After 236 years, Italian hit opera reaches Canada

What: Fear No Opera: L’italiana in Londra, by Domenico Cimarosa

When/where: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.; Metro Studio (1411 Quadra St., at Johnson St.)

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Tickets: $30, seniors $20, students $10. Online at ticketrocket.org; in person at Ivy’s Bookshop and Munro’s Books

 

Be honest: How many 18th-century opera composers are you really familiar with? I’m guessing two: Handel and Mozart.

But even limited to Italian opera in the classical style, the list of important 18th-century composers is long: Vinci, Leo, Porpora, Hasse, Pergolesi, Jommelli, Galuppi, Traetta, Haydn, J.C. Bach, Piccinni, Salieri, Paisiello — and those are just some of the biggest names. All were celebrated in their day, for good reason.

These days, fortunately, many worthy but long-forgotten operas by such composers are being rediscovered and one of them will be presented here this weekend by Fear No Opera: L’italiana in Londra (The Italian Girl in London), a two-act “intermezzo comico” by Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801).

Cimarosa was one of the most talented, admired, influential and internationally successful composers of his day. Raised and trained in Naples, a musical hothouse whose opera houses played a formative role in the development of the classical style in the early 1700s, he wrote more than 65 operas, most of them comedies, though only his biggest hit, Il matrimonio segreto (The Secret Marriage), is produced today with something resembling frequency.

L’italiana in Londra was a hit, too — soon after its première in Rome in 1779, it was being mounted all over Europe — but it is rarely heard today. (A vocal score was not published until 1979, and only the overture is available today in full score.) It was not performed in North America until 1955, and then only in a one-act reduction given in English by students in New York.

Fear No Opera’s production, indeed, counts as the work’s Canadian première — an impressive coup for so young and small a company.

Launched in 2012, Fear No Opera is a company for “emerging artists” — trained singers seeking stage experience in the transition from student to professional status. As its name suggests, it is also a company for what might be called “emerging audiences,” those seeking an accessible, inexpensive introduction to the genre.

It receives no grants. It is financed through ticket sales and donations and (as required) by the couple who founded it, soprano Amy Steggles and baritone Neil Reimer, who have sensible day jobs with the provincial government. Despite its modest budget, Fear No Opera has mounted two shows each season: a miscellany of arias and scenes in the fall, a complete opera in the spring (Donizetti’s Don Pasquale in 2013, Mozart’s Così fan tutte last year).

These latter productions are chamber-scaled — small venues, small casts with no chorus, piano reductions of the orchestral part — but are fully staged and musically polished.

This weekend’s show is directed by Heather Lindsay, the general manager of Intrepid Theatre, and the music has been placed in the expert hands of pianist Michael Drislane and conductor Brian Wismath.

L’italiana in Londra has five characters: a girl from Genoa living in disguise in London; three men who are infatuated with her (mopey English aristocrat, gullible Neapolitan, proper Dutch merchant); and an English innkeeper who is herself looking for love.

The story is pure farce, rife with conflicts and misunderstandings of various kinds (romantic, familial, cultural) and including a subplot involving a magic stone that supposedly confers invisibility.

(English surtitles will be projected for the benefit of those whose 18th-century Italian is rusty.)

In addition to Steggles and Reimer, as the Italian girl and the Neapolitan, the cast includes three young singers, all current or recently graduated voice students: soprano Tasha Meisami Farivar (the innkeeper), who won several awards, including the Rose Bowl, at last year’s Greater Victoria Performing Arts Festival; tenor Adam Dyjach (the merchant), who has a master’s degree from the University of Victoria; and baritone Paul Winkelmans (the aristocrat), a Victoria native studying at the University of Manitoba.

(At its première, L’italiana in Londra was performed by an all-male cast that included — ouch — a teenage castrato.)

The level of skill and sophistication in Cimarosa’s score is very high, but his touch is light; he deftly maintains an infectious comic spirit. Especially noteworthy are his lovely, graceful, vital melodies and his extended, energetic finales.

After 236 years, it is a pleasure to welcome this entertaining opera to Canada.

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