The Silken Ladder: a racy, pacey night at the opera
From the first note of the violins in the opening overture to the final bow of the cast, conductor and orchestra, Berwick Festival Opera’s (BFO) brand new production of Rossini’s farce of relationship tomfoolery was pacey, racy and raucous good fun. There is no doubt that the Maltings and North East-based Rocket Opera have consolidated their partnership with this original take on an opera favourite first performed in 1812.
The key plot question posed is whether Dormont (Austin Gunn) can marry off Giulia (Ines Simoes) one of his beautiful wards (the other is her cousin, Lucilla played by Berwick’s Tamsin Davidson) to lothario Blansac (Christopher Jacklin), whose hit rate is legend?
Yes, of course there are complications! A chaotic and delightful hour and a half of concealing truths and hiding behind and under furniture as relationships unravel and regroup. You see, Giulia is already secretly married to Blansac’s best friend. In BFO’s take, set in anything-goes Paris of the roaring 20s, Blansac’s best friend is a woman (Dorvil, played by Laura Wolk Lewanowicz). The happy couple have managed to keep their wedded bliss a secret courtesy of the silken ladder of the title which Giulia throws from her bedroom window nightly and Dorvil duly shimmies up. But their relationship spells trouble for the puffed-up Blansac and confusion all round – particularly for the inept Germano (Phil Gault), Lucilla’s tipple-loving servant.
So, the scene is set. But, how do you ensure an audience understands what’s going when the libretto is in Italian and the gorgeous (but not tailormade) venue (Berwick, Guildhall) has no surtitle technology? This production delivered a thematically and historically apt solution which contributed considerably to the slapstick quality and overall cohesion of style and setting. It gave us an extra non-singing character: Toniette (Katie Oswell) the maid. In fine silent movie tradition Toniette presented pithy plot synopses on classic cards. Oswell’s pert and knowing delivery massively enriched the nudge-nudge wink-wink tone. In fact Toniette was such a natural addition that it felt as if Rossini would have included her if he’d thought of it (and silent movies had been invented). For those of us used to understanding every word of opera, there was some adjusting to do. However, allowing the music and libretto to wash over your ears and the musical and sung performances to feed your eyes was enormously rewarding. Additionally, it ensured that the audience did not have its collective head buried in translation sheets on laps and was able to fully enjoy the fabulous emoting by the tip-top cast.
Never has an eyebrow conveyed so much desire or discomfort as that of Wolk Lewanowicz’s Dorvil as she was by turn delighted and enraged by her lover. She is convinced that Giulia, rather than shaking off Blansac’s attentions, is giving him the come-on. Of course, it’s hard to tell what your lover is up to when you’re hidden under a lampshade. Dorvil’s subsequent aria was masterfully delivered by Wolk Lewanowicz as a comic soaring wail of confusion and pain. Meanwhile, Jacklin’s cocksure Blansac continued to strut his stuff and voice his desires in muscular bass to anyone who would listen. Fortunately Tamsin Davidson’s ditsy and coquettish Lucilla was easily won over, with her limber suggestive soprano a fitting counterpoint to Jacklin’s macho playfulness. As Giulia, Ines Simoes was a superb spider at the centre of the web of confusion. Her fast-fire expressive asides and animated singing ensured we knew where we were in storyline and relationships terms – and enjoyed being there. I doff my cap to Phil Gault whose Germano conveyed lasciviousness, conceit, bamboozlement, and increasing inebriation (culminating in a superb drunken aria) with equal panache. Dormont could be seen almost as a cameo role, but Gunn’s energy is magnetic and he is a compelling and generous foil to other cast members.
It was fantastic to see the eight-piece orchestra taking a third of the stage space beside the set. And, boy, did they deserve it. Matthew Rooke’s new orchestration ensured that each instrumentalist shone, and Stephen Higgins’ impeccable and understated conducting highlighted the integral nature of music and performance. All together an exhilarating romp of an evening. Check with the Maltings Berwick for full details of forthcoming BFO productions – Le nozze di Figaro and Die Walküre.
Dormont – Austin Gunn
Giulia – Ines Simoes
Lucilla – Tamsin Davidson
Dorvil – Laura Wolk Lewanowicz
Blansac – Christopher Jacklin
Germano – Phil Germano
Toniette – Katie Oswell
Conductor – Stephen Higgins
Violins – Claire Taylor, Frances Orde
Viola – Judith Buttars
Cello – Nigel Chandler
Double Bass – Kit Petry
Flute – Diana Clough
Clarinet/Bass – Sam Lord
Bassoon – Helena Richards
(A version of this review was published in The Berwick Advertiser on 6 August 2015)