In keeping with my policy of not quite reviewing student productions, I should write a few not-quite-reviewish words about last weekend's performance of Donizetti's Il Campanello di notte at the Sydney Conservatorium.
As with everything at the Con, this was double-cast. I saw the second (chronologically, that is) cast. Which was a bit of a dream team, really. John Donohoe as the pharmacist Don Annibale Pistacchio, Ali Manifold as his new wife Serafina, Javier Vilarino as her would-be suitor/ex-boyfriend Enrico, Celeste Hayworth as Serafina's rather lascivious mother and Michael Butchard as Spiridione, Pistacchio's assistant or servant or something.
For each of these singers — and for the chorus full of familiar faces, many of whom had principal roles in the other cast — I am full of praise. They all did rather beautifully. John Donohoe is an established favourite of mine and he was in very fine voice; characteristically funny, too, although the circumstances (which I'll get too shortly) didn't give full scope for his comic gifts. I'm falling swiftly in love with Ali Manifold's voice — whatever that thing is which makes one lyric soprano grab me while a dozen others don't, Ali's got it, and she's gorgeous on stage as well. Javier Vilarino pulled off a bit of a tour de force as Enrico, assuming various disguises, funny walks and so on, and singing impressively throughout. Celeste Hayworth was the best I've heard her, and Michael Butchard was charming.
With the opera itself, however, I was not nearly so taken. Oh, the music is fine, in that amiable, bouncy bel canto way, and I don't have an issue with thin, frivolous plots in principle either. But this particular plot was so poorly delineated — the libretto so frustratingly constructed — that I found it difficult to engage with. It's set piece after set piece, with not much bridging between them. Plot development ranges from confused to non-existent, and the resolution, if you can call it that, just fizzles out. I figured it was the end because the chorus had reappeared, but otherwise it didn't feel much like it. Donizetti adapted the libretto himself from a French vaudeville. Perhaps he shouldn't have.
And I fear all this was not helped by Sally Blackwood's bright, appealing, but pretty conventional production. One of the things I love most about Con productions is that they don't tend to come off as pale student imitations of "grown up" shows. They have their own, individual sensibility, which taps into, and makes a positive virtue of, the studentyness of the artists and many of those watching, without putting off the wider audience. This production didn't really do that as much as it could have, however. We had a touch of zaniness in Enrico's nice parody of modern opera singers, and more than a touch in Serafina's increasingly drunken antics as she waited for her husband to come to bed (though it was a shame these were going on while the main business of the opera happened centrestage, making it impossible to concentrate on both) but otherwise the comedy was pretty straightforward. A stronger opera, it's true, could probably support this approach rather nicely. But if there were ever an opera which cried out for the full, surreal Con Treatment, Campanello is it. I spent much of Il Signor Bruschino in actual tears of laughter; Campanello is in much the same vein but never rose much above mild amusement.
However. There was still plenty to enjoy in this show. It was wonderfully sung, very well acted within its confines, and fundamentally a very strong performance. I blame Donizetti for most of its shortcomings, and of course many others I'm sure would challenge the very existence of those shortcomings. And besides, as ways of passing a Saturday afternoon go, opera — any opera — at the Con will always beat most of the alternatives I can think of. I shan't be out on street corners trumpeting the supremacy of Donizetti's weird little one-acter, but I'm glad to have seen it, and even gladder to have heard it sung so well.
(Just quietly, I think this may actually be a review. But I won't tell if you don't.)