A couple of years ago the Rossini Festival staged the very first Rossini opera, Dimitrio e Polibio. It is on a serious subject (a father finds his long lost son and reconciles with an old enemy as well). Rossini was 15 years old. It was five years later that he discovered his comic muse with L’equivoco stravagante, followed the very next year (1812) by four more comedies, plus what the Festival considers his first opera seria, Ciro in Babilonia (forgetting that Dimitrio e Polibio is an opera seria). The rest is history.
The Festival had entrusted the staging of Dimitrio e Polibio to Italian director Davide Livermore who gave us enough lazzi (little visual tricks) to amuse ourselves mightily and make the opera itself as incidental to the evening’s entertainment as it is to the Rossini oeuvre. Ciro in Babilonia ossia La caduta di Baldassare is pretty thin material as well. It was another opportunity for Mr. Livermore!
Though thrust between Rossini and Mr. Livermore (lee-vehr-more-aye, no accent one assumes) was former enfant terrible New York Times music critic Will Crutchfield, now a conductor and coach of bel canto at the Caramoor Center for the Arts (64 kms north of New York City). Conductor Crutchfield is a strange mixture of erudition, musicality, and limited musical charisma who seems possessed by the operatic ideal of collaboration.
Meanwhile there was some singing too, most notably by 62 year-old Polish contralto Ewa Podles as lovesick Ciro. At this point in her career Mme. Podles is most often reverentially cast as a celebrated singer in a character role (the evil aunt in San Francisco’s Suor Angelica as example). The surprise is that Mme. Podles can still do a coloratura trouser role with plenty of voice and dazzling aplomb. Rossini’s Ciro is however a decidedly pale character to host such force of voice and personality.
Mme. Podles did indeed make this unlucky Persian king (he lost a battle plus his wife to Belshazzar) into a character well beyond the possible imaginings of Rossini. This only succeeded in rendering Australian soprano Jessica Pratt less convincing as the Rossini heroine Amira, his Rossini imagined femme fatale wife. Mlle. Pratt possibly could have approached the vocal ideal of such a creature as she is a fine Rossini singer, popping off interpolated stratospheric notes in shimmering coloratura.
Baldassare, the lovesick ruler of Babilonia (yes, like Handel’s Xerxes) loses in the end. Ciro wins a battle and gets his wife back and everyone lives happily ever after, though of course all this is pure fantasy. Baldassare too, Missouri born tenor Michael Spires, was no match for Ciro. He cut a good figure, his very long lament Qual crudel, qual trista sorte made a case for the greatness of the Rossini-to-come, and earned him a real ovation (real ovations are long and loud in Pesaro).
Mr. Livermore took on Rossini’s opera seriaand cleverly did away with it knowing that we would find its superimposition onto a silent film epic imitation more amusing. Surely we did (though an opera seria every once in a while does hit the spot). That its transformation was thorough is beyond question, including the suppression of supertitles so we could not know really what was being said or thought (these singers did not project the Italian text as did, for example, the singers in Mathilda di Shabran to a remarkable degree). So it was opera without words, though we all know opera has words, and some of us, probably many of us ached for real opera.
Mr. Livermore made constant reference to the silent film era with video techniques effected by Torino’s D-Wok (an enterprise that offers “multi-sensory creativity recipes”). These effects were brilliantly and sensitively used to goose up Rossini’s incipient greatness, like the moving background film images slipping into judder for the serious moments in the Ciro/Amira recognition duet, plus the scratches on the film (thin streaks of light) increasing in intensity and frequency as Rossini’s music intensified at the opera’s conclusion. Not to ignore the close-up shots of melodramatic faces in sepia tinted frames, and (whew!) the absolutely stunning early film-art epic costumes designed by Gianluca Falaschi.
Scene from Il signor Bruschino
Mr. Livermore was a singer before he became one of Italy’s most gifted and interesting stage directors. Well aware of the needs of singers he and his designer Nicolas Bovey provided a moving platform stage layout that propelled the singers to positions of direct communication with the conductor (and therefore the audience) for the big arias. In fact Mo. Crutchflield seemed more interested in his singers than in the fine orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna even though a splendid violin solo rang out in forceful melodramatic pathos with Mlle. Pratt’s Deh, per me non v’affliggete (don’t beat yourself up on my account).
