Official Release: 16 July 2021
RITA: Historical Perspectives
Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) is one of the towering figures of nineteenth-century Italian opera, and some of his compositions doubtlessly rank among the best loved masterpieces of the entire repertoire. One has only to think of L’elisir d’amore, Lucia di Lammermoor, La fille du régiment or Don Pasquale to realize how deep has been the impact of this musician from Bergamo. However, within an overall output numbering almost seventy operas, it comes as no wonder that a few of his works may be lesser known than his absolute masterpieces. This may be seen as a piece of very good news for opera lovers: even if one knows Donizetti’s Lucia note by note, there is still some very good Donizetti waiting to be uncorked in the wine cellar of the operatic repertoire.
One such morsel is Donizetti’s Rita, presented here in a fascinating chamber music version with English dialogue by Peter Gordon; the arrangement was realized by the musical director, Marco Iannelli.
Rita was composed in 1840, during the years Donizetti spent in Paris. He had been forced to abandon Naples for a series of reasons: his Poliuto had been targeted by censorship; at the same time, he was embittered due to the local Conservatory’s refusal to publicly acknowledge him as Director – a role he was unofficially holding already. Moreover, his personal life had been darkened by a series of deaths, including those of his beloved wife and children; briefly, he felt the need for new challenges, new opportunities and new motivations.
His Parisian experience would prove bittersweet in turn. On the one hand, many of his most acclaimed operas were enthusiastically greeted by the local audience, particularly at the Opéra-comique. On the other, however, the usual rivalries, jealousies and intrigues were never missing, just as the countless, stressful struggles with impresarios and singers alike.
Donizetti’s operas were normally sung in French in Paris; so they required the cooperation of a skillful librettist, who could adapt and rework their lyrics so as to suit the French language and the taste of the local audience. Donizetti fortunately met an expert poet, by the name of Jean-Nicolas-Gustave Van Nieuwen-Huysen (1812-1862), whose name reveals his Flemish descent (he had been born in Brussels). Possibly to make his name more easily remembered, Van Nieuwen-Huysen adopted the nom de plume by which he is currently known, Gustave Vaëz. He translated into French many of Donizetti’s masterpieces, including Lucia di Lammermoor (1839) and and cooperated on original libretti such as La Favorite (1840); later, he would also cooperate with Giuseppe Verdi for the French version of I Lombardi alla prima crociata, performed in Paris as Jérusalem in 1847.
The artistic partnership between Donizetti and Vaëz also included the composition of Rita ou le mari battu, recorded in this Da Vinci Classics album. One original element of Rita is that it had not been commissioned by an impresario or a theatre; it was the fruit of Donizetti’s personal initiative, and, perhaps for this reason, it remained unperformed until 1860, when it was posthumously premiered, on May 7th, at the Opéra Comique. Its fate was rather unfair: Rita never reached the fame it deserves, in spite of its rich instrumentation, of its masterful dramatic organization and of its genuinely comic vein. Rita also demonstrates the composer’s taste for parody, and for an intermingling of different styles which overcomes the traditional boundaries between vaudeville, comic and serious opera. Its modern rediscovery began in 1965, when it was performed at the Piccola Scala in Milan in an Italian translation; it had already been recorded, however, in two LPs dating from 1956 and 1959 respectively, sung by such artists as Paolo Montarsolo (1956) or Graziella Sciutti (1959). In the following years it was recorded in French, in Russian (1987) and, comparatively frequently, in Italian; the original holograph manuscript is currently in the holdings of the Library of the Conservatory of Naples. The following synopsis refers to one of the original versions; this recording is an adaptation set in Hong Kong.
To be sure, the libretto’s subject can be regarded as slightly controversial by today’s standards. It revolves – as most operas do – around the typical triangle of lovers: he, she, and the other. But the subtitle alludes to an element of comic violence which might elicit some consternation nowadays.
