On Thursday 1 November and Sunday 2 November, soloists from the Cairo Opera Company performed L’inganno felice (The Happy Stratagem, also known as The Fortunate Deception), a one-act opera by the Italian comedy master Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), composed to the libretto by Giuseppe Maria Foppa. The premiere of L’inganno felice at the Teatro San Moise in January 1812 was an unprecedented success, and the work continued to be staged frequently in a variety of theatres and opera houses in Italy, spreading to other European stages soon enough.
This inventive, musically sparkling work for four male voices and a soprano is filled with lovely arias. Though Rossini called his opera a farsa (it being one of five operas he composed in this genre), many online sources quote Richard Osborne from the New Grove Dictionary of Opera explaining "its designation as a farsa is misleading in the light of its semiseria status as a romantic melodrama with buffo elements."
It is worth mentioning that Rossini’s overtures, including those from one-act operas – Overture to La scala di seta (The Silken Ladder) being the best-known – are frequently performed as openings to symphonic concerts. Today, despite its undeniable musical beauty and a number of wonderful arias, L’inganno felice is rarely performed; according to some critics, it is the least known of the five farces written for Venice. This is possibly due to other one-act operas composed consecutively by Rossini in the following years, which challenged L’inganno with their thematic and musical content.
The simple melodramatic plot presents Duke Bertrando (Hisham El-Guindy, tenor) happily married to Isabella (Sara Enany, soprano). The Duke’s confidant Ormondo (Ezzat Ghaneim, baritone) declares his love to Isabella. Yet, angered by her strong resistance he starts spreading rumours about her supposedly betraying the Duke. Wrongly rejected by her husband, Isabella is sent adrift on the sea by Batone (Emad Adel, bass-baritone), Ormondo’s henchman, and is rescued by a local miner Tarabotto (Moustafa Mohamed, baritone).
The opera begins a decade later with Tarabotto taking care of Isabella. Tarabotto gives her a home and keeps her in disguise as his niece named Nisa. One day, Duke Bertrando pays a visit to the local mines. Tarabotto, aware that Isabella and Bertrando still love each other, decides to help them reunite. He orchestrates a series of events during which the two villains, Ormondo and Batone, are unmasked. The opera reaches a happy ending with the Duke and the Duchesse back together.
A performance of Rossini’s L’inganno was a much needed refreshment for the Egyptian audiences, who are otherwise subjected to a rather stagnant repertoire of the Opera Company, season after season. The introduction of new small works can bring a significant change to the company and positively change audience perceptions.
L’inganno, performed in Cairo, was sung in Italian with secco recitative in Arabic which gave the audience an opportunity to follow the plot. Greig Martin played the piano accompaniment for the evening, and was alsoL’inganno’s music director. One wished an orchestra would have accompanied the opera – instead of the piano only – as it would have brought to the surface important parts of Rossini’s masterful music. Rossini's subtleness and wit can only be expressed with a combination of instruments.
However, it is well understood that Cairo’s production of L’inganno was meant to be rather small. No doubt this form of performance is a well thought out solution to the question of reviving many forgotten operas at the stages of the Cairo Opera House, expanding the company’s repertoire and providing an opportunity for the soloists to enjoy a well deserved spotlight in their unique roles.
Understandably small productions do not strain the company’s budget. Works such as L’inganno also allow the Opera to introduce young directors, like Mahdy Sayed, who directed this opera. There was an obvious effort from the director’s side; although at many times, the talented singers needed better support from the director and not be left to their own interpretations.
Sayed along with Mohamed El-Gharabawy, the sets and costumes supervisor, chose to portray Tarabotto as a Native American living in a teepee with Nisa (Isabella in disguise), a young Native American girl. The Duke and Ormondo – keeping their original Italian identities – seemed to come from a completely different world. As much as this creative move can be intriguing, it was hard to find historical, cultural or even geographical justification for it; its visual impact gave rise to more questions about the general outlines than it could provide answers. Moreover, such a provisional mixture of cultures distracted the audience from important thematic pillars of Rossini’s work.
Starting rather cautiously, as if warming up, the singers found their dramatic rhythm. As the plot evolved, they started projecting stronger confidence in their vocal presentations. One cannot overlook a number of interesting small scenes between the characters drawn by the director and beautifully executed by the singers. At the same time, Rossini’s power will always resurface through his music and brilliant arias. Who can resist Bertrando’s opening cavatina Qual tenero diletto? Even though the flute is an irreplaceable aspect of the beauty of lines that reflects the Duke’s mood, they were, alas, played by piano.
While Ghaneim, as Ormondo, excelled in many parts of aria Tu mi Conosci, Sara Enany as Isabella/Nisa added an apparent sensuality to Isabella’s known aria Al piu dolce a caro oggetto. In his turn, Moustafa Mohamed’s strong clear timbre as Tarabotto gave an important balance to duets and trios, such as Quel sembiane quello squardo, where he stands between Bertrando and Isabella, an aria that was additionally supported by a mise-en-scene.
Performance of L’inganno felice is an important step in the Cairo Opera Company's repertoire building. Such initiatives do not only re-energise the company, they also have the potential to motivate singers who will accordingly find artistic satisfaction and hopefully fulfillment.
For the audience, as already mentioned, L’inganno felice is one of the lovely evening refreshments bringing our hearts back to the value of such artistic performances. Regardless of its few drawbacks, L’inganno felice is an artistic product that deserves marketing efforts, at least equal to other significant Cairo Opera House productions that by now one may find repetitious.