Written for Bologna and predating Il Barbiere di Siviglia by four years and four months, L'Equivoco Stravagante was the nineteen-year-old Rossini's first crack at a full-scale opera in two acts. The precocious mastery he would demonstrate in the later, more famous work was already on full display. The deft orchestration, the sure sense of pace, the felicitous melodic invention in modes satirical, romantic and purely lyrical, the command of ensemble — it's all there. But the authorities disapproved of the subject matter. When two rivals vie for the hand of a nouveau riche farmer's daughter, the father's choice is scared off by the smear (and this is the "bizarre misunderstanding" of the title) that she is in fact a castrato in a dress. Pushed beyond endurance, the deceived fiancé explodes. "This one you call a woman," he thunders, "is a musician!"
After three performances, the show was banned. Rossini recycled major sections of the score for other works later on, effectively condemning the earlier work to oblivion. In our time, however, L'Equivoco Stravagante has staged quite a comeback. Amazon.com lists an out-of-print recording from Naples dating to 1974, and a production staged in Bologna in 2001 made it to DVD well before this one from the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro in 2008.
Updated to the present, Emilio Sagi's cheesy, aimlessly blocked, unfunny production does Rossini zero favors. Gamberotto, the rich farmer, is now a produce wholesaler, sung by baritone Bruno de Simone in impeccable style. His daughter Ernestina has the intellectual pretensions of Molière's learned ladies, yet here she arrives on the scene in a black sequined cocktail dress — Sagi's heavy-handed tip-off that there is nothing to her but pent-up libido. Plummy-voiced mezzo-soprano Marina Prudenskaja, built like a runway model but with the face of a Feiffer cartoon, sashays, swivels her hips and pets herself incessantly until well into Act II. (It feels so good when she stops.) Early on, she tends to swallow her low notes, but soon the voice comes into focus, making a fine impression both for its agility and for its androgynous, darkling glamour.
Bass Marco Vinco plays the rich booby Buralicchio. A strapping, good-natured Cheshire cat of a performer, he revels in his opulent timbre and fluent technique. (One of the great pleasures of the performance is to hear Vinco and de Simone trading patter amid the swirl of the Act I finale — and to see them, teeth, tongue and lips all racing.) What a shame that Vinco has been directed to play a lounge lizard, strutting and preening like a renegade from Grease, his hair whipped into peaks as if by an eggbeater. As Ermanno, who really is the poor nobody Almaviva pretends to be in Barbiere, tenor Dmitry Korchak proves an elegant stylist, though his instrument only occasionally takes on a sheen or intensity that makes it alluring in itself. Through most of the show, a drab, rumpled suit and ugly polo shirt make him look like a sack of laundry, but a toy-soldier getup in Act II puts the spring into his step and a light into his eyes. As the sprightly servants Rosalia and Frontino, who pull the fast one on Buralicchio, soprano Amanda Forsythe and tenor Ricardo Mirabelli are just what the doctor ordered.
Umberto Benedetti Michelangeli conducts the Orchestra Haydn di Bolzano e Trento and the Prague Chamber Choir with a light, graceful hand. A keener edge of frenzy might help from time to time, but the real problems with this production have little to do with the music.
Marina Prudenskaja, Amanda Forsythe; Bruno de Simone, Marco Vinco, Dmitry Korchak, Ricardo Mirabelli; Prague Chamber Choir, Orchestra Haydn di Bolzano e Trento, Umberto Benedetti Michelangeli. Production: Emilio Sagi. Dynamic 33610, 142 mins., subtitled.