Cimarosa: The Secret Marriage

Scottish Opera

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 24 November 2008 3.5 stars

Rebecca Bottone and Renate Arends (Photo: Richard Campbell)I'm sure many people won't have heard of Cimarosa's The Secret Marriage (Il matrimonio segreto). Despite its success in the 18th and 19th centuries, it now only lives through the occasional revival. The reasons for this are soon very obvious: the music sounds like Mozart at his worst and the libretto is lacking in any real subtlety.

Based on Colman and Garrick's play The Clandestine Marriage, Giovanni's libretto for The Secret Marriage concerns the familiar operatic territory of love between the classes. Geronimo, rich but without title, is determined to see his daughters married into the aristocracy. Meanwhile, Geronimo's younger daughter Carolina has secretly married his manservant Paolino. Carolina's elder sister Elisetta has been matched up with Count Robinson, on the offer of a generous dowry. However, when he meets the young women, the Count immediately falls for Carolina, who he offers to marry for a fraction of the money. This is further confused by Geronimo's sister Fidelma, who has fallen in love with Paolino. Of course, everything turns out alright in the end, the kind-hearted Count appeasing Geronimo's wrath by offering to marry the less attractive sister in exchange for Geronimo forgiving Carolina and Paolino. 

There are things to recommend Scottish Opera's performance of this 18th century opera buffa. Rebecca Bottone managed to inject some grace into the role of Carolina with her beautiful voice and sparkling coloratura. Renate Arends also pulled off a convincing performance of the bitter older sister Elisetta, whilst Wendy Dawn Thompson's genuinely funny portrayal of the vivacious older lady Fidelma has much to recommend it.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the men in this production. Quirijn de Lang was convincing and humorous as the idiotic but kind-hearted aristocrat Count Robinson, with good interaction with the female characters and he projected his voice well. However, Matthew Garrett (as Paolino) and Andrew Slater (as Geronimo) were both weak, utterly failing to be heard over the (small) orchestra at times and seeming quite ineffectual next to their female counterparts. Furthermore, the interaction between Garrett and Bottone was very awkward and their on-stage kissing and groping looked almost ridiculous.

Wendy Dawn Thompson, Andrew Slater and Renate Arends (Photo: Richard Campbell)Garry Walker managed to knit some shape and elegance into the orchestra, with more than a nod to historical performance, incorporating natural trumpets, baroque timpani and fortepiano. From the outset, the smaller ensemble made the whole experience more intimate, despite the sound not filling the hall like it would another night. However, it must be said that there were some intonation problems in violins and oboes at the end of Act I.

The set had a definite sense of grandeur. Based on designs by Robert Adam, we were led through different rooms in the house with each scene change as the drama unfolded. Against this the opera is set in the 1950s, with the usual beautiful dresses and dinner suits. There were some uncomfortable moments though. Firstly, a scene change was added during Act II, for which the orchestra had prepared some music as an interlude. However, when the scene failed to materialize for a further three minutes after the music had stopped, we were left with a very awkward silence, unfortunately punctuated by someone seemingly choking to death in the front row.

Next, the final scene takes place around Carolina's bedroom, complete with Elvis Presley posters on the wall, while Carolina and Paolino have changed into denim and leather as they plan to run away. This looked ridiculous and contrived – a scene from Grease suddenly juxtaposed with an otherwise elegant set.

Overall, this was a reasonably entertaining evening, though a few cuts would have made it drag rather less. Whilst it does have some aspects to recommend it, not least the performances of the three women, an unengaging score and weak plot, coupled with the awkward performances of Garrett and Slater mean that this production failed to reach anything beyond mediocrity.

By Aaron McGregor

Photos: Richard Campbell