Thursday 9 August 2012

Santa Fe Opera - Maometto II

Isabella Colbran
Rossini clearly thought highly of Maometto II, unsuccessful at its premiere in Naples in 1820, he altered the piece and presented it in Venice, still to no great effect with the public. Finally he re-worked it entirely for Paris as Le Siege de Corinthe. Performances in the present day are still relatively rare and Santa Fe's new production of the opera, which unveiled a new critical edition, was a welcome opportunity to assess the piece on stage. The piece was written quite late in Rossini's Neapolitan career and the piece incorporates various structural innovations which perhaps did not appeal to the Neapolitan public.

It was written as a showpiece for Isabella Colbran, though the decline in Colbran's voice combined with Rossini's dramatic instincts meant that the role of Anna was not entirely conventional. His major innovation was at the end of Act 2, when Rossini omitted the the conventional ending with a brilliant cabaletta for the Anna, instead she is on stage for 40 minutes in a stupendous display of artistry, but lacking the concluding fireworks as the soprano kills herself in a deliberately low key ending. Thus the role was intended to showcase Colbran's dramatic talents, with fewer of the showy moments that Neapolitan audiences might have expected.

In fact Rossini seems to have deliberately been sparing with his use of cabalettas in the opera. The opening of the opera is similarly innovative in that Rossini's terzettone, which lasts 25 minutes, was deliberately written to be continuous with no opportunity for the audience to applaud, despite two of the characters leaving the stage at one point. All this creates a brilliant dramatic tension which is only released when Maometto finally appears and sings his bravura opening aria.

The title role was written for Filippo Galli who had sung the bass roles in the premieres of L'Italiana in Algeri and Il Turco in Italia. It is a brilliant part, far more sympathetic than the dramatic build in the opera would lead us to believe. And Maometto is in many the ways the most fully rounded of the operas characters.

The work needs four gifted Rossini singers and Santa Fe had assembled a very fine team indeed. (We saw the penultimate performance on 7 August). Luca Pisaroni sang Mametto with Leah Crocetto as Anna, Bruce Sledge as Erisso and Patricia Bardon as Calbo.

Pisaroni was stupendous, dazzling in his coloratura, full of bravura without bluster. The notes were not just there for display, and Pisaroni impressively coloured and shaped the elaborate vocal lines. He cut an striking figure on stage, Santa Fe were lucky to find someone who not only could sing the part, but who looked it as well. Pisaroni was a believable general and a highly romantic figure. The role is, to a certain extent, conflicted because we never see him and Anna falling in love.

In the Colbran role of Anna, Leah Crocetto was immediately appealing and sympathetic. She showed great facility with the fioriture and impressively rose to the challenge of Anna's long final scene, developing into a strong tragic figure. Crocetto has a warm, rich voice which she moves admirably, reminding us that Colbran was no canary, but had a fiery temperament. Whilst Crocetto engaged our sympathies, I could have wished that she had brought a little more dramatic temperament to the role, there were times when she seemed just a little to equable. But this is nit-picking, bearing in mind her considerable achievement in such a demanding role.

Bruce Sledge was also the subject of Rossini's experimentation, with the lead tenor role being allocated to Anna's father Erisso. Sledge, who sings Leicester in Welsh National Opera's forthcoming Maria Stuarda, has a fine, evenly produced voice on the dramatic side of lyric. This is entirely appropriate for Erisso, as the role was written for Andrea Notari who had created the title role in Rossini's Otello. Both Sledge and Patricia Bardon (as Colba) suffered from the work's slightly odd dramaturgy. We never see Erisso in battle in Act 2, and the dramatic events are subsidiary to the personal journey which Anna has to make. Erisso is hardly a fully rounded dramatic figure and his final act is to marry Anna and Colba before disappearing off to battle. Having set up the siege of Negroponte, Rossini and his librettist seem to lose interest in it.

Sledge made best use of what Rossin gave him and was particularly notable in the long opening scene, which sets the piece's dramatic tone.

Calbo is probably the oddest role of the lot. In love with Anna, but denied her because Anna announces that she is in love with the mysterious Umberto (actually the disguised Maometto), Calbo participates in the drama but is never quite part of it. Until in the middle of act 2, when Calbo gets a stupendous aria in which she rouses Erisso in support of his daughter (whom Erisso suspects has gone off willingly with Maometto). The role has a wide tessitura with some quite dramatic leaps, Rossini seems to have been deliberately characterising Calbo as a vigorous and dramatic young man. Patricia Bardon made light of the vocal part's outrageous demands and combined the demeanour of a heroic young man with some fine singing indeed.

In the two smaller roles of Condulmiero and Selimo, Matthew Newlin and Michael Dailey provided good support.

Dramatically the opera is a bit of a mess, Rossini seems to have been more interested in the dramatic situations than in worrying about coherence. With the musical structure built on a large scale, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that there is not quite enough plot to go round.

Director David Alden and his designer, Jon Morrell set the piece in 1820 at the time of the work's creation. The basic set was a neoclassical colonnade which did flexible service for a variety of uses. Morrell's attractive costumes did not shy away from making Maometto and his forces look muslim but the historical setting gave added perspective and glamour. The piece has enough contemporary relevance that you could imagine a modern setting working and in fact the modern political perspective might give the dramaturgy of the second act some welcome impetus.

Alden seems to have deliberately eschewed any modern political point making; in fact, for people familiar with Alden's work in the UK, this production seemed entirely lacking the edge and dramatic urgency for which he is well known. Most effort seems to have been concentrated on Maometto's big scenes which were choreographed by Peggy Hickey and turned into vivid spectaculars. Both Maometto's entrance (through a hole knocked into the wall of a set) and his final exit to battle (in golden armour mounted in a chariot) were stunningly spectacular.

But apart from this, Alden seems to have been content to just move people around in attractive stage pictures. I think that Crocetto particularly could have benefited from work to create a stronger and more dramatically intense conclusion to the opera.

The chorus were on good form and the men in particular benefited from the lively staging of Maometto's scenes.

Conductor Frederic Chaslin was immensely sympathetic to the singers, conducting a flexible and gently paced account of the score. I am not certain that everything he did was entirely to be benefit of Rossini's music, but he went a long way towards creating just the right atmosphere to enable the four principles to sing brilliantly. The orchestra were crisply attentive and there were some very find solo moments, notably from the clarinet and the harp.

The performance stunningly confirmed Rossini's musical adventurousness with the performance of his complete score in the new Urtext edition. I am not certain that David Alden's production is the last word on Maometto II as drama, but Chaslin and his four principles gave us an evening of stunningly vivid Rossini singing.

Further coverage of the Santa Fe Opera season on this blog.

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