Donizetti’s Viva la Mamma in Biel

Donizetti’s comic piece Le convenienze ed il convenienze teatrali, a parody of the 19th century opera world is tremendous fun. Perhaps the reason why it is not often performed is its unwieldy title which can be translated as “The Conventions and Inconveniences of the Stage”. It seems to have become more popular since marketed as Viva la Mamma, a not inappropriate title, because at the heart of the work is a matronly former opera singer, sung by a baritone, who is trying to further the career of her daughter soprano by getting the better of the local prima donna. One admires not only the ability of Donizetti to caricature his own bel canto creations, but also the wit of the sprightly score. For its recent presentation by the Biel-Solothurn company, the conductor Franco Trinca and director Pierre-Emmanuel Rousseau had made some some modifications to the score and libretto, including some contemporary references. For the most part these improved, rather than detracted from, the flimsy plot although, after a first half which went with a bang, the piece seemed to run out of steam with an unconvincing ending. The production, set in the late 19th century, was very funny, and although at times erring on the side of too much stage business, it never became too ridiculous, the principal singers being allowed to maintain a dignity in their “serious” arias. So we were reminded that opera is, or can be, a noble art. While the lively conducting of Trinca made a major contribution to the success of the evening, and all the cast sang well, the undoubted star was Michele Gove as the mother. It is a long time since I have heard such an adept execution of a buffo role. The voice was agile enough to deal with the pitter-patter, but also could produce a warm sound for legato passages, and when necessary, a precise falsetto. He relished the sound of his native Italian language, and there was a freshness and spontaneity to his physical antics. Truly a masterly performance.