’s henchman who failed to kill Isabella ten years before. Adams-Leytes was on stage for almost the entire show, delivering comedic asides and an impressive buffo motif. Ciuffitelli immediately impressed with the range of color he brought to his recitatives, his appealing tone and agility in his demanding air, and his aptitude for physical comedy.

The climax of the opera came in the form of a duet between these two intriguing characters as they attempt to befriend each other in an effort to extract each other’s secrets. In this scene, Andrizzi firmly held the reins of the orchestra, while the singers stumbled forward slightly. However, Andrizzi’s conservative approach proved necessary as the tempo picked up one last time in a final wave of buffo.

In the role of the exiled bride was the mezzo-soprano Katherine Beck. A vocal star of the show, her bright but balanced tone proved well suited to the relatively high role, which is often sung by sopranos. In his last aria, Beck navigated the high range and Rossinian runs and turns and with grace and ease, belying all difficulty except for a few slightly plucked high notes. Although the lack of interpolated high notes made the aria less breathtaking, Beck conveyed the pathos of the character’s predicament and provided a welcome foundation for otherwise frothy music.

In the role of Duke Bertrando was the tenor Kenneth Tarver. Possessing a beautifully Italian light lyrical voice, Tarver danced easily to the fast coloratura. However, he couldn’t mask the difficulty of certain vocal passages as well as Beck, as some of the high notes sounded a bit uncomfortable. Tarver’s diction was something to admire, his tightly rolled r’s and precise double consonants conveying the character’s high rank and distance.

Although Tarver’s voice was beautiful, it was dramatically quite stiff. He seemed emotionally detached, so it wasn’t clear that his character was falling for the mysterious woman who resembled his ex-wife, and his lack of dramatic clarity made the ending confusing. Also, Beck had more on-stage chemistry with the other characters, which made the ending feel a little underwhelming.

Rounding out the cast is bass Frank DeVincentis as the dastardly Ormondo. Although he had the least stage time of the small cast, DeVincentis was a commanding dramatic and vocal presence, leaving audiences eager to see the first half of the story in which he ensnares Isabella.

Designed by Luca Dalbosco, the sparse decor on the stage of the Athenaeum Theater featured empty doorways and stairs leading to nowhere, giving the singers plenty of room to move around and find different levels. Aside from the Duke’s floral appliqué suit jacket, the suits, also designed by Dalbosco, were also pared down.

As evidenced by the Overture pantomime, Marchment, along with assistant director Gregory Keng Strasser and lighting designer Eric Watkins, harnessed Rossini’s eminently choreographable music in moments of precise comic timing. However, more attention could have been given to clarifying the actions and emotions of the characters during the denouement so that the audience doesn’t have to be glued to the supertitles to understand it.

The inganno felice will be repeated Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Athenaeum Theater in Lakeview.

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