Three Rossini Operas Serias

Yet today these works cling precariously to the repertoire, Each year, on
the average, each receives one or two staged productions across the globe.
Perhaps it is the looming 150th anniversary of Rossini’s death that
explains an unusual opportunity to hear Rossini’s first and last works in this
genre: Tancredi at Opera Philadelphia and Semiramide
both at Opera Delaware in Wilmington and the Bayerische Staatsoper in M¸nchen.
I had not heard either one live on stage since Marilyn Horne headed casts in
the 1980s.

Any company seeking to perform Rossini’s serious works today faces two
challenges. One is that many contemporary spectators find the style archaic.
Libretti written in a mannered literary style inherited from the
Baroque are set to intricately stylized bel canto musical scores,
often of Wagnerian length. To be sure, Rossini’s opera serie contain
an exceptionally broad range of intense passions and conflicts, yet the
characters enacting them seem to be archetypal monarchs and aristocrats from
days gone by excessively concerned with preserving their honor.

Just a few decades after Rossini stopped composing, Verdi operas like
Rigoletto and Il trovatore converted audiences to the modern
belief that tragedy must be terse, hard, direct, and drawn from everyday life.
Verdi swiftly supplanted Rossini on world stages, and he has gone down in
history as the epochal musical innovator and great tragedian—as well as the
harbinger of Italian national unity. Today’s audiences share this view: they
find Rossinian comedy as natural—Barbiere and
Cenerentola remain as popular as ever but his
tragedies foreign.

Yet aficionados know that the intricately stylized vocal expression of
bel canto tragedy is point. The need to bridge an extreme distance
between style and substance drives singers to intense improvisation and
interpretation. Powerful, idiosyncratically personal performances are the
result. Displays of vocal virtuosity, at times bordering on the impossible, can
drive audiences into a frenzy; yet the deeper purpose of these vocal acrobatics
is to express extreme human emotion.

In Rossinian opera, the longer the phrases, the more intricate the
embellishments, the more creative the vocal coloring, the higher the dramatic
tension. In great performances of bel canto opera—as with classical
ballet, Shakespearean drama, jazz, or any other stylized performance art—these
physical demands seem to disappear in the moment, and the listener perceives
highly stylized improvisation seems a natural and immediate way to express
powerful human passions.

Yet therein lies a second challenge that helps explain why so few opera
houses today perform Rossini’s opera serie. No operatic genre is more
closely associated with individual vocal greatness. In every generation, only a
few, truly exceptional singers possess the extraordinary technique and
interpretive creativity to transform acrobatic vocal improvisation into searing
drama. These operas were brought back to life a half century ago largely due to
a few such artists: Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat CaballÈ, Beverly
Sills, June Anderson, Marilyn Horne, Giuletta Simionato, Juan-Diego Florez,
Samuel Ramey among them. Without such singers, operas like Tancredi
and Semiramide just seem musty, repetitive, and exceedingly

Opera Philadelphia, the Bayerische Staatsoper and Opera Delaware are all
innovative companies that take chances on unusual repertoire. The recent
productions I witnessed illustrate three distinctive ways to cope with the
demands of performing serious Rossini opera in the 21st century.

* * *

Tancredi was Rossini’s first mega-hit: its premiere in 1813
established him, at the seemingly impossible age of 20, as the world’s leading
composer of opera. Yet it is clearly the work of a young man. The score, while
fresh and vibrant, is filled with uncomplicated melodies in major keys. The
libretto is thin, based on characters who combat misunderstanding rather than
intrinsic evil, violence or weakness. Rossini’s own ambivalence is evidenced by
the existence of two versions with different endings, one happy and one

To breathe life into this drama, Opera Philadelphia assembled a promising
cast of singers—yet success in staging Rossini demands more. The production was
built around veteran mezzo Stephanie Blythe’s debut in the title role. Blythe’s
wide repertoire, resonant voice, and commitment to deep characterization has
propelled her into the ranks of world-class singers. Convincing her to sing
this role for the first time was a coup.

Yet Blythe’s years of portraying deep and heavy roles such as Fricka,
Azucena, Ulrica, and Mrs. Quickly seem to have taken their toll on her voice.
Today she lacks the agility and natural lightness required for Rossini’s music,
composed decades earlier. Blythe gave it her all, yet her admirably intense
portrayal psychologically could not obscure smudged runs, uneven timbre from
top to bottom, labored vocal production, and a voice that just seemed too broad
for the role—though I am told her later performances gained more polish.

