Spousal abuse Punch and Judy way

This seems to be the month for chamber opera in Singapore, as so soon after L'arietta's debut with three operas in an hour, New Opera Singapore has unearthed bel canto master Gaetano Donizetti's one-act comic opera Rita, or Le Mari Battu (The Beaten Husband).

Created in 1841, it was not performed until 1860, well after the composer's death in 1848. Comprising a cast of three singers and running for just 50 minutes, its farcical plot centred on one taboo subject: spousal abuse.

Rita (sung by soprano Felicia Teo Kaixin) takes perverse delight in berating and slapping her timid and ineffectual husband Pepe (tenor Jonathan Charles Tay), but the tables are turned when Rita's abusive first husband Gasparo (baritone Sangchul Jea), originally thought to have died, unexpectedly returns.

Pepe sees this as a chance to bail out, but learns a thing or two from Gasparo on how to love but keep a wife under control.

All this sounds almost sado- masochistic in a Punch and Judy way, and that was ironically what kept the audience mostly in stitches despite the grim subject matter. A large part of the credit has to go to director Stefanos Rassios' simple yet brilliant staging, which saw spoken dialogue trimmed off but retaining all the music. Gustave Vaez's French libretto was sung with English surtitles which greatly enhanced the experience.

The classic bel canto singing to be found in Lucia Di Lammermoor or La Favorita was not on show here, but the short arias, duets and the final trio still needed agile and expressive voices to pull off the dark comedy.



    New Opera Singapore

    Esplanade Recital Studio

    Last Wednesday

Teo's taunt of "when it comes to husbands, simpletons are the best" came off as funny rather than cynical. Jea's brash and booming counsel, "You can beat your wife, but don't knock her out", seemed almost good advice in the self- confident way he put it. Even Tay's declaration of glee in his aria when he thought he had seen the last of Rita was genuinely sincere.

What equalled or even surpassed the singing was the actual acting. Every singer rose to the occasion, particularly New Opera debutante Teo, whose transformation from bored stage prop (she sat on stage throughout the preliminaries before any music began) to sadistic husband-beater and ultimately submissive spouse was remarkable.

The casting of actress Carina McWhinnie as the silent Cynthia seemed a luxury, but she added a further dimension to the story by acting out the inner thoughts of each singer. Besides delivering an excellent accompaniment, the casually outfitted pianist Kseniia Vokhmianina also had a minor role, spouting phrases in Ukrainian, probably swear words.

Like all comic operas, all's well that ends well. Or is it? Rita is rid of Gasparo (who wants to marry someone else anyway), but gets to keep a "reformed" Pepe (who has been well taught by Gasparo).

A husband-and-wife detente is re-established, but like many a workable or peaceable marriage, tensions still exist. But who has the upper hand now?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2016, with the headline 'Spousal abuse Punch and Judy way'. Subscribe