The opera’s protagonist is Rita, who owns a tavern in Switzerland (the character was premiered by Caroline Lefebvre Faure). She had married a sailor from Marseille, by the name of Gasparo. The wedding victuals were still warm on the banquet tables, when Gasparo unceremoniously started to beat his bride. Following the ensuing brouhaha, Gasparo fled and took refuge in Canada. The young bride, remained alone in charge of the tavern. There, she was reached by the news that her violent husband had perished in a shipwreck. As we would say today, this was a case of fake news: Gasparo is in fact alive and kicking, unbeknownst by his wife. Believing herself to be widowed, Rita gets married once more. Beppe, her new husband, is as meek and humble as Gasparo was fierce and brutal. In the meanwhile, Gasparo hears that Rita’s village has been burnt to cinders, with its inhabitants. Gasparo sees his wife’s presumed passing with relief. He sees, in this tragedy, an opportunity for starting a new life, with a Canadian girl with whom he is engaged. In order to be allowed to remarry, however, he needs the papers: so, he decides to go back to Rita’s village, with the purpose of collecting them. There, he meets Beppe who, by now, has been repeatedly beaten in turn by Rita. Incautiously, Gasparo confides to Beppe his intention to obtain Rita’s death certificate. Beppe thus learns that Rita’s first husband is alive, and is eager to free himself from his unsufferable wife. Neither man wants to live with Rita; play a game whose “winner” will have to bear with Rita forever.
Gasparo then manages to recover the documents proving his nuptials with Rita, and hastily trashes them. Before leaving forever and marrying his Canadian fiancée, however, Gasparo instructs Beppe on how wives should be treated: general (?) satisfaction ensues, as Gasparo is free to marry his beloved, while Rita and Beppe will learn to live together in a more respectful relationship.
This fresh, ironic and inventive opera is full of unforgettable moments. Perhaps, the best known of all is the onomatopoeic aria Allegro io son, whereby the singer imitates birdsong; however, the entire score is punctuated by genuinely funny moments, by exciting strettos, by sparkling motifs and lively rhythms which will not fail to conquer today’s audiences. Rita can therefore be considered as almost a preparatory study for one of Donizetti’s absolute masterpieces, Don Pasquale, with which Rita shares many compositional techniques, creative ideas and aesthetic solutions.
The version recorded here successfully highlights the opera’s limited length and reduced number of characters; in this chamber adaptation, it reveals its full transparency, the lightness of the subject, but also the brilliancy of the musical and verbal ideas. In spite of this, the attentive listener will not fail to recognize some of Donizetti’s best known and most beloved creative traits: this may be a short opera, but certainly it is not a lesser opera. And this recording fully reveals the dramatic potential of a short masterpiece which has been awaiting rediscovery for too long.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2021
This CD was recorded live at the 23 November 2020 filming of the opera at Hong Kong’s iconic Haw Par Mansion. The resulting opera-film, a project of the Italian Cultural Institute, was broadcast in early 2021 on Hong Kong television (RTHK). Built in the 1930s by Aw Boon Haw, known as “The King of Tiger Balm”, as the family residence, the restored Haw Par Mansion is now a Hong Kong heritage building, gallery and museum and houses Haw Paw Music. In order to reset the work in Hong Kong — at the time of the mansion’s heyday — the dialogue was adapted slightly in the process of translation. But only slightly — quite a few Hong Kong husbands have set off for Canada over the years.
The three singers featured in this recording are some of the best-known in Hong Kong and regulars on Hong Kong stages. But also starring in this recording is a newly-arranged score for chamber ensemble by Marco Iannelli. The stage performance which preceded this recording by a week was the Hong Kong and, as far as we know, China premiere of this opera, and the world premiere of this new edition.
Peter Gordon © 2021
Hong Kong, 1930s: Rita is the proprietor of a small B&B; she also has two husbands. The first, Gasparo, died (she thinks) in a shipwreck en route to Canada. He had bullied her, something which — with her new freedom — she now takes out on her timid second husband Beppe. Beppe’s broken an antique cup and receives a shellacking.
Gasparo believes Rita to have perished in a fire. He’s come back for her death certificate so he can re-marry. For Beppe, the re-appearance of his predecessor, very much alive, is a chance to escape the tyrannical Rita. Gasparo sees Rita and tries to slip away but is caught by Beppe. The two men agree to play cards: the winner keeps Rita. Both cheat; the cards are discarded in favour of drawing straws: Beppe breaks a chopstick and pockets the short end, replacing it with another “long straw”. Gasparo loses and Beppe’s free of Rita.
