Reviving a forgotten gem

| Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

There's a special delight in the arts that comes with discovering a forgotten gem. There's the joy in experiencing the work itself, of course. But finding a chink in history's sometime too severe judgments is refreshing, too.

Domenico Cimarosa is a forgotten composer today, a name known only to scholars and enthusiasts. He was a contemporary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, above whom no composer can be fairly ranked.

But Cimarosa's opera “Il matrimonio segretto” (The Secret Marriage) was a bigger hit in Vienna than any of Mozart's operas. The entire opera was encored at its world premiere. The first production ran to 192 performances, more than twice that of any Mozart opera in his lifetime.

Pittsburgh Opera will present “The Secret Marriage” at performances beginning Thursday and continuing to Feb. 3 at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School, Downtown.

Confusion-based conflict is at the heart of many romantic comedies, including this one. The secret marriage is between Carolina and Paolino. She's the younger daughter of the wealthy merchant Geronimo, who has arranged to marry his older daughter, Elisetta, to Count Robinson. But when the count meets the family, he's drawn to Carolina. Working it all out gave Cimarosa plenty of vibrant situations to bring to life with his music.

“We're working from a blank slate with a new production and a new design,” says stage director Stephanie Havey. “Because the piece is not performed very often, mentally, we're working from a blank slate, as well. I'd never seen a production. No one in the cast has. (This opera) has none of the (performance) tradition of Mozart operas and others performed more frequently.”

Havey, the opera's first resident-artist stage director, sees “The Secret Marriage” as a satire based on a English play that predated the French play used by the opera's librettist.

“I feel, at heart, that this piece is meant to be a satire that the audience can relate to, a family they can recognize,” she says.

Havey also likes the historical resonance that comes with the earlier play because of England's Marriage Act of 1753, which prohibits clandestine marriages and required a formal ceremony be conducted in a church, and because of current attitudes about whether anyone else should have a say in whom we choose to marry.

Her visual concept for the production reflects the dynamics of the plot.

“We start out with everything black and white as the different, contrasting views of marriage and what is considered a success or correct are presented,” she says. “We use a lot of color as it becomes messy. We also make a mess of the house. Act 2 is trying to put everything back in place and, through compromise, everyone accepting the two marriages.”

Her view of the characters is similarly decisive in concept. She contrasts the two sisters, Carolina and Elisetta, more by personality than physical beauty.

“For me, Carolina's a tomboy, completely unconcerned with status and fitting in the mold her family is trying to fit her into. She actually wears riding pants, vest and top hat the entire show. Yes, she's forced to live in this upper-class family now, but she spends her time outdoors. Riding is (Carolina's and Paolino's) secret escape. By contrast, Elisetta is dressed in a gown and is very concerned with appearances.”

Tenor Juan Jose de Leon, playing Paolino, wasn't familiar with the opera before he began work on it. And although apprehensive about it first, he's found the “The Secret Marriage” has grown on him.

“I actually find it quite charming,” he says. “Virtuosic singing is required in this role, so it's a lot of fun to sing. Within the first three or four pages, I have a high C. I think this character allows me to play with a lot of different emotions. Obviously, I'm in love with Carolina, but I have to scheme to make things work out for the best of Paolino and Carolina. It's quite challenging, but a good kind of challenging to be better every time I approach it.”

Bass-baritone Joseph Barron finds his role as Geronimo a welcome change of pace.

“Geronimo is a very interesting character,” Barron says. “I have done some buffo work (typical of Italian comic opera) before and always based it with the director on commedia dell-arte, based on the character of Pantalone. But, since this is more of a British work, Geronimo is not based off a buffo character.”

He says he's found the character to be not only entertaining and funny, but also coming from a more serious or realistic view of his character.

“This is a man who in the course of the opera is forced to change his ideas about what he is trying to do, and not being angry because he's not getting his way. I'm finding it very entertaining, a likable guy.”

Geronimo is a bass part, and though Barron considers himself a higher bass-baritone, it fits him comfortably.

“There's some patter that takes a little bit of time to speed up in the mouth, but other things I've done this year are more demanding vocally. The challenge is keeping the comedy alive. It's a farce, so there's very exact movement required. It's a challenging role for keeping energy up, being bigger than life and trying to be funny or interesting.”

Conductor Sara Jobin, making her Pittsburgh Opera debut, will be conducting “The Secret Marriage” for the first time.

“I'll be keeping things fast and light,” she says. “It works with the voices we have and is more fun. And the music is just like that.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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