The sands were running out. It is in
this light, perhaps, that we may view the opera that made his reputation
throughout Italy: young man in a hurry to show off everything he can do in the
way of melody, declamatory recitative, duets both pathetic and passionate, and
one of those soon-to-be-world-renowned Act I “Rossini” finales.
That Tancredi was the giant step may surprise modern audiences, for
the opera is not a comic one — at least not intentionally.
Tancredi is serious — even tragic, if the alternate
“Ferrara” ending rediscovered by Philip Gossett is used, as it was
by Opera Boston.
Rossini is best remembered as a composer of comic operas like
L’Italiana in Algeri (four months after Tancredi) and
Il Barbiere di Siviglia (three years later). But it isn’t just
the stories that tag him: his music has a tendency to bubble, to froth, even
when the direst matters are under discussion or depiction. His thunderstorms
never threaten the levees, you can dance to his martial choruses, and as for
pathos — that relies to a tremendous extent on the gifts of the
individual singer. Rossini’s orchestra won’t tug your heartstrings
all by itself — they are present to accompany, perhaps to sympathize,
with the singing actors of his day, who prided themselves on the subtlety of
feeling they could express. Composers who used too many instruments, too heavy
and participatory an orchestra, were generally reviled in Italy as
“Germanic.” You know — heavy metal thumpers like Mozart
— but also, later, Meyerbeer, Weber, and even Verdi. If the orchestra
takes the lead role, who is the prima donna here? Who is accompanying whom?
Rossini lived to see the taste change, and his great serious operas —
Tancredi, Semiramide, Otello, L’Assedio di Corinto, MosÈ in
Egitto — all but forgotten. Singers forgot how to sing them and
audiences forgot how to appreciate them. They have returned to favor in the
last generation or two, a phenomenon led by dynamic mezzo-sopranos who could do
what needs doing with a Rossini trouser role or pathetic heroine: Giulietta
Simionato, Teresa Berganza, Marilyn Horne, Lucia Valentini-Terrani.
Tancredi was one of Horne’s great roles, and it was she who
brought back the forgotten tragic ending. (Rossini’s audience insisted
that the hero survive, and there’s no particular reason he
shouldn’t.) Today Horne’s successors include Cecilia Bartoli,
Vivica Genaux, Joyce DiDonato and Ewa Podleś. Tancredi is
especially identified with the latter, and Boston Opera staged it for her at
the sumptuous, exquisitely restored Majestic Theatre, where any spectacle is
sure to seem more of a treat.
Podleś is not a singer to everyone’s taste. Her voice is
idiosyncratic to a degree, with a huge range from plummy low notes to a sturdy
upper register, exceptional coloratura technique and sometimes imperfect line.
The ranges break and re-break, there are melting legatos with growly
interruptions. Her dramatic commitment, however, is total, and her use of her
skills — and her flaws — is canny and entirely at the service of
dramatic presentation. A tragic monologue by Podleś is never just a
collection of notes but felt emotion in beautiful song. Her tone is shaded with
doubt or anguish, her cascades of ornament underline passionate resolve. A
Podleś performance is what bel canto is about, and she has a passionate
following, out in force in the Boston performances. They were well rewarded.
As a stage figure, Podleś is matronly but in trouser parts she carries
her weight in a way that seems masculine, not laughable. The Bostonians were
only close to laughter at one point, when for the umpteenth time Tancredi
muttered that no one had ever suffered as he was suffering — laughable
since he was suffering only due to his inability to believe his lover had
not betrayed him — and that was the librettist’s fault.
It was a star performance in a star part, and at 57 Podleś shows no
sign of flagging powers. Her death scene in particular, nearly unaccompanied
and quite startling for the era, was intensely theatrical.
The plot of Tancredi is drawn from a Voltaire tragedy; boiled down
to libretto form, it is one of those tiresome stories based on a silly
misunderstanding. If the heroine would only say, “But I didn’t send
that (unaddressed) love letter to a Saracen; I wrote it to Tancredi,”
everything might be cleared up. She never does say this, for reasons perhaps
clearer in the play. True, Tancredi is in exile, proscribed as a traitor by
those who fear his popular appeal, and to have written to him at all makes
Amenaide a disobedient daughter and citizen. It might even endanger Tancredi,
who, unrecognized, is back in town to fight the national (Saracen) enemy, and
who also accepts (but why?) that the intercepted letter must have been written
to another man — hence our lack of sympathy with his unreasonable
suspicions. Why does Amendaide never speak? Because it would end the opera too
soon? That’s not a good reason. She never offers us another.
