Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segreto in Cologne

For a work of its quality, Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segreto gets surprisingly few performances.  A pioneering example of buffo opera, it looks forward to Rossini with its pitter-patter arias for the lower voice, its swooping melodies and, above all, its brilliant ensembles. The well-crafted libretto by Bertati does justice to its source in the play by Colman and Garrick. The protagonists may well be caricatures in the style of commedia del arte but there are hints of social commentary and an exploration of human relationships in a world where arranged marriages are the norm.

In the production originating in the 2016 Innsbruck Festival for Early Music and now mounted in Cologne, Renaud Doucet steered clear of a reflective approach, instead he drew out parallels between humans and chickens by setting the piece in a hen house and having the soloists strutting, jerking their heads and squawking. At first amusing, the idea quickly wore thin and became an irritating distraction from the music and the dramatic intrigues. The low point of the evening was reached when Fidalma, just before her Act One aria, squatted down in the straw to lay a golden egg. The conceit operated also as a straitjacket on the soloists and it was noticeable how, when they allowed themselves to be released from it, their singing was more relaxed and their characterisation more interesting.

There were, nevertheless, some aesthetically pleasing aspects to the staging. During the ensembles, the action was frozen, the singers emerging in strongly lit profile against a dark background. Moreover a top notch cast had been assembled. and, despite some imperfections, one’s expectations of vocal delights were largely realised. Donato di Stefano appeared to be out of sorts, perhaps because of a physical indisposition, and was a subdued Geronimo. In comparison, Renato Girolami without vulgarising Count Robinson offered a flamboyant interpretation bringing colour to the musical phrases and relishing enunciation of the Italian text. The two sisters were a nicely contrasting pair. Anna Palimina, as the secretly married Carolina, was pert, petulant and yet engagingly affectionate, her pure soprano reaching out to communicate her emotions. Caught in the ambiguity of her situation, the Elisabetta of Emily Hindrichs was introverted and serious, relying on an expressive middle voice but still rising to the challenge of her final, ornamented and high-lying aria. As the clandestine husband Paolino, Norman Reinhardt gambolled around the stage and analogously his bright, light tenor negotiated Cimarosa’s vocal lines with agility. More handicapped than the others by the constraints of the production, Jennifer Larmore was unable to do much with the role of Fidalma.

In the pit Gianluca Capuano, not content with merely providing a sprightly accompaniment, held back his orchestral forces to give emphasis to the opera’s more thoughtful moments and also brought out some of the inventive passages in Cimarosa’s score.