Opera Festival of Chicago opens second season with a Rossini rarity

Sat Jul 09, 2022 at 11:44 am

By Katherine Buzard

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

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

L’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 cast into the sea in a tiny boat. After capsizing, she was taken in by the kindly Tarabotto, who tells everyone she is his niece. The opera begins ten years later, when the Duke and his henchmen find themselves in Tarabotto’s village. Isabella immediately recognizes her husband and the men who cast her adrift; but presuming her to be dead, the men only find her an uncanny likeness to the Duchess. The truth eventually comes out, Isabella and the Duke reconcile, and Ormondo confesses that he made up the story of her infidelity because she had refused his advances.

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

Without this backstory and investment in the characters, the disentanglement is not especially intriguing, and the audience does not root for the Duke and Isabella to reunite. Consequently, the opera, which had appealing but unmemorable music, plodded along rather slowly. Fortunately, the cast, led by director Ella Marchment, proved up to the task of overcoming the opera’s dramatic shortcomings.

The expertly choreographed Overture presented a pantomimed summary of the backstory through the lens of Isabella’s dream (or nightmare) ten years later. The cast’s comedic timing was brilliant, with movements and lighting cues perfectly aligned with the music, particularly as Isabella was shown giving birth. Here, the orchestra, led by music director Emanuele Andrizzi, demonstrated a luminous string sound and pinpoint accuracy.

The comedic elements of this opera semiseria shined brightest, especially with character tenor Alexander Adams-Leytes in the role of Tarabotto and baritone Matthew Ciuffitelli in the role of Batone, the Duke’s henchman who failed in killing Isabella ten years prior. Adams-Leytes was on stage for nearly the entire show, offering comedic asides and impressive buffo patter. Ciuffitelli immediately impressed with the range of colors he brought to his recitatives, his appealing tone and agility in his demanding aria, and his aptitude for physical comedy. 

The highlight of the opera came in the form of a duet between these two scheming characters as they try to buddy up in an effort to extract one other’s secrets. In this scene, Andrizzi kept a tight grip on the reins of the orchestra, while the singers tripped ever so slightly ahead. However, Andrizzi’s conservative approach proved necessary when the tempo ratcheted up one last time in a final flurry of buffo patter.

In the role of the exiled bride was mezzo-soprano Katherine Beck. A vocal standout of the show, her bright but balanced tone proved well-suited to the relatively high-lying role, which is often sung by sopranos. In her final aria, Beck navigated the high tessitura and Rossinian runs and turns and with grace and ease, belying any difficulty except for a couple slightly pinched high notes. Though the lack of interpolated high notes made the aria less of a showstopper, Beck conveyed the pathos of the character’s situation and provided welcome grounding to otherwise frothy music. 

In the role of Duke Bertrando was tenor Kenneth Tarver. Possessing a beautifully Italianate light lyric voice, Tarver danced easily over the quick coloratura. However, he was not able to mask the difficulty of some of the vocal passages as well as Beck, as some of the high notes seemed a bit uncomfortable. Tarver’s diction was something to be admired, his tightly rolled r’s and precise double consonants conveying the character’s high rank and aloofness.

Although Tarver’s voice was beautiful, he was dramatically quite stiff. He seemed emotionally detached, so it was unclear that his character was falling in love with the mysterious woman who looked like his ex-wife, and his lack of dramatic clarity made the dénouement confusing. Plus, Beck had more on-stage chemistry with the other characters, making the ending a bit of an anticlimax.

Rounding out the cast was bass Frank DeVincentis as the dastardly Ormondo. Though he had the least stage time of the small cast, DeVincentis was a commanding dramatic and vocal presence, leaving the audience wanting to see the first half of the story in which he entraps Isabella.

Designed by Luca Dalbosco, the sparse set on the stage of the Athenaeum Theater featured empty door frames and staircases to nowhere, providing ample room for the singers to move about and find different levels. Aside from the Duke’s floral appliquéd suit jacket, the costumes, also designed by Dalbosco, were similarly pared down. 

As evidenced by the Overture pantomime, Marchment, with assistant director Gregory Keng Strasser and lighting designer Eric Watkins, exploited Rossini’s eminently choreographable music in moments of precise comedic timing. However, more attention could have been paid to clarifying the characters’ actions and emotions during the dénouement so the audience did not have to be glued to the supertitles to comprehend it.

L’inganno felice will be repeated 2 p.m. Sunday at the Athenaeum Theater in Lakeview. operafestivalchicago.org

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2 Responses to “Opera Festival of Chicago opens second season with a Rossini rarity”

  1. Posted Jul 11, 2022 at 1:38 pm by Bob

    A fine and balanced review that resonates quite closely to my own opinions of the Friday performance.

    But there was one important omission: the pleasure of seeing this opera in such a personal and intimate venue.

    We trade off the majestic sets and world-class voices of the Lyric for the OFC and the Athenaeum, but that is a tradeoff worth making. An OFC experience differs from the Lyric, but it is nonetheless a welcome and unique addition to the Chicago cultural scene.

  2. Posted Jul 13, 2022 at 8:48 am by Eleanor Raths

    I’ve not lived in Illinois for over 20 years and have lost touch with Chicago’s cultural scene. I’m delighted to read, thanks to my daughter’s notification, that its several choices of live opera are sparkling. Here’s a shout out to Frank deV!

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