Fulfilling all expectations and then going beyond them, Juan Diego Flórez's return to Covent Garden for the theatre's first production of Rossini's Matilde di Shabran since 1854 was a complete triumph. It was always going to be his evening, yet it's been a few years since I've heard Flórez in such excellent form.
The character of Corradino is, like the opera itself, something of a hybrid. A haughty, vicious tyrant becomes a figure of fun, and he veers between elegant, aristocratic music and fast, comic lines. Flórez's technical proficiency allows him to do both, and after a slightly tentative start it was extraordinary with what ease and confidence he dispatched the fioriture. Nevertheless, for me it was a new level of refinement in the lyrical passages that made his performance special. Flórez has really honed in on shaping the more emotional music, producing more depth of tone and warmth in the slower passages, and the moments where Corradino's ‘heart of iron' was shattered by love and caused him inner torture were as exquisite as the bravura passages were impressive.
Nevertheless, this wasn't Juan Diego: In Concert. The Royal Opera has genuinely done good work in bringing this piece to light (Florez sang it on record a couple of years ago; read the review here). A product of the height of Rossini's golden era at the Naples theatres from 1815-22, Matilde is an opera semiseria that shows how tightly the composer could manipulate both musical and dramatic forms, however large scale. Benjamin Walton's admirably lucid programme note describes the work as ‘an opera seria joyously derailed', and that seems to nail the point: Corradino, the Iron Heart, starts off as the dominating villain but ends up capitulating to the vixenish charms of Matilde. Mirroring this trajectory, the big numbers in Act 1 are dominated by Corradino, but in the second act Matilde wins the day by delivering a massive rondo finale, Cenerentola-style, gloating to a stage full of men (including a now muted Iron Heart) that women should rule the world.
Yet it never fails to impress me how well Rossini mixes the genres in these semiseria operas. Like The Thieving Magpie, a story that will leave us giggling puts a few tears in our eyes along the way, and in Matilde that's the plight of the prisoner Edoardo and his father Raimondo, whose troops have been defeated by Corradino's. The casting of Vesselina Kasarova in the role of Edoardo seems something of a luxury in the sense that it is not the main character, yet Edoardo's two arias require control and a visceral delivery, which the Bulgarian mezzo has in spades. She also communicated the character's angst, and was convincing as a boy in this very demanding trouser role.
I'm not sure that Mario Martone's production does the work entire justice, but there's nothing actively obstructing the course of the drama. It's probably personal taste, but I always detest productions that have the characters arriving via the stalls and interacting with the audience – not least because the people at the back of the amphitheatre can't see or hear properly in these circumstances – and I also dislike using the main house curtains as a backdrop, since the reign of our own Queen Elizabeth has nothing to do with Corradino's castle in Spain. But mercifully these moments are brief, and while Sergio Tramonti's single set requires us to use our imagination a little too much, the (sometimes rather noisily) rotating spiral staircases allow the comedy to function well and give a sense of entrance and exit. Martone's contrivance of comic scenarios is also nicely done, so although it's not directed with as much flair as other Rossini productions I've seen, the overall effect is as required.
Part of the evening's success was thanks to the charming and delightful performance of Aleksandra Kurzak in the title role, absolutely satisfying her function of playing the opposite pole to Flórez's villain tenor. That's no mean feat, and the combination of effortlessly dispatched coloratura runs and a sexy, funny, self-possessed dramatic interpretation was irresistible. I must say that I've always had a slight concern about this singer's intonation on the very top notes, and one or two were again exposed here, but this was by far the most gratifying and imposing performance I've seen from Kurzak. Her scenes with Flórez are reason enough to see the opera.
The secondary roles were mainly well taken, though with no outstanding contributions. Alfonso Antoniozzi's Isidoro had impeccable comic timing and played to the gallery with panache, but I found his voice underwhelming and sometimes ill-tuned. Marco Vinco (Aliprando) and Carlo Lepore (Ginardo) both sang with style, and both Enkelejda Shkosa's Contessa and Mark Beesley's Raimondo were absolutely fine, without quite dominating their scenes as much as they ought to.
Carlo Rizzi led a tight ship in the pit. While I felt that quite a lot of the score was played too loud and too fast, it made for a thrilling rollercoaster ride through a relatively long piece (the first act lasts two hours). There's a dignity and seriousness about Rizzi's approach that suits this repertoire; he believes in it, and inspires the performers to give of their all. The chorus and orchestra performed with a vitality that I think has been lacking from them in recent months, so while it was a bit rough and ready, the forward motion of the reading was more than appealing.
Yet its for the performances of Flórez and Kurzak that audiences should flock to attend this production, whether via returns or day seats.
Vesselina Kasarova on playing Edoardo
Juan Diego Florez records Matilde di Shabran on Decca
The season continues on 8 November with a revival of Strauss's Elektra starring Susan Bullock, whom we will interview next week.
Photograph credits: Catherine Ashmore.