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Photo by Javier del Real
Il Burbero di Buon Cuore
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© Javier del Real
Il Burbero di Buon Cuore
Il Burbero di Buon Cuore, by Mozart contemporary Martin y Soler, with a libretto by Da Ponte that is based on a Carlo Goldoni play, has been exhumed and dusted off by the Liceu in cooperation with the Teatro Real of Madrid.
It is light-hearted as well as good-hearted, and competently acted. Most importantly, it was sung by a well-matched ensemble that may never achieve world-class status but was enjoyable, spritely and competent. It isn’t necessary for a performance to hit the very top every time: operas can be thoroughly enjoyable with singers who will never knock Caruso or Callas off their pedestals, but whose talent is quite up to the job.
The story is almost cloyingly good-natured: there isn’t a villain in the piece. It concerns a guardian brother, married to a shopaholic wife, who is so in debt that his only solution is to plan on putting his sister in a convent in order to avoid paying her dowry. His sister, however, is already deeply in love and determined to marry her beau. Complications ensue, and everyone appeals to the 'Goodhearted Curmudgeon' of the title—irascible Uncle Moneybags—who constantly shouts at everybody (all he really wants is to sit quietly with his friend and play chess), but who is actually a total pushover. The shopaholic wife, far from being the evil sister-in-law we expected, turns out to be overcome with remorse that her spending habits are causing problems and is determined to help: everybody is so nice that it is almost boring. And of course, it all ends happily ever after.
It is not an opera that needs to be presented more than a few times a century. It has no high spots, but it burbles on nicely from pleasing aria to pleasing aria, and is quite impossible to dislike. It was written at the same time as The Marriage of Figaro, to which it bears some similarities, so the pairing of the two by the Liceu was no doubt intentional.
When it was written it was very popular, but it lacks the shading, the drama and the depth of Mozart’s masterpiece. Sticking my neck out, I would say it was a high-class musical as opposed to a dramatic opera.
The staging was, as so often, plain ridiculous. Every line and every action indicates that it took place several centuries ago in the home of the curmudgeonly uncle. For reasons beyond understanding, however, this production is set in the Fifties, in a decaying, aristocratic old country house that has been turned into a hotel. Molded metal chairs and a ghastly zebra-skin rug sat atop old faded Persian carpets and one side of the stage was taken up with the reception desk, complete with mail slots and dangling keys. It made no sense at all, but that is such a regular quibble in all opera houses that it is probably not worth repeating.
The loveliest voice belonged to Veronique Gens, as Lucilla the shopaholic wife, who was also blessed with Mozart’s contributions to the evening. I really do expect to hear more of her; I hope so. Elena de la Merced was attractive and in good voice as the convent-bound heroine Angelica, and the curmudgeon, Carlos Chausson, overacted most enjoyably. Indeed, the only weak link in the whole group (and he was by no means a disaster) was David Alegret, whose voice was comparatively small. Evidently, others thought the same, because there was some loud booing of Allegret at curtain-call time, which I found cruel, unnecessary and definitely excessive. Audience culture differs greatly from house to house. At the Liceu, it is quite common to express disapproval, whereas at the Metropolitan, in New York, I think audience members would rather choke than boo. They, however, go totally to the other extreme and rise to their feet, clap with abandon and yell “Bravo” almost indiscriminately, so long as the singer has sung in tune. Which is more annoying? Hard to say, but certainly the latter is less hurtful than humiliating a singer in front of all his peers.