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‘Rita’, or ‘Deux Hommes et Une Femme’ at Charing Cross Theatre

An opera (well, technically, an ‘opéra comique’, as there is spoken dialogue) in a relatively small space like the Charing Cross Theatre calls for unusual measures. The stage is larger than usual – the last few productions have had the audience seated on both sides of a central performance space. This time patrons are sat in a more traditional format, though to give you an idea of quite how big the stage is, the front row is row K. At least the cast aren’t having to take both sides of the audience into account when moving about, and audience members never in danger of developing FOMO (a ‘fear of missing out’) whenever someone is facing the ‘other’ side.

Rita - Brenton Spiteri and Laura Lolita Peresivana. Charing Cross Theatre. Credit Cedric Neal.
Rita – Brenton Spiteri and Laura Lolita Peresivana. Charing Cross Theatre. Credit Cedric Neal.

A large screen obscures the eleven-strong Faust Chamber Orchestra, though after the opening credits the projections frankly serve little purpose, nice to have added to the set but not strictly essential. Rita (Laura Lolita Perešivana) runs a hotel, and while she is civilised enough to guests to keep generating a sufficient income, she keeps a tight leash on Beppe (Brenton Spiteri), a rather timid man who does whatever the dominant matriarch commands – or, rather, tries to and then gets a thrashing whenever he fails. When Gasparo (Phil Wilcox), Rita’s first husband, appears, it’s a shock to the system for the couple. For reasons explained in the show, Gasparo and Rita had rationales for believing each other had died. Cue confusion and denial, and a lot of explaining to do.

There are doors, and like every farce with doors, a lot of use is made of them, and they are sturdy enough to withstand the many comings and goings, some of which are at speed: this is not one of those operas where someone is fatally knifed in the back but then sings and sings and takes twenty-five minutes to die. The storyline is a curious one, which subverts the traditional love triangle story in more ways than one. Firstly, Rita is the abusive party – something considered unusual in 1860 when the show premiered. Not much appears to have changed in terms of society’s assumptions – at the time of writing, a poster at my local Tube station from the mobile telephone company EE has a picture of four people and the caption (in capital letters), “She’s not the one sending death threats”.

Secondly, Gasparo and Beppe find themselves engaged in battle (at one point, quite literally) to divest themselves of Rita rather than win her heart. It could all have been very hammy indeed, though the cast thankfully never overdo it when it comes to playing to the gallery, with some subtle nods and knowing looks to the audience proving to be ample sources of amusement. If there are people in 2022 trying to gain an unfair advantage at the airport by feigning disability, this show has a nineteenth-century equivalent of that. Then, as now, the importance of having the correct paperwork is not underestimated.

All of the singing voices are in fine form – anyone who would rather not attend an opera for fear of not being able to decipher the lyrics well enough should give this show a go: the delivery is crystal clear. Particularly given the subject matter, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Composed by Gaetano Donizetti with libretto by Gusetave Vaëz in a new English language translation and new orchestration for chamber ensemble by Alejandro Bonatto, who will be directing the production

Cast: Laura Lolita Perešivana as Rita, Brenton Spiteri as Beppe, Phil Wilcox as Gasparo.

Director Alejandro Bonatto
Conductor Mark Austin
Production Designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen
Lighting Designer Rob Halliday

Strictly limited season of 10 performances at
Charing Cross Theatre
The Arches
Villiers Street
London WC2N 6NL
www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

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