Matilde Di Shabran

MATILDE DI SHABRAN Gioachino Rossini

Royal Opera House London

Review by Polly Hope

This is an opera that I seem never to have heard of and never seen, yet it is right in there among the best of Rossini works. It is described, presumably by the maestro himself, as a Melodrama Giacoso in two acts. It most surely is. A pertinent story of a nasty dictator type, who just likes to kill people, most especially women. Here it is set in some sort of Olden Times, nothing too pacific, just a long time ago. The stage is a box with brownish walls down the middle of which are two sexily entwined spiral staircases climbing up into the roof. Sounds appalling, but it works surprisingly well.

An extraordinarily long work, more than four hours, including a half hour interval. And no one was bored, no one coughed and the house was packed. We sat back and were engulfed by the delicious music.

So yes, it was actually quite terrific. Enthralling to see a work by a composer of top opera rank that was new, at least to me.

A small orchestra, lots of brass, extremely well conducted by Carlo Rizzi. This production has come from the Rossini festival in Pesaro and is brilliant. A long overture in front of a closed main curtain. Rare these days when directors always seem to feel they have to have lots of action going on in case listening just to music is too tough an assignment for our multi -tasking century. Instead we luxuriated in ten minutes of exquisite music.

Everyone sings like angels, hard to pick out the stars as all fulfilled their roles just right. After the overture the chorus enters in dribs and drabs through the auditorium, such follies of contemporary theatre rarely work in gold and red opera house, but here it all seemed just right as we are slowly introduced to the crazed nobleman's fortress

The woman-hating tyrant is eventually seduced by Matilde. A complex story, [Matilde is sent off to be drowned…] but here made very clear. The director, Mari Martone, just lets everyone sing all those delicious Rossini tunes. The cast all climb up and down the spiralling staircases, which also turn, so plenty of meetings and confusion possible. The humour is really very funny but never turns clownish and slapstick. Laughs ripple round the gold and crimson auditorium.

Alexsandra Kursak plays Matilde, looking glorious in a scarlet dress, but actually she doesn't sing at all, at least at the performance I saw as she had a sore throat so she only acted, and very well, while the singing was performed by Elena Xanthoudakis standing at the side of the stage in a neat modern black dress, except she did have very curious white shoes, which she kicked off at lurid moments.

I really liked the performance being taken by two women. It added up to a very fine whole, strange as it may sound.

Corradino, the horrid murderer of dames, also described in my programme as Cuor di Ferro, Iron heart, was sung by lovely Juan Diego Florez, a bit squeaky occasionally but a heart-reaking singer.

Isidoro, a plum of a part, an itinerant poet and a coward, is played brilliantly by Alfonso Antoniozzi. A real comic talent with a splendid baritone voice.

Edoardo, a young nobleman, kept in chains somewhere in the attic up all those stairs is sung by Vesselina Kasarova, who has a magnificent contralto voice and really looks like a young boy. Not easy putting those two together.

All the cast shine, I am proud of my opera house managing such a rich and complex production in the great Italian tradition and getting everything just right. The audience left smiling and chatting to each other, not usual in a London house.

So music really does work to cheer people up in these most dismal of times. The lady sitting next to me had just had her and her husband's pension fund; they are pensioners, wiped out in Iceland. She was grim before curtain up but happy as a songbird as it came down. And people say what use is art!