With a story of this sort, the watchword for the director should surely be a
Hippocratic: First, do no harm. You can’t make it make sense; the singers
will do that (or they won’t). But don’t insert subplots that have
nothing to do with the action — you will only raise questions that no one
will ever answer. This is just what director Kristine McIntyre has done. She
has decided Amenaide is pregnant out of wedlock, and presents this to us by
having her stripped to her slip at the end of Act I. At this point everyone on
stage is singing something, but no one refers to the pregnancy. Why
show it if you’re not going to talk about it?
Either Tancredi has been sneaking home pretty often or the pregnancy has
lasted several years — or else Amendaide really is sleeping around. These
are questions Rossini never raised and therefore does not address. Tancredi
wears no mask — why does no one recognize him if he was in town two
months ago? If he made love to Amenaide, why is he so quick to believe her
faithless? Why is the government willing to put her to death, though any
Christian regime would surely spare a pregnant woman, at least until delivery?
And why does her father forgive her, as no Sicilian father would in this or any
McIntyre’s reasoning appears to have been that her soprano, Amanda
Forsythe, really is pregnant. The rational response would be to put her in a
larger costume and ignore it. Shazaam! No inane unanswered questions.
It is also clear why McIntyre set the piece in 1935 — nothing to do
with political resonance (as she claims), but because the costumes are cheaper
to procure than those of twelfth-century Sicily would be. She make think
fascism in Italy between the world wars was an important issue — it is
— but it’s not an issue Rossini ever addressed, and it does not
explain how a Muslim army could be besieging Syracuse in the 1930s.
This was not a staging to inspire pleasure. The sets, too: ugly brick
Amanda Forsythe, a popular presence in Boston’s opera scene, sang
Amenaide. She has a very sweet, rounded soprano and ornaments elegantly, but
her voice is quite small. The high points of the performance were her duets
with Podleś, who gallantly scaled her own voice down to match
Forsythe’s, so that we reveled by the minute in their deliciously twining
phrases: bel canto heaven. Yeghishe Manucharyan, as Argirio, her unsympathetic
father, displayed impressive skill at Rossini passagework in a thin,
unattractive tenor. His sound was stronger in Act II, but not enough to make me
eager to hear this voice again. DongWon Kim was impressive in the thankless
role of villainous Orbazzano, and Victoria Avetisyan revealed a pleasing mezzo
as Isaura, who has a “sherbet” aria in Act I. Sherbet arias were
inserts, often written by some student or hack, and there is no reason to
include them unless the singer justifies it. The second such aria was too much
for its second comprimario. Conductor Gil Rose accompanied the vocal flights
with welcome restraint, and the Act I finale built very nicely, but he
didn’t draw a very impressive “Rossini crescendo” from his
players during the overture.
A friend points out that none of the oversexed castrato or trousered female
roles in opera ever do actually father a child, in or out of wedlock —
that job is left to a tenor, baritone or bass. (One exception: Cherubino
fathers a child — but we don’t find out about it until
Beaumarchais’ sequel, La MÈre Coupable, which was sort of made
into an opera in Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles.) Opera
lovers are cool with a woman singing of love to another treble voice, but
shouting “Daddy!” to an alto parent evidently pushes the barrier.
No doubt modern opera composers will update this convention in short order.
image_description=Cartel del estreno de Tancredi (Rossini) en el Teatro Comunale de Ferrara en 1813 [Wikimedia Commons]
product_title=G. Rossini: Tancredi
product_by=Tancredi: Ewa Podleś; Amenaide: Amanda Forsythe; Argirio: Yeghishe Manucharyan; Orbazzano: DongWon Kim; Isaura: Victora Avetisyan. Opera Boston, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. Conducted by Gil Rose. Performance of October 25.