New Chamber Opera’s delightful, charming and innocent production of Galuppi’s The She-Devil

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Galuppi, La Diavolessa: Soloists of New Chamber Opera and The Band of Instruments / Steven Devine (conductor/harpsichord). New College, Oxford, 30.6.2021. (CR)

Director – Michael Burden
English Translation – Simon Rees

Count Nastri – William Purefoy
Countess Nastri – Rebecca Afonwy-Jones
Dorina – Sophie Kidwell
Giannino – Dominic Bowe
Don Poppone Corbelli – Tom Kennedy
Ghiandina – Kate Semmens
Falco – Rory Carver

Mozart and Da Ponte, Wagner with his own operatic texts, Verdi’s collaborations with Piave and Boito, Strauss and von Hofmannsthal, Puccini with Illica and Giacosa: these are well known and celebrated marriages of words and musical theatre. But much less remembered (undeservedly) is the collaboration between the Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni and composer Baldassare Galuppi, who were vital in creating the mid-eighteenth century form of opera buffa. Their La Diavolessa (The She-Devil) from 1755 is a good example of the genre, along with their opera of the previous year, Il filosofo di campagna, the only two of their sizeable output that have maintained a reasonably prominent place in the repertory and on record in recent times. If the characters and situations encountered in their oeuvre seem to be operatic clichés, that is only because their creations were the progenitors of all those followed, and these archetypes in many ways still stood Verdi and Puccini in good stead a century and a half or more later for Falstaff and Gianni Schicchi.

The more relaxed temperament of the drama, and the easy-going galant style of Galuppi’s music, as compared with the tenser, more formal manner of the dominant opera seria of the first half of the eighteenth century, is well served in Michael Burden’s production in the Warden’s Garden at New College. The Summer House looming at the back of the lawn where the action takes place stands in here for Don Poppone Corbelli’s dwelling. The treasure which its basement is supposed to contain is the cause for his mercenary obsession, and which the crafty young lovers Dorina and Giannino seek to exploit to their advantage. It is tempting, perhaps, to see something Freudian in the idea of the basement, but the simple and bucolic setting for this production precludes reading back anachronistically any such contorted concepts into the work and keeps it within the bounds of charming and innocent eighteenth century domesticity.

The cast of singers cohere well – as they need to in a tightly wrought plot of connected intrigues, misunderstandings, and disguises – and they enjoy the distinctive lilt of many of Galuppi’s arias, which makes up for his restrained harmonic style and comparative lack of Affekt within them. Sophie Kidwell is an ebullient Dorina, the eponymous She-Devil who, at the instigation of Rory Calver’s alert and eloquent Falco, the innkeeper, hatches a plot with her impecunious lover to excavate the treasure and take a cut in order to enrich themselves. Dominic Bowe sings Giannino with an amiable sense of mischief but also depth of feeling as he expresses his sorrow at Dorina’s scorn for his poverty.

The lovers’ scheme goes comically awry as their plan to appear as Turkish nobles (the Ottoman threat in eighteenth century Europe still being a potent one and hence a ripe object for satire, down to The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Turk in Italy) is somewhat blown off course when Count and Countess Nastri appear at Poppone’s house, who believes them to be the Turks he was told to expect. Rebecca Afonwy-Jones is a splendidly haughty Countess as she suffers Falco’s ‘doss house’ or inn, and then Poppone’s slurs, skilfully projecting this attitude in the well sustained melismas of her Act I aria and the Handelian bravado of her rage aria in the succeeding act. In something of a continuation of the opera seria tradition also, Count Nastri was written for a castrato; countertenor William Purefoy here interprets the part with notable vigour as he negotiates the character’s shifting inclinations from accompanying the countess, to becoming infatuated with Dorina. Tom Kennedy breezily despatches the part of Don Poppone – the type of buffo vocal role that seems made for his contemporary namesake, Alessandro Corbelli – without fuss in his actions, or disjointedness or ponderousness in the music.

The Band of Instruments are led in their enthusiastic performance by Steven Devine, who alone accompanies the secco recitatives from the harpsichord, and then conducts the arias with much rhythmic alacrity, for which two Oxford University undergraduates, James Andrews and Toby Stanford alternate in providing the harpsichord support. The one to a part ensemble aids the levity of the music, and the occasional addition of an oboe for some numbers adds telling piquancy. Simon Rees’s witty translation of the libretto into English rounds out the production delightfully, with its plethora of rhyming couplets and internal rhymes underlining the bouncy pace of the score, and just a few topical references to social distancing, without labouring the point.

Further performances on 6, 7, 9, and 10 July

Curtis Rogers

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