RNCM’s opera students can be justly proud of lavishing care and attention on Rossini’s The Silken Ladder

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rossini, La scala di seta (The Silken Ladder): Soloists and Orchestra of the RNCM / Wyn Davies (conductor). Theatre, RNCM, Manchester, 17.4.2023. (MC)

RNCM’s La scala di seta: Dormont (Henry Strutt) and Blansac (Adam Jarman) © Craig Fuller

Stage director – Robert Chevara
Set and costume design – Jess Curtis
Lighting designer – Jessie Addinall

Giulia – Jessica Hopkins
Lucilla – Charlotte Baker
Germano – Ishay Ravina
Dorvil – Yihui Wang
Dormont – Henry Strutt
Blansac – Adam Jarman

Some overtures are far more celebrated than their operas, such as Béatrice et Bénédict, Benvenuto Cellini, Euryanthe, Fra Diavolo, Genoveva. Undoubtedly the same can be said for some of Rossini’s overtures La gazza ladra, Semiramide and most famous of all the William Tell overture. Another such example is Rossini’s much-admired overture La scala di seta (The Silken Ladder) far better known than the opera. I am glad that the RNCM Opera School had chosen one of Rossini’s lesser-known operas. As usual the production was double cast to provide more opportunities for the opera students. I attended the performance by the Red Cast.

Rossini’s sixth opera of thirty-nine, La scala di seta is a farsa comica in one act, a form that was all the rage in early nineteenth century Venice. Written by Giuseppe Maria Foppa the Italian libretto is judged as being mediocre and not in the same league as the composer’s most exceptional comic operas such as Il barbiere di Siviglia or La cenerentola. In La scala di seta Rossini not only provided arias and duets, he can also be congratulated for writing ensemble pieces notably the marvellous quartet.

In 1812, the premiere of La scala di seta was given at the Teatro San Moisè, Venice receiving only a lukewarm reception. Following some initial interest in Italian cities La scala di seta was later staged at Barcelona and Lisbon (1823-25). It seems to have been overlooked for well over a century then the opera was revived at Florence in 1953.

The libretto follows Giulia who has an apartment at the Parisian house of Dormont, her guardian. Giulia is a young woman with a number of suitors, however the crux of the matter is she loves Dorvil and they have secretly married. Unaware of the wedlock, Dormont has pledged that Giulia will marry Blansac, his prosperous and philandering friend. To maintain their amorous, conjugal life together, each day at midnight Giulia from her bedroom window hangs out a silken ladder for her husband to climb up. The denouement has a conciliatory note as Dormont surprises everyone by approving the marriage of Giulia and Dorvil and consenting to Giulia’s sister Lucilla and Blansac marrying. Dormont declares that ‘he won’t stand in the way of love’.

This enjoyable student performance of La scala di seta – splendidly played by the RNCM Orchestra and ably conducted by the veteran Wyn Davies – was smartly directed by Robert Chevara as a fast moving, cheerful comic farce abounding with wacky humour, especially the unconventional schemes of pursuing romance. Chavara had bought Foppa’s scenario from eighteenth-century Paris forward to what could pass as say the 1960s, yet the era hardly mattered.

Before curtain-up, at the front of the stage stood a three-foot model Eiffel Tower, a nod to the Paris setting. Displaying many aspects of her expertise, set and costume designer Jess Curtis kept matters straightforward. Curtis had created two fairly similar sets, one each side of the interval, and both not too elaborate, but no worse for that. The scenery looked like conventional timber flats representing the inside of Giulia’s apartment. After the interval all eyes were drawn to an open balcony with a painted-semi panoramic view over Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the centre. My only grumble concerned the stage prop of the silken ladder, so central to the plot, a feeble attempt, far too short, made of thin rope and bits of cloth. With her choice of costumes Curtis provided a brilliant array of coloured outfits. Giulia’s vivid green pantsuit and Dorvil’s terracotta coloured suit were particularly striking.

RNCM’s La scala di seta: Giulia (Jessica Hopkins) and Dorvil (Yihui Wang) © Craig Fuller

Soprano Jess Hopkins took the leading role of Giulia. Only a few months ago at the previous RNCM production The Snow Maiden I had been mightily impressed with her performance in the title role (review here). Here, Hopkins excelled the young Giulia who, although already married in secret, was in great demand as a prospective wife. With long red hair and elegant clothing Hopkins certainly looked the part. Her attractive voice was steady, strong and projected well. Impressive high notes were matched by her coloratura and together with a natural stage presence her performance made a real impact.

Highly suited to the role of Dorvil, Giulia’s husband, was tenor Yihui Wang who looked and sounded every inch a romantic male lead. Wang demonstrated his agreeable, powerful voice and competently achieved high notes and effective coloratura. Occasionally his intonation went a little awry for which I am sure a modicum of polish would provide dividends. Ishay Ravina was the servant Germano who mistakenly believes that Giulia is in love with him. Dressed in a pyjama-like, brown striped suit Ravina performed the comic role well and although his baritone lacked ideal fluidity, he certainly made a favourable impression. The scene where Germano gets tipsy and sleepy too was certainly amusing.

The role of Lucilla, Giulia’s sister, was taken by soprano Charlotte Baker. Designer Curtis had robed Lucilla in a gold-coloured gown with her fair hair tightly pulled into bun. Lucilla doesn’t appear on the stage too often, yet it is a role with quality set-pieces with which to excel. Baker did the role proud, noticeable for her lovely voice with strong, clear delivery. Her coloratura was first-rate and at one point achieved her high notes charged with such potency it caused some of the audience to jolt.

Alan Jarman as Blansac was dressed in bland colours, made to look dowdy. I am not sure Blansac put up much of a fight for Giulia and seemed to be contented to be eventually matched with Lucilla. An enthusiastic performer Jarman displayed his warm, effective baritone that carried well through the theatre. Henry Strutt had the modest role of Dormant who wore a bizarre high wig which looked like candy floss and coloured in a mix of pink and purple.

Written when Rossini was only twenty years of age La scala di seta (The Silken Ladder) proved to be an enjoyable farsa that entertained the audience royally and was undoubtedly worthy of revival. Lavishing care and attention on Rossini’s minor comic gem the opera students of the RNCM can be justly proud.

Michael Cookson

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