Davide Livermore’s production was smart indeed, too smart for what Rossini had to say.
Well, enough with opera seria, let’s get back to comedy. The very next year, a big one, Rossini first dashed of a one-act farce, Il signor Bruschino before composing his first great tragedy, Tancredi, and his first great comedy, L’italiana in Algeri. The Festival entrusted the staging of this incidental farce to Teatro Sotterraneo, a Florentine group comprised of dancers, actors, performance artists, singers, etc., who collectively create and perform theater.
At first the suspicion was that this was in fact the case, that the stage manager, his assistant, the dresser, etc., who rushed about the stage doing schtick before, during and after the overture were Teatro Sotterraneo, that a couple of old guys (Bruschino and Gaudenzio as we later learned) putting on strange costumes and sort of coxcomb like plastic wigs were Teatro Sotterraneo, and that Florville and Sofia who sang about their problems were Teatro Sotterraneo actors and not really Rossini singers.
The sets and costumes, the issue of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Urbino which was part of this opera-by-committee committee, were a crossroads somewhere, maybe Pesaro, or in the unlikely case that you (and the far more likely case that these talented kids) had been to a Disneyland in Anaheim, Tokyo, Orlando or Paris in the recent past, maybe a theme park somewhere. Probably it was just the Lungomare in Pesaro — in fact there was even a sign announcing that we were in Rossiniland with arrows pointing to La Gazza Ladra and other such attractions.
What would Disneyland/Rossiniland be without you and me to wonder and marvel at what we found there? So what looked like the youth cult that surely must be Teatro Sotterraneo, plus a few more seasoned tourists like us, timidly interfaced with Bruschino, Florville and Filiberto there in Rossiniland (the Cinderella, Daffy and Donald Ducks, etc., of Disneyland). That is when we were not distracted by a sudden parade chasing after William Tell (yes, Rossini’s late, great opera was quoted).
So it was a farce within a farce, one dumbly brilliant farce, make that brilliantly dumb farce within another. A stroke of genius. Anything went to sabotage the integrity of one of Rossini’s lesser efforts, efforts that in fact gave it the vibrantly casual artistic life it deserves.
With due respect to the singers, they were appropriately neither Teatro Sotterraneo nor were they the cast you would dream of for a Pesaro Italiana or Tancredi. They were wonderful singing actors who brought Rossini’s farce alive in high art that was well beyond mere opera. Roberto de Candia and Carlo Lepore supplied experience and savoir faire as Bruschino and Gaudenzio, Andrea Vicenzo Bonsignore as the innkeeper Filiberto, David Alegret as Florville the young lover, and Maria Aleida with her amazingly high notes as Sofia the ingenue supplied the promise. Young Italian conductor Daniele Rustioni was a lively participant in the proceedings as were members of the Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini.
Much magnificence was added to the Rossini oeuvre over the next ten years, like all of the more recognizable Rossini titles (the operas in French were still to come), including Matilde di Shabran ossia Bellezza e cuor di ferro in 1821, a very strange piece. Like Handel’s Xerxes it is either a tragedy or a comedy, and in the best of all possible worlds it is both.
It was a revival of a 2004 production erected in the limited stage housing of the 600 or so seat Teatro Rossini that made its way to Covent Garden in 2008 where the two concentric floor to rafters circular staircases, the sum total of its scenery, were presumably resized to a considerably larger dimension. Back now in Pesaro at the Adriatic Arena in this (or yet another) enlarged version it did not come close to making the startling scenic impressions that have marked Adriatic Arena productions in recent years (like Mose in Egitto, Zelmira, and Ermione).
However it did have Juan Diego FlÛrez and that seemed enough to bring the audience to an a priori delirium. The twenty-three year-old Juan Diego made his Pesaro debut in the role of Corradino the Iron Hearted back in 1996, in a resurrection of Matilde di Shabran after 175 years of oblivion. Needless to say it was Mr. FlÛrez who sang it in London at age 35, and may it suffice to say that the role still belongs to him alone at age 39. Possibly this is because he may be the only one who can sing it. Or maybe wants to.
Scene from Matilda di Shabran
Corradino the Iron Hearted has a lot to sing about. The peace and quiet (save for an occasional battle) of his chateau has been disturbed by the arrival of two women who are chasing him. He hates women. So there are a lot of high “C”’s and more than a few elaborate rages. Corradino is head-strong and not too smart (well, he is a tenor). Though of course Juan Diego is nothing if not smart, and very famous for his high “C”‘s. This combination of character and singer is exploited to perfection by Mr. FlÛrez in minimal moves and maximal voice and musicianship.
This is mature Rossini who masterfully constructs huge ensembles, a quintet in the first act bringing iron hearted Juan Diego together with German formed Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko as Matilda, the pushy ingenue who lets nothing get in her way (like Rosina) and Italian mezzo Chiara Chialli as the pushy Contessa who, after four hours [!] of conniving, was the sore loser. Young Italian buffo Nicola Alaimo as the wise doctor Aliprando and Italian baritone Paolo Bordogna as the opportunistic Neopolitan poet Isidoro (gifted Pesaro regulars) finished the five who lined up across the stage and let it rip.
The staging of the opera was limited to the principals running up and down the spiral staircases when not forming a line to sing together. The quintet was joined in the extended first act finale by the two additional principals, young Russian mezzo Anna Goryachova as Edoardo, captured son of the Iron Hearted’s arch enemy, and excellent Spanish bass Simon Orfila as Ginardo, the castle gatekeeper.
Holding all of this together with the orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna was young Italian conductor Michele Mariotti, a graduate of the Conservatorio Rossini di Pesaro who has gone to the top fast. Mo. Mariotti brought unusual elegance to the opera’s overture, and coaxed continued suavity and a far more than usual or expected orchestral participation in the complex musical proceedings without foregoing his responsibilities to the stage.
Without the participation of a real production conception (Italian film director Mario Martone’s production was more or less costume opera, at least as seen from row 14), the performance missed achieving the magical Rossini operatic delirium that has been the hallmark of recent Adriatic Arena productions. Not that this lack was lamented by the audience who responded to Rossini’s magnificent ensembles with huge, really huge, foot stomping ovations.
Olga Peretyatko, Matilda, had the last word in an extended solo scene at the end of the opera in which she unleashed torrents of brilliant coloratura bragging about her conquest of Juan Diego, the real Rossini diva she has become over the past several years in Pesaro.
Ciro in Babilonia
Baldassare: Michael Spyres; Ciro: Ewa Podles; Amira: Jessica Pratt; Argene: Carmen Romeu; Zambri: Mirco Palazzi; Arbace: Robert McPherson; Daniello: Raffaele Costantini. Teatro Rossini, Pesaro. Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Conductor: Will Crutchfield; Stage Directoro: Davide Livermore; Scenery and projections: Nicolas Bovey; Videodesign: D-WOK; Costumes: Gianluca Falaschi. (August 13, 2012)
Il signor Bruschino
Gaudenzio: Carlo Lepore; Sofia: Maria Aleida; Bruschino father: Roberto de Candia; Bruschino son / Commissario: Francisco Brito; Florville: David Alegret; Filiberto: Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore; Marianna: Chiara Amar˘. Teatro Rossini, Pesaro. Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini. Conductor: Daniele Rustioni; Stage Director: Teatro Sotterraneo; Sets and Costumes: Accademia di Belle Arti di Urbino; Lights: Roberto Cafaggini. (August 15, 2012)
Matilda di Shabran
Matilde di Shabran: Olga Peretyatko; Edoardo: Anna Goryachova; Raimondo Lopez: Marco Filippo Romano; Corradino: Juan Diego FlÛrez; Ginardo: Simon Orfila; Aliprando: Nicola Alaimo; Isidoro: Paolo Bordogna; Contessa d’Arco: Chiara Chialli; Egoldo: Giorgio Misseri; Rodrigo: Ugo Rosati, Luca Fisani. Adriatic Arena, Pesaro. Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Conductor: Michele Mariotti; Stage Director: Mario Martone; Scenery: Sergio Tramonti; Costumes: Ursula Patzak; Lights: Pasquale Mari. (August 14, 2012)
image_description=Scene from Ciro in babilonia
product_title=Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro 2012
product_by=By Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Scene from Ciro in babilonia
Photos courtesy of Rossini Opera Festival