New Chamber Opera, La diavolessa (‘The She-Devil’), Directed by Michael Burden; The Band of Instruments conducted by Steven Devine Back

This year New Chamber Opera’s annual summer production returned to the Warden’s Garden of New College, Oxford after a year’s hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The comeback was made in some style with a typically enjoyable production of La diavolessa: first performed in Venice’s Teatro San Samuele in November 1755 (libretto – Carlo Goldoni; music – Baldassare Galuppi). The two men’s collaboration on a series of comic operas in the 1750s and 1760s is especially significant to music historians, since this set of works hit on a novel formula for the genre which delighted contemporaries and provided a model for the genre which remained influential into the nineteenth century.


The most significant departure Goldoni brought to Italian comic opera as he found it was applying the generic logic of his spoken comedies to his opera buffa libretti. Both his spoken and sung comedies stand in the tradition that stretches back to the New Comedy of the Greek writer Menander. Goldoni’s comedies thus, unlike contemporary spoken tragedy and opera seria, feature a dramatis personae who act as a microcosm of complete social world, from aristocrats to servants. The audience in Venice’s theatres, from fishermen to patrizi, ought to be able to see themselves represented on stage, suggested Goldoni in 1762.


La diavolessa involves a Count and Countess (true aristocrats), the young lovers Giannino and Dorina and the elderly Don Poppone (from the gentry class), the innkeeper Falco (a bourgeois) and the chambermaid Ghiandina. Bringing these sorts of characters together on the same stage creates the social tension that drives the plot. As in many other comedies of the same sort, this is exacerbated using disguise and mistaken identity. Giannino and the adventuress Dorina wish to marry but cannot because of Giannino’s poverty. Falco lets them know that Don Poppone has been prospecting for treasure in his basement; they plan to swindle him out of it. To do this they adopt the disguise of ‘Turks’ who will help with the digging. Poppone is also expecting a visit from the Count and Countess. When Giannino and Dorina arrive at his estate, Poppone mistakes them for the Count and Countess, and they play along. When the real Count and Countess arrive, therefore, Poppone assumes they are the ‘Turks’, and repeatedly insults them by treating them without the deference they expect.


Some of Goldoni’s contemporaries found such scenes genuinely scandalous, yet such fears were likely misplaced. In large part this is due to the generic logic of the New Comedy. The ending of this type of comedy is invariably festive and reconciliatory. Earlier tensions are dissipated, and all is forgiven in the general celebration. In La diavolessa, the ‘blocking’ function performed by Poppone is dissolved by Giannino receiving word he has come into his inheritance: he and Dorina can now marry and Poppone can keep his treasure. Mistaken identities are cleared up and earlier wrongs righted. The scheming of Ghiandina is rewarded with marriage to the newly wealthy Poppone. The characters all then sing a final ensemble: ‘Everyone will benefit / from this peaceful resolution. / Maidservant and Countess / both are rejoicing’. The final impression is of a renewal and strengthening of the existing social order rather than its disruption or weakening. As many critics have observed, this means that the social function of this sort of comedy approaches that of other types of festival culture in early modern society such as Venice’s own famous carnevale: a period of anarchic reversal followed inevitably by a resumption of previous norms providing, in C. L. Barber’s fine phrase, ‘the clarification about limits which comes from going beyond the limit’.


The inventive way Galuppi’s music responded to these developments in Goldoni’s opera buffa librettos also set the paradigm for composers approaching this genre for decades to come, in Italy and beyond. Galuppi had previously made his living as a composer of opera seria, but Goldoni’s librettos necessitated a wider range of musical styles to accompany their expanded range of characters. Characters from lower down the social pyramid sing in a musical style derived from comic intermezzi, dominated by syllabic, frequently repetitive settings of bantering patter and short, regularly cadencing phrases. The overall forms of the arias these characters sing are flexible and simple. Ghiandina’s Act III ‘Sì, signori, così è’, where she sings of her confidence that she will marry her master, is a fine example: the musical ‘topic’ throughout is a lively jig, the structure a simple binary form (AA). The setting supplements the text ‘as written’ with frequent joyful interjections: ‘yes, yes! He will reward my love and faith’. In NCO’s production all this was captured charmingly by the summer opera stalwart Kate Semmens. For the count and countess however, Galuppi uses the musical vocabulary of opera seria in which he was already fluent. The count and countess’s arias use the traditional structures associated with seria arias including long introductory ritornelli and the da capo structure (ABA, with the repeated A section an opportunity for improvised vocal display). The contessa’s Act I ‘S’inganna chi crede’, an eloquent ode to companionate marriage, is a classic seria da capo aria’ (even down to its rather abstract text): the tricky pasaggi of its A section, another hallmark of seria writing, were executed with agility and poise by NCO’s Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, perhaps the evening’s standout vocal performer.


The opera’s music also places these styles side by side within individual movements. In Act I Scene 9, Giannino (for NCO the entertaining Dominic Bowe) savours the possibilities before him now that Poppone has mistaken him for the count in a soliloquy, trying out the unfamiliar tone and language of a noble. The style of Galuppi’s musical setting shifts line by line, with changes of tempo, metre, topic, and texture creating an alternation between seria and buffa idioms. An elegant arioso accompanies his greeting to an imagined lady. But no, he reminds himself, he could not pull off this act – and here Giannino’s music changes tack too, to rapid buffo patter. That Giannino cannot successfully assume the musical idiom of the character he is impersonating is consistent with the way the count and countess’s musical characterisation remains constant even amid the multiple mistaken identities of the middle part of the plot. Galuppi’s music insistently reminds listeners of the underlying social order even as the action of the drama momentarily disrupts it. A similar technique of yoking together high and low styles is in evidence in what is perhaps the Galuppi-Goldoni collaboration’s principal innovation, the ‘chain’ finale, of which La diavolessa boasts two. Goldoni and Galuppi looked for ways to pack the stage with principals at the end of acts, normally in a breathless period of plot-advancing action, confusion and uproar. The ‘chain’ finale features a series of short musical sections all running on from each other without a pause or the lull of recitative, with contrasting tempos, metres, topics, and keys accompanying the rapidly advancing stage action. The Act II finale of La diavolessa is probably its best-known moment: Dorina and Giannino disguise themselves as devils to terrify Poppone into handing over his treasure, with Falco, in on the swindle, egging Poppone on as he digs. Here syllabic buffo chatter, as Falco winds the stuttering Poppone up, is contrasted with the musical vocabulary of the ombra topic, the menacing style of religious or demonic horror Galuppi would have known from oracle and ghost scenes in the opere serie of Hasse and Jommelli.


The blocking for this scene from director Michael Burden was a little more restrained than it might have been in regular NCO years thanks to the rearrangement of the ‘stage’, band and audience in the New College Warden’s Garden as coronavirus precautions. In normal years a form of ‘profile stage’ is used; this year, the rearranged audience were asked to imagine a proscenium arch among the trees and rubble stone walls of the garden. Patrons were also reminded of the ongoing need for caution as their vaccination status was checked as they queued before the show with their picnic baskets and blankets across New College’s old quad. Yet other aspects were pleasantly familiar: the inventive and amusing way the architecture of the garden and its eighteenth-century summer house are used to suggest a set; the witty newly commissioned singing translation of Goldoni’s text by Simon Rees; the judicious mix of NCO regulars with early-career singers (Sophie Kidwell’s spirited Dorina was excellent). The choice of opera, its lieto fine playing out a moment of contingent yet celebratory social reconciliation and healing, felt just right as a way to tentatively, for the moment provisionally, but unmistakably joyfully begin to return to life as it was.