By Dr. Kyriakos P. Loukakos, Hon. President, Greek Drama and Music Critics’ Union (est.1928)
The announcement of Olivier Descotes as the new general manager of the Rossini Opera Festival completed the succession in Pesaro, that had led to Ernesto Palacio’s appointment as Sovrintendente of the Festival, Gianfranco Mariotti’ s heir. Besides introducing already a new glamour to the social part of this midsummer event, the cosmopolitan Frenchman is likely to explore possibilities of forging some kind of follow up to his time in Athens, hopefully in collaboration with authorities of the Greek operatic establishment.
Angela Meade wants to be a Primadonna!
Our sojourn by the Adriatic sea opened officially on August 17, with an afternoon recital of soprano Angela Meade, a Metropolitan Opera stalwart not only in heavy Verdi repertoire but also as the eponymous Queen in the Met’s latest production of Rossini’s «Semiramide». She opened her program at the Teatro Rossini with an honestly sung, stylish and straightforward rendition of «Casta Diva» from Vincenzo Bellini’s «Norma». Her somewhat piercing tone in this modest sized ambience impeded unequivocal applause, as more limpid sounds and a wealthier vocal palette seem indispensable in this of all music. The Bellini chapter of the recital was completed with the thematically linked to «Norma» «Vaga Luna», an arietta bringing to evidence the artist’s sensitive phrasing and clear diction.
Meade belongs to the league of artists who pay the price of their big voice and the demanding roles they serve, with a limited ability to excel in the more intimate and discreet world of the Lied. In this respect Mme Meade was wise enough to proceed with less familiar items (4 mélodies and an air) from the feather of the still underrated Giacomo Meyerbeer. Not only these provided substantial opportunities for Giulio Zappa to shine, her excellent partner at the piano, but also the songs, written in unashamedly grand operatic manner, proved full of revolutionary impetus (Le voeu pendant l’ orage) and rhythmic vigour (La fille de l’ air), indeed like bleeding chunks from some imaginary grand opéra in which the composer excelled. Only the last of the four (Sicilienne) provided opportunities for soft singing with sudden or gradual piani crowning the soprano’s achievement. And indeed they paved fitfully the way for Isabelle’s aria from the composer’s 5-act «Robert le diable» (1831). Hers was a tremendous all round interpretation that justly earned her thunderous applause, crying out for a revival of the opera especially for her by some enterprising theatre.
An Arabesque (op.20) by Robert Schumann found Zappa producing delicate sounds that paved the way, in their last measures, for the second entrance of the Primadonna. Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s « Glück Das Mir Verblieb » from his best known opera «Die tote Stadt» forms, according to the late Marcel Prawy, the last big melody in operatic history and has remained a favorite ever since the opera’s premiere, irrespective of its subsequent neglect for decades. Meade’s reading failed to take off, owing mainly to a deliberately slow tempo, which further exposed the missing voluptuousness of her voice. The final bunch of Richard Strauss Lieder provided further evidence of the soprano’s operatic approach, making heavy weather for instance of the delightful « Ständchen », crying out for a lightness of touch and a smile in the voice, or of an equally pompous final «Zueignung», essentially lacking in Straussian ecstasy.
Nevertheless, enthusiastic applause rewarded the Diva’s hors programme stylish, full blooded and spontaneous readings of the act 1 arias «Io son l’umile ancella» from Francesco Cilea’s «Adriana Lecouvreur» and « Ebben? Ne andrò lontana » from Alfredo Catalani’s «La Wally». The third and last encore lightened the mood and offered an autobiographical reference to the soprano’s American identity. The humorous «I want to be a Primadonna» may mark an already fulfilled wish for this special artist, but it widened also our awareness of American music we still seem to ignore in this part of the Atlantic. The official title of this little gem is «Art is calling for me» and it derives from the 1911 Broadway comic opera «The Enchantress» by Victor Herbert. Sung with such ingenious flair, it brought the concert to an enchanting conclusion, with an overlong held final note that deservedly brought this venerable theatre literally down.
Uncut Semiramide of Wagnerian proportions
Less than 2 hours later, we were seated in the Arena formerly known as Adriatic and recently renamed as Vitrifrigo for what is not only the lengthiest opera by Gioacchino Rossini, but also among very few of similar proportions in the whole operatic repertoire. «Semiramide», a melodramma tragico by Gaetano Rossi, comprises a first act, lasting 140 minutes (only «Götterdämmerung»’s joint Prologue and Act 1 and «Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg»’s Act 3, both by Richard Wagner challenge these temporal proportions!), and an act 2, lasting another 120 minutes. The above durations, attained by the late Alberto Zedda and Philip Gossett in their latest critical edition of the opera for the Fondazione Rossini, were respectfully safeguarded in this new production, leaving no one in doubt of missing not even a note of Rossini’s uniquely ambitious composition. Whether one should be so adamant regarding an ageing public’s endurance remains to be pondered, especially taking into account the fact that the Wagnerian colossi, as presented at the Bayreuth Festival, in many -but not all- respects Pesaro’s counterpart, impose hour long intervals between acts, for attendants to relax, absorb and refresh before the next demanding instalment. In this respect, the brief interval between the huge acts of «Semiramide» was clearly insufficient and we tend to suppose that, in view of the performance’s excellence, the lukewarm applause for the artists, at the end of a long evening, had less to do with their considerable achievement and more with the physical exhaustion of the otherwise grateful recipients of their labour.
Not that Graham Vick’s new production for the Rossini Opera Festival and the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels, attained the charismatic level of his «Guillaume Tell» achievement. The action was transposed to a capitalist dynastic milieu, contrasting with the shaman like primeval clergy and Indian prince’s Idreno exotism. A huge pair of eyes dominated the proceedings, alternating with the black and white photo of an eyeless murdered king Nino recognised by many as Alberto Zedda himself, a nice latent homage to his 90th birthday anniversary. This somewhat incoherent frame of action (both scenery and costumes by Stuart Nunn) were meant to focus the interest to the péché originaire of a latent past that dictates actions, behaviours and outcome of the drama. A simple bed to the right of the stage was there during the lengthy overture and remained there hosting traumatic experiences of the bloody incident nested in little Ninias’s soul, represented by his equally blood stained teddy bear. This remarkable symbolism attained nevertheless a crude and involuntarily comic dimension as a huge copy of the emblematic plaything overwhelmed the stage. To the assets of the production was a firm and meaningful Personenregie. Less successful though, in spite of her indisputable stage allure, was the choice to present Arsace, the intermittently grown up Ninias, not en travestie, as prescribed in the play, but as a woman, misleading first time viewers to the erroneous conclusion that Semiramide’s advances were not only unknowingly incestuous but also openly lesbian!
The musical part fared better as it was superbly presided by Michele Mariotti conducting the mostly superb Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai. Together they illuminated many details in Rossini’s deft writing for the orchestra and received, ever since the enthusiastically acclaimed overture, the biggest share of ovation. Furthermore, he supported his singers with a meticulous and savant care for clear articulation, phrasing and colouring of their text and music. Salome Jicia’s eponymous Queen was sung with full tone throughout the demanding vocal range of the role, with only some very exposed notes found wanting in substance. She matched ideally with Varduhi Abrahamian’s alternately heroic and tender Arsace, an all round indomitable portrayal to be reