Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), a leading contributor to the bel canto opera style, was one of the first composers who channeled drama and emotion to the stage with music in a time when the singers’ part was considered key to conveying emotions instead. His one-act opera Rita, posthumously premiered 160 years ago, was one such example,and may make the point again when locally-based Italian music director Marco Iannelli revives it in Hong Kong. The new Rita will premiere on November 14th, 2020 as part of the Italia Mia Festival with a smaller-scaled, fresh arrangement for the chamber ensemble.
Rita is a comic opera, written in Paris as a side project sometime between 1839 and 1841 during Donizetti’s wait for a commission by La Scala. The opera comprises eight musical numbers connected by spoken dialogue and centers on Rita, the tyrannical wife of the cowering Beppe. Her life is turned upside down when her first husband Gaspar unexpectedly arrives at her tavern. Rita is under the impression that Gasparo, an abusive husband, drowned some time ago. Gaspar, on the other hand, believes that Rita died in a fire. He returns from Canada to fetch Rita’s death certificate so that he can remarry. Beppe sees this as an opportunity to escape from Rita. The two husbands agree to a game: the winner gets to keep Rita; both therefore try to lose.
In early 2019, Iannelli first met Peter Gordon, the director of this production. The two were looking to stage operas in Hong Kong in a more approachable way. Iannelli, now in Hong Kong for ten years, observes that in Hong Kong “a lot of people think opera is too long, complicated and boring. But 200 years ago, opera was pop music. It wasn’t supposed to be pretentious or intellectual. It was quite the opposite—it was the entertainment of that time,”. He notes that it was only at the beginning of the 20th century when composers, singers and conductors turned operas into “high art” with a more niche audience.
Iannelli continues, “There are a great number of little gems from that period that no one knows about. They are nice, enjoyable and quite short, and so they can be a good way to make opera more popular. Opera Hong Kong is doing amazing things, presenting the original versions of grand operas. Why don’t we work in parallel and create small operas as popular entertainment?”
Donizetti’s Rita was selected for its length, well-written libretto and famed composer, factors that Iannelli thinks would pique the interest of the local audience. Yet the Covid-19 pandemic has complicated even smaller-scale projects. “It’s too complicated to put together an orchestra,” Iannelli says, “So, in,line with the operating budget, I resorted to creating a mini version out of the original one.” Iannelli says that he wants Rita to look simple so that “the raw material of opera can be shown.”
A new chamber ensemble was written by selecting six instruments—piano, flute, clarinet, violin, viola and cello—out of what would have been about 40 in a full orchestra. Iannelli selected moments and lines from the original to form the backbone of the new work. He then assigned the instruments to them according to the sound qualities which would match the characters’ personalities and moods. The singers’ parts intertwine with the music as if the characters, whose voices are represented by the instruments, are speaking with music. For instance, the clarinet which has a wide range is assigned to the base lines and bottom notes. It can act together with the flute, which can go much higher. The two add texture to the duet between tenor and soprano. “The music represents the inner and deeper feeling of the composer and human being,” Iannelli says as he explains Donizetti’s innovative practice. “Back then, no one believed him. People thought that without the singer, music couldn’t do anything or make you laugh or cry. Today, the understanding of the power of music is different. You cannot separate a movie from its musical theme, such as how when you hear John Williams’ soundtrack you think of Schindler’s List. But Donizetti already understood the power of music back then. His work showed this.”
Iannelli notes that while there are international opera companies which stay faithful to Rita’s original feeling and atmosphere, he wants more for his Hong Kong production, as he follows Donizetti in spirit by letting the singers go experimental. “They are literally throwing things to each other, chasing around or doing stuff that never happened before. This will be the first time this opera is performed – in a simple, fresh and lighthearted way.”
Set against a minimal backdrop, this Hong Kong version will feature locally made costumes in Chinese style and English dialogues adapted by Gordon for the contemporary Hong Kong audience. After its premiere in Chai Wan Youth Square, Rita will be live recorded at the historic Har Paw Mansion for later broadcast by RTHK. “This Rita is not a reduction,” says Iannelli. “The audience can simply enjoy what they can hear more than what they can see,” he says. Rita aims to be a simple, approachable and in no way lesser opera that transports Donizetti legacy to modern times.