Brenda Rae, cast as Amenaide, the young woman in love with Tancredi, went to
the opposite interpretive extreme. A young American soprano who has recently
been quite successful in Europe, Rae possesses an extremely smooth and delicate
soprano voice with astonishing command of fine gradations between
piano, pianissimo and pianississimo. Her use of
these talents displayed a fine dramatic imagination, yet the role ultimately
demands more vocal variety, more edge to the voice, and a bolder

In the same interpretive universe was Michele Angelini as Amenaide’s father
Argirio. This American-trained tenor is a singer on his way up after successful
outings at the MET and Glimmerglass. Yet here the voice sounded insecure and
stressed, especially in higher registers. Baritone Daniel Mobbs integrated
acting and singing into a solid musical-dramatic portrayal of the warring clan
leader Orbazzano—particularly strong when singing ensembles. The stylistic
discrepancies between Blythe, Rae, Angelini and Mobbs, and were jarring in a
way that further impeded musical coherence.

The stage direction and conducting added little. Tancredi, more
often performed in concert than staged, requires little more than
serviceable unit set with a few accessories. It did receive that, though the
constant movement of furniture, obviously meant to add variety, proved an
intermittent annoyance. Conductor Corrado Rovaris held the show together
musically. Yet the orchestra seemed under-rehearsed and—as seems often to
happen under Rovaris—the mood was excessively cautious. With unusually slow and
steady tempi, slack rhythms and little Rossinian verve, even the famous
overture made little impact.

* * *

Semiramide at the Bayerische Staatsoper in M¸nchen, one of the
world’s great companies, seemed a sure winner. The Staatsoper had secured the
services of a talented young Italian conductor, Michele Mariotti (whose father
used to run the Rossini Festival in Pesaro), under whose direction the
celebrated M¸nchen orchestra played brilliantly. It had also mustered nearly as
fine a cast as one can find in the world today. To top things off, it
commissioned a new staging from David Alden. The result was impressive and
memorable—but in some respects too much of a good thing.

The singers largely fulfilled their promise. The main attraction was
mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato’s role debut as Semiramide, the sinful and doomed
Assyrian queen. This is unusual casting these days: in recent years, coloratura
sopranos have appropriated this role. M¸nchen returned to Rossini’s original
intent in writing the opera for Isabella Colbran, who, like DiDonato today, was
a mezzo with a warmer and darker middle voice coupled to a flexible extension
into soprano heights.

DiDonato is great artist at the prime of her career. Her technical ability
to deliver nearly any dynamic, color and attack as needed is marvelous. In
middle of her range, the voice as luscious as any who have sung the role. At
times the rougher sound of a mezzo, a slight strain when singing high at
forte, and obvious efforts to lend psychological weight to specific
lines seemed a bit jarring—particularly for those brought up on those
smooth-sailing soprano Semiramides. Yet this incoherence clearly fit DiDonato’s
conception of the character as at once a powerful Machiavellian queen, a
guilt-ridden family member, and a seductive woman—and she was prepared to
sacrifice some smoothness of line to portray Semiramide’s inner anguish.

The other truly world-class assumption was that of American tenor Lawrence
Brownlee. He brought effortless virtuosity to the role of Idreno, an Indian
suiter to the queen. He offered pinpoint accuracy in coloratura, a sweet and
relaxed tone for more sustained passages and, despite being stripped of an
aria, a clear emotional characterization.

Trieste-born mezzo Daniela Barcellona has sung, and indeed recorded, the
role of Arsace for some time. Her voice is not what it once was, but it remains
an impressive instrument that comes through when it has to. She stood up
mezzo-to-mezzo with DiDonato, though some of her solo numbers (further hampered
by being placed upstage) made less impact. In smaller parts, Christophoros
Stamboglis sang in stentorian bass tones appropriate to the high priest Oroe,
while Elsa Benoit radiated innocence as Azema.

That leaves Italian bass-baritone Alex Esposito, who sang powerfully and
pointedly as the villainous Assur. Though his voice at times lacked true bass
color, smoothness of line, and accuracy of coloratura, Esposito acted up a
storm, strutting around in military uniform, stripping half-naked, writhing and
clambering across the stage, taking an ax to a desk, and much more. He deserved
an A for effort.

These antics bring us to the weakness of the performance, namely the new
production. Staging and the ideas underlying them are always a big deal in
Germany. It was doubly so in this case, because stage director David Alden had
long been something of a “house director” in M¸nchen, well-known for his
controversially updated take on Wagner. Now he has turned to bel canto
opera and, after ten years, this brings him back to M¸nchen.

Alden is an energetic, imaginative and visually gifted director who has
mastered the art of staging opera as post-modern pastiche. His productions are
riots of diverse styles, symbols and analogies—including, as is so often the
case with contemporary opera direction, ironic commentary on much that the
characters sing—and some things they do not.

