Unlike Mozart, the young Gioacchino Rossini seldom let his ambitions strain relations with employers. The precocious composer gained early notice through a series of musical sitcoms composed for Venice’s Teatro San Moise, where impresario Antonio Cera had final say over the subjects (usually French farces), the length of the opera and size of the cast (less than 90 minutes with maybe a half-dozen singers) and the rehearsal time (mere weeks).
Rossini viewed the conditions as a professional challenge and produced a series of tightly paced, highly original romps through which he gained the confidence to tackle weightier and more emotionally complex subject matter.
An Opus Arte DVD of La Scala di Seta (The Silken Ladder) from the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro provides a sturdy specimen from this genre, showing the composer’s early flair for extracting funny moments out of hackneyed situations while lacing the score with the propulsive rhythms and crescendi that would soon become stylistic hallmarks.
The plot revolves around the beautiful Giulia, who’s secretly married to Dorvil and facilitates their assignations with a silken ladder unfurled from her balcony. Giulia’s guardian, Dormont, is intent on marrying her off to Blansac, a somewhat stock Latin lover character whom Giulia tries to pass off to her cousin . Misheard conversations, jealousy, and underhanded behavior unfold in a plot that’s at times reminiscent of Cosi fan tutte and Il matrimonio segreto.
Rossini structured the 1812 work like a musical sine curve, with arias and duets bracketing a mass-confusion ensemble, “Si che unito a cara sposa.”
The famous overture, the only portion of the work that’s had any staying power, bears no thematic relation to the rest of the opera but provides a high point here for veteran maestro Claudio Scimone, who leads the Orchestra Haydn di Bolzano e Trento through an uneven and at times, downright plodding reading for the remaining 80-some minutes.
Damiano Michieletto’s 2009 production, with sets and costumes by Paulo Fantin, archly places the action in a modern two-room condo in Pesaro featuring the décor of the kitchen and design house Scavolini, one of the Rossini festival’s prime sponsors.
A large angled stage mirror above the set both magnifies and accelerates the stage business, allowing the audience to show characters hiding from each other in a kind of art deco maze. Video director Tiziano Mancini adds to the action with split screens and sudden camera pull-backs that after awhile have the frenetic feel of a Saturday morning cartoon.
Much of the musical focus is on the Giulia of soprano Olga Peretyatko, a certifiable hottie in her track suit and tennis dresses who actually brings some vocal goods to the package. Though her lyric soprano isn’t especially remarkable and could use more depth, the ease of delivery, ringing high notes and good diction combine to bring a youthful freshness to the role, particularly in the recitative and aria “Il mio ben sospiro e chiamo” near the end of the work.
Playing the part as a confident, liberated woman with an iPod and a house boy, Peretyatko can’t quite get around the incongruity of having to get permission to have relationships, and shows her exasperation with the proceedings through a few too many stock gestures, burying her head in her hands, waving her arms and generally looking angry-adorable.
Peretyatko shares four scenes with baritone Paolo Bordogna as the servant Germano, who, in a startling bit of bad taste, is done up as a servile Asian with a black mop wig and sandals. Despite the distracting get-up, Bordogna commands the stage with wonderful comic timing and understated gesture, mining the work’s subtle irony as he contemplates the wonders of love in the aria “Amor dolcemente”
Bass Carlo Lepore is a likably sleazy Dorvil, effortlessly tossing off the aria “Vedro qual sommo incanto,” which wasn’t originally written for the opera but added here to help lengthen the evening and divide the action into two acts.
Tenor Jose Manuel Zapata’s sweet tones seem at odds with his burly appearance but proved generally effective in ensembles. The weakest link was a pitchy Anna Malavasi in the secondary female role as Giulia’s cousin Lucilla.
Scimone, a leading figure in the revival of public interest in Rossini, doesn’t serve the composer well here, lingering over recitatives and generally slowing the pace in the second act to a point where the ensemble at times doesn’t sound sure of itself. It’s left to the youthful cast to provide much of the energy and momentum as the plot richochets to a happy conclusion.
While Scala di Seta was soon eclipsed by Tancredi and Rossini’s more enduring later works, it’s an impressive sign of the 20-year-old composer’s self-confidence and provides enough fun to fill a short evening. Bordogna and Peretyatko’s contributions alone make this updated and clever staging worth a look.