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Sarasota Opera brings rare gem in 'The Secret Marriage' to kick off fall season

It was one of the world's most popular operas in its day and may have caused the longest encore ever. But Cimarosa's 'The Secret Marriage' is rarely performed in America.


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There’s a famous legend concerning the 1792 premiere of Cimarosa’s The Secret Marriage, and Richard Russell believes it’s true. The original cast performed for the court of Austrian emperor Leopold II, and after dinner, they did an encore of the entire opera.

It’s believed to be the longest encore in opera history, and Russell says the story is not apocryphal.

It really happened. But you probably shouldn’t expect history to repeat itself when Sarasota Opera performs the Secret Marriage for the first time next week.

‘That will not happen,” says Russell, laughing at the suggestion. “First of all, it’s not a short opera. We cut some pieces from it to make it within two-and-a-half hours or so.

"That was going to be a long evening for them. I can’t imagine the singers going through it again.”

The opera, says Russell, is today mostly conducted by universities as opposed to professional opera companies.

But back in its day, Cimarosa’s masterwork was quite popular.

Victor DeRenzi, Sarasota Opera’s artistic director and principal conductor, says Cimarosa was very influential for Rossini and a whole school of Italian composers. But due to the vagaries of the ever-shifting opera canon, it’s become a bit of a rarity here in the United States.

The Secret Marriage was first performed in the USA in 1834, just 42 years after its Austrian premiere.

But according to the website operabase.com, there have only been five productions of The Secret Marriage in the United States dating back to the year 2000. One was scheduled for Miami and postponed during the pandemic, and by coincidence, it will be in production right after the Sarasota Opera completes its run.

Brenna Markey and Hanna Brammer play star-crossed sisters in the comic opera The Secret Marriage. (Photo by Rod Millington)
Brenna Markey and Hanna Brammer play star-crossed sisters in the comic opera The Secret Marriage. (Photo by Rod Millington)

DeRenzi, who has conducted productions of The Secret Marriage three times previously — but none since 1978 — says that number doesn’t really surprise him.

“The history of opera is very interesting, because there are many works that were extremely popular when they were written and then they disappeared,” he says.

“There are other works that were not very popular but then they became more and more performed. And what has happened is that the opera repertoire has become a bit distilled down to the great works. Mozart was Mozart; you can't deny how great Mozart was. But there were other composers who were much more performed than Mozart was [in his day]. Even his contemporary Haydn wrote a lot of operas and they're not performed anymore.”

DeRenzi, who is now at the helm of Sarasota Opera for his 41st season, laughs when asked how much has changed in his life since the last time he did The Secret Marriage.

Everything. He moved to Sarasota. He got married and raised a daughter. He has grandkids. He’s now conducted 80 operas, and he’s held the baton for more than 1,000 performances. DeRenzi says the music for The Secret Marriage came back easily for him because he learned it while he was in his 20’s and not his 60’s.

The Secret Marriage is a perfect fit for this opera house, he says, because it was designed for a smaller cast and for a smaller orchestra. It was never meant to be performed in a gargantuan opera house.

"The typical European opera house is not much bigger than our opera house," he says. "We have 1100 seats; The theater of Venice, which is where many operas were premiered, it has 1200 seats.

"Pieces like Cimarosa's, when you put them in a bigger theater, they don't have the same effect as they do here. So in a way you'll get more out of this piece in this theater than you may in San Francisco or Chicago or New York."

Does DeRenzi have any other theories why The Secret Marriage is rarely performed?

At this point, he says, it’s basically a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Singers claim their roles, and if they don’t perform this one, how can they claim it as their own?

Stefano de Peppo's Geronimo character has his hands full with daughter Hanna Brammer's Carolina. (Photo by Rod Millington)
Stefano de Peppo's Geronimo character has his hands full with daughter Hanna Brammer's Carolina. (Photo by Rod Millington)

“If a famous singer wants to do Madama Butterfly, then people who love that famous singer want to see her do that,” he says. “If your favorite bass wants to sing in The Marriage of Figaro, then you're going to see The Marriage of Figaro because you love his singing.

"The unknown operas don't have that history built in, so it takes convincing of an audience to come and see them. ‘Why am I seeing this? I’ve never heard of the opera. I’ve never heard of the composer. How good can it be?’ Well, the answer to that is it could be very good.”

Both DeRenzi and Russell say that they’ve never seen The Secret Marriage as a customer; but they also say that’s not really out of the ordinary. The duo also say they’ve done operas that are even more rare in recent seasons including The Silken Ladder (2021) and Le Wally (2020).

Only one member of the current cast, though, has performed his role before.

Filippo Fontana, who will be playing Count Robinson, has sang the role once in Italy about 10 years ago and also in Germany a bit more recently. Fontana, who will be returning to Sarasota Opera in the winter for Madama Butterfly, says The Secret Marriage is a challenging role.

“I know what happens and where my entrance is,” he says. “I know when I have to sing and when I’m off stage. Those kinds of things are much easier because I’ve done it already.”

Fontana says that yes, The Secret Marriage is done more often in Italy, but even there, he says it’s a victim to changing times and attitudes. Sometimes it is popular and there are dueling productions, and sometimes there is a little bit of a quiet time for it. But eventually, he says, the charms of the opera come back to the forefront.

“The music is very lovely," he says. "It’s funny at times; there’s a loving couple that already got married but nobody knows. They have lovely arias to sing. Lovely duets. The result is a misunderstanding about who I’m going to marry; I don’t like the eldest daughter. I think she’s ugly. I like the youngest one. It’s funny how I try to get rejected.”

The way Fontana describes the plot should be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a sitcom.

Except that this was written in Italy all the way back in 1792.

“I guess some things never change,” he says. “When it’s about love and marriage.”

 

 

author

Spencer Fordin

Spencer Fordin, the Observer's A+E editor, hails from New York and graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1999. Fordin previously worked as a sportswriter for MLB.com for 16 seasons and as a features reporter for The Cayman Compass on Grand Cayman.