Gasparo discovers that Rita saved a copy of the marriage certificate — the only proof that Gasparo is married — from the fire. He begs her for it, but in vain. Beppe’s on his way out when Gasparo feigns the loss of a hand in the shipwreck, winning Rita’s pity — and her copy of the marriage certificate, which Gasparo grabs: there’s nothing to keep him now. Rita’s lost both husbands. Beppe fights to prevent Gasparo from leaving and in the process realises that he loves Rita after all. And Gasparo is free to remarry in Canada.
Gaetano Donizetti: (b Bergamo, 6 Nov 1788; d Constantinople, 12 Feb 1856). Italian teacher and composer. He was the elder brother of Gaetano Donizetti, and studied the flute with an uncle. From 1806, after being turned away from the Lezioni Caritatevoli di Musica for being too old, he took lessons from Mayr. In 1809 he enrolled in the Italian army as a musician, and subsequently played in battalions on the island of Elba and in the Sardinian army. He was highly regarded as a bandmaster, and when Sultan Mahmud II asked for a musician to reorganize his imperial band, Donizetti’s name was put forward by the Italian ambassador in Constantinople. He arrived there in 1828, and was made General Instructor of Imperial Ottoman Music with a generous stipend of 8,000 francs a year.
Donizetti coached the players, acquired Italian instruments and taught Western notation. The band was immediately successful, and Donizetti took charge of the other army bands. Through his influence the first school of Western music in Turkey was opened in 1831. In addition to conducting band music on ceremonial occasions, and orchestral programmes at the court theatre (in the harem), he mounted productions of short Italian operas.
Donizetti’s importance lies above all in his work as a teacher and organizer. His compositions, mostly occasional pieces (marches and anthems) for Mahmud II and Abdul Medjid, rarely depart from a consciously conventional and celebratory style. Nevertheless, at least one of the imperial marches found some contemporary popularity: Liszt wrote a Grande paraphrase de la marche de Donizetti composée pour Sa majesté le sultan Abdoul-Medij-Khan (Berlin, 1848). He was made an honorary general in the Turkish army in recognition of his services, and in 1842 the French government made him a knight of the Légion d’Honneur.
Chen Yong: Well known by his excellent performances in operas and concerts. Since 2007 he made his operatic debut in the Shanghai Grand Theatre with the conductor Michel Plasson and the director Nadine Duffaut, Chen has performed over 30 operatic roles with major orchestras. Chen graduated from the Vocal department of Universität für Musik und Darstellender Kunst Wien in Austria as the first recipient of Vienna Opera Ball scholarship after obtaining a Master Degree in Performance also with full scholarship from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.
Etta Fung: Coloratura soprano Etta Fung is known for her “charm and verve” (Opera Today) and exceptional stage presence. She has enjoyed an international performing career in Germany, Italy, the United States, Canada, and Hong Kong. She received critical acclaim in the Hamburger Abendblatt for her European debut as Gretel (Hänsel und Gretel) at the Neue Eutiner Festspiele: “(Fung) acted with great enthusiasm, her powerful soprano voice underscoring the Wagnerian sounds of the score”.
Isaac Droscha: Isaac has performed roles with various regional companies in the United States, including the Des Moines Metro Opera, Michigan Opera Theater, Opera New Jersey, the Bayview Music Festival, and Arbor Opera Theater, as well as roles in Hong Kong with companies such as MusicaViva. His performances have received numerous positive reviews, especially lauded for his comedic timing. He is also a prolific concert performer of oratorio and art song. Isaac has also performed numerous recitals in the United States, Russia, and Hong Kong.
Marco Iannelli: Marco Iannelli is an Award-Winning Italian Composer and Musicologist, and his works are played all around the world: Milan, Rome (in Vatican City), Paris, Strasbourg, San Francisco (SFMOMA), Athens (at the Olympic Games), Hong Kong (Cultural Centre). As an all-round Composer, he designed soundtracks for films, theatres, advertising and promotional events. For years, his work has diverted also into contemporary dance music productions, and he collaborated with international renowned choreographers such as Gheorge Iancu, Brian Sanders, Daniel Ezralow and David Parsons. For his book “The Cassandra Case”, Iannelli was honoured by the acclaimed International Award “Luigi Illica” in September 2009. The Vittorio Gnecchi’s opera “Cassandra” restored by Iannelli, and forgotten for almost a century, is become an enormous international success, performed in Montpellier (France), Berlin (Germany), Tokyo (Japan), Catania (Italy) and New York (U.S.A.).