The Munich Semiramide is no exception. Most of the opera was set in
a North Korean-style mausoleum dominated by a giant statue of a deceased
political leader—to judge from the image, it is some combination of
Kim-Il-Sung, Donald Trump and Saddam Hussein—with his hand raised, surrounded
by heroic frescos of his life. The statue—a visual updating of King Nino, whose
ghost does appear in the opera—was visually quite striking, even if its deeper
meaning remained elusive.

The bewildering array of unnamed characters who populated Alden’s mausoleum
did not clarify the matter. Alongside Babylonians, as per the libretto, were
book-waving Sufi Berbers, strutting authoritarian military generals,
sparklingly exotic princes, black-clad mimes, ax-wielding French foreign
legionnaires dressed as butchers, and childhood Doppelg‰ngers of the main

Alden has said he sought to portray the psychological horror of religious
fundamentalism, which tears children from their parents, encourages crimes of
vengeance, and spreads debilitating guilt. Of course this is not what
Semiramide is about, but sometimes ambitious efforts at “strong
misdirection” spark deep insights. This was, I believe, the case in Alden’s
earlier Wagner productions. Here, however, even after reading lengthy essays in
the program, I remained more confused than ever.

Yet a far deeper weakness of the production lies in the fundamental
incompatibility between Alden’s manic direction and the natural flow of bel
opera. Alden is stone deaf to the most important imperative of
directing bel canto opera: less is more. As discussed above, the
leisurely and repetitive style of bel canto opera is a deliberate
invitation to singers (and, sometimes, also to the orchestra) to creatively
embellish the music, thereby elaborating more fully the characters’

Alden compulsively obscures precisely those critical moments, which he
appears to view as empty or redundant and thus in need of directorial
intervention. The moment a singer reaches a second verse, a final coda or a
cabaletta, or even sometimes a contrasting middle section, Alden sends in the
clowns. Choristers, minor characters, dancers and extraneous actors stagger—and
sometimes the singers themselves—around like zombies, sneak up on the singers
from behind, writhe in anguish, wave props, turn pirouettes, shuffle in slow
motion, walk up walls, and smash furniture. Sometimes the set itself mimics the
action: walls move or pastel cartoon butterflies flit across giant screens. The
constant commotion renders it almost impossible to focus on the vocal line at
what should be precisely the moments of greatest musical tension.

Such distractions sap musical expressiveness and integrity. A typical
example is Idreno’s big Act 2 aria (“La speranza pi˘ soave”). Lawrence Brownlee
sang of amorous joy expressively and introspectively, adding miraculous
roulades and ornaments—all bathed in a lovely tenor timbre. It was a
performance of this difficult aria unsurpassed in modern times. Yet he had to
share the stage with eleven dancers in sparkled exotic costumes striking
Broadway poses, dozens of choristers in burkas shuffling back and forth, and
two black-clad stagehands who rapidly dressed and undressed the ingÈnue
soprano. In the end, to add insult to injury, he was obliged to carry the
soprano off-stage on his back. A relatively discerning audience was so
distracted from the singing that Brownlee received only short and tepid

To see what might have been, we need only consider the immediately preceding
number, a celebrated duet between Semiramide and Arsace in which son and mother
find a fleeting moment of peace and reconciliation even though fate decrees
that he will kill her. I do not know why this is the only place where Alden
abstained, but no extra characters or scenic changes appeared. We simply saw
two nearly motionless characters clutching one another on a large stage,
expressing their deepest longings. Suddenly the theater seemed to shrank and
the music seemed to connect listeners directly to the human essence of the
characters. The audience responded with a stunned moment of silence and then
erupted into the longest ovation of the night.

* * *

At first glance, Opera Delaware’s Semiramide was the least
promising of the three productions I attended. Wilmington is a town of 70,000
struggling with urban renewal and Opera Delaware a modest company. To be sure,
it has made something of a name for itself recently in debuting obscure works:
last year Franco Faccio’s Amleto (Hamlet). Yet it is
presenting only two performances of Semiramide—alternating with La
in a one-week spring festival format. In an operatic world
where fidelity to the score has become a fetish, Opera Delaware boldly (and
quite successfully) cuts almost an hour of music. The singers are not global
opera stars and the orchestra lacks the BMW-quality tonal sheen of the M¸nchen
pit band. The staging is rudimentary: singers in bright costumes stand on
small, abstract unit set (a bit like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise),
lit in changing colors.

Performing one of the grandest of Rossini operas under such conditions seems
quixotic. Yet they are doing things right in Wilmington. In many respects, this
was most consistently satisfying of the three performances I attended. It added
up to far more than the sum of its parts, communicating the intense music drama
at the heart of Semiramide.

A critical factor was the venue. I can think of no place in America I would
rather hear this type of opera than Wilmington’s Grand Opera House. Like its
counterparts in Philadelphia and M¸nchen, this is an ornate 19 th
century auditorium—but half the size and constructed of lovely painted wood.
Glyndebourne and a few other venues show us that about 1200 seats is ideal for
modern performances of 18th and early 19 th century

All of this gives the Grand uniquely intimate acoustics. From the first
orchestral downbeat, astonishingly warm and vivid sound envelopes the listener.
A deep and relatively small orchestral pit with an overhang favors the voices,
which seem far more immediate and resonant than in almost any other house.
Italian diction and subtle textual emphases are so clear that even those
reliant on the supertitles can easily catch the nuances. The fine acoustics are
matched by clear and short sight lines.

Where the Philadelphia singers were vocally mismatched and those in M¸nchen
often overwhelmed by directorial distractions, those in Wilmington—thrown
together on a small, simple stage—convey their emotions to each other and to
the audience as if it were spoken dialogue in the most realistic of modern
dramas. Stylistic distance disappears. Angry or sarcastic characters spit the
musical embellishments at one another. Affectionate ones sinuously meld their
tones. Joyous ones launch exuberant vocal fireworks. This is Rossinian opera as
it was meant to be experienced.

Contributing decisively to the success of the Delaware Semiramide
is also the conducting of the young American Rossini specialist, Anthony
Barrese. He inspires the orchestra, to play with distinctive Rossinian
articulation, phrasing, rhythmic pulse and exuberance—even if it concedes
something to the great opera orchestras in terms of tonal gloss. The opening
night timing of vocal entrances is impeccable—in part, perhaps, because someone
had the good sense to book the same cast to perform the opera (as a concert
performance in Baltimore) twice with piano less than a month ago

Opera Delaware has also assembled a cast of promising young singers, all
about a decade into their careers—each enthusiastic, accomplished, and versed
in bel canto style. Collectively, they demonstrate the remarkable
breath and depth of American opera training.

The first voice one hears is that of Indiana-trained bass Harold Wilson,
active in recent years in Germany and the US. It is so resonant and full that
one is tempted to refocus the entire drama on the high priest. Also impressive
in the cameo role of the Ghost of King Nino was Korean-born, New York-trained
bass Young-bok Kim.

I last heard Aleks Romano ten years ago, when this young Connecticut-born
mezzo was an undergraduate (I assume) singing in the chorus of a Zemlinsky
double bill at Bard College. As Arbace, she demonstrates that ten years of
vocal training at Yale and in young singers’ programs has produced remarkable
agility, evenness of registers and musical insight—as well as expressive
acting. Her performance, and increasingly high-level experience, suggest a
singer headed for the top.

Soprano Lindsay Ohse, trained at the University of Kansas, has sung widely
for US regional companies. Though she can handle the coloratura, her dark mezzo
timbre, balanced against an intermittently metallic top, may portend a future
as a more dramatic soprano, as her scheduled debut as Norma next year suggests.
Tenor Tim Augustin, in the difficult role of Idreno, displayed impressive
interpretive skills and a voice that can be lovely in the middle and top—though
technical difficulties and lower-lying parts of the role sometimes proved
dangerously challenging. Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs, who we already encountered
in the Philadelphia Trancredi, was an audience favorite—not due to
transcendent vocal glamor or precision, but due to enthusiastic integration of
music and drama.

A final participant deserves mention. Whereas spectators in Philadelphia and
M¸nchen were only intermittently and randomly responsive, those in Wilmington
inspires an audience to engage from the first moment. The night I attended,
they displayed an unerring instinct when to break in with enthusiastic cheers,
just as an Italian audience would, yet could be pin-drop silent for long
periods of maximum tension. Opera in Wilmington is, as it was in Rossini’s day,
a communal experience.

I encourage anyone who wants to hear Rossini performed by a polished
ensemble in a uniquely appropriate setting to catch the last Opera Delaware
performance on, a matinee on May 7. The Grand Opera House, so I found out, is a
short stroll (past restaurants and cafÈs) from the Amtrak station, and thus
convenient for anyone on the American Eastern seaboard. Those who long for a
more star-studded experience or are curious about David Alden’s take on
bel canto might try to snag one of the few remaining tickets for the Bayrische
Staatsoper’s festival performances of Semiramide in July (not those in June, featuring a different cast) or Covent Garden’s
November performances in London with DiDonato, Barcellona, Brownlee and others
under Antonio Pappano.

Andrew Moravcsik

image_description=Gioachino Rossini [Photo by …tienne Carjat, 1865, courtesy of Wikipedia]
product_title=Three Rossini Operas Serias
product_by=A review by Andrew Moravcsik
product_id=Above: Gioachino Rossini [Photo by …tienne Carjat, 1865, courtesy of Wikipedia]