Rita, or Deux Hommes et Une Femme – Charing Cross Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Music: Gaetano Donizetti

Libretto: Gustav Vaëz, translated by Alejandro Bonatto

Director: Alejandro Bonatto

Isn’t domestic violence amusing? At least it must have been in the 19th Century, when Donizetti composed this one-act operetta about inn landlady Rita who, believing her abusive first husband has died, is determined that in her second marriage she will be the abuser.

The comedy in the piece comes from the revelation that her first husband Gasparo (Phil Wilcox) is not dead at all – but he in turn believes that Rita is dead (he was shipwrecked, her whole town burned down, these things happen) and has returned for her death certificate so that he can remarry.

His return empowers Rita’s second husband Beppe (Brenton Spiteri) to seek a way out from his wife’s violence. Neither man wants Rita’s hand, but honour dictates they must compete for her – so with the landlady as the prize, each man tries his hardest to lose.

And it is the dynamic between the two male roles which provides the bulk of both the comedy and the musical interest in this piece. Wilcox’s baritone carries with it an air of unctuous pomposity, contrasting nicely with the lightness inherent in Spiteri’s tenor.

Spiteri continues that lightness in his comedic performance, allowing streaks of humour to emerge through understated playing. There is an air of effortless confidence in his singing voice which results in a beautiful tone, perfectly accompanying the chamber orchestra (conducted by Mark Austin, to arrangements by director Alejandro Bonatto).

Despite being the titular role, Laura Lolita Perešivana’s Rita is the most underserved in terms of both musical quality and plotting: it seems Donizetti and his librettist, Gustav Vaëz, were more interested in two men fighting over possession of a woman. With what she is given, Perešivana makes accomplished work: both in solo arias and with her costars, her soprano voice accentuates the lyrical nature of Donizetti’s melodies to great effect.

Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s set hides the orchestra between a painting of Tuscan hills, which subtly changes according to the freneticism of the farce enacted in front of it. Less effective is the use of three moving doors, wheeled around with neither rhyme nor reason during what is, in essence, a story set in a single room.

Bonatto, who also provides a new English translation, does at least try to inject a sense of moral responsibility at the end of a piece predicated on domestic abuse being a valid source for humour. Even so, choosing to stay with a partner because they’ve promised not to do it again is hardly any more progressive.

Elsewhere, though, the translated libretto overly emphasises the repetition in many a classical operatic lyric. And while many sections pull off the trick of applying the correct rhyme and meter to the translated sections, there are other parts of the score where the translation feels a little more literal and less inventively constructed.

In all, Rita is a curious piece that juxtaposes Donizetti’s beautiful score with attitudes and behaviour that we now recognise as inexcusable, yet still are encouraged to laugh at. For translator, orchestrator and director Banatto, it is clearly a story he wants to see told: but even in this curio’s most enjoyable moments, one is still left wondering why.

Continues until 20 August 2022

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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