Donizetti’s Il Burgomastro di Saardam in Bergamo

The Fondazione Donizetti rightly considers it an important part of the function of its annual festival to unearth the composer’s rarities. But since he wrote over 70 operas, the chances are that some of these are not worth reviving and the risk may be particularly great when, as with Il borgomastro di Saardam, the work has received only one performance elsewhere in modern times. Drawn from the same source as Lortzing’s Zar und Zimmermann, this piece centres on Tsar Peter the Great’s sojourn in a Dutch shipbuilding town ostensibly to learn about the Western European way of life in preparation for creating a new Russia.

But containing diverse elements, it is not clear what the opera is about. There are the conventional  opera buffo themes of a guardian, the Mayor of Saardam, keen on marrying his ward but being thwarted by her lover and of royalty, the Tsar, disguised as a commoner. Yet there is also a completely different subplot, that of a deserter from the Imperial army joining with his monarch in nostalgia for his homeland. Is it fundamentally a comedy? Or rather an exploration of patriotism? Or both?

In addressing these questions, the director Davide Ferrario must have decided to hedge his bets. His production not only lacked a clear identity being neither comedy nor melodrama; it was also a mishmash of different scenographic styles. Better known as a film director than a stage director, understandably Ferrario was keen on using videos to illustrate the Russian background. But his inexperience in staging opera was clear from his failure to realise that an audience cannot concentrate on singers in the foreground while being distracted by extensive film material on a screen behind them. He was reasonably adept in characterising the various roles but tried too hard to draw laughs from some rather unfunny material.

Musically the show worked better. As the Mayor’s ward, Russian soprano Irina Dubrovskaya displayed a fine technique in negotiating the coloratura passages while also maintaining a pure tone and producing some exciting top notes. Her lover, Argentinian tenor Juan Francisco Gatell has an appealing stage presence and an attractive light tenor ideally suited to bel canto. He never forced the voice but elegantly lent colour to the phrasing of the melodic lines. Giorgio Caoduro was an authoritative, vocally robust Tsar, though he was somewhat challenged by his big patriotic aria in the second act. Andrea Concetti blustered effectively as the Mayor.

Donizetti demonstrated again how he could bring interesting musical ideas to an unpromising and disorderly libretto. For example, the duet between the Tsar and the Mayor interposed rhythmic devices into a delightful melodic contrast of the baritone and bass voices. The Coro Donizetti Opera made a sturdy contribution and throughout conductor Roberto Rizzi Brignoli provided a brisk but sensitive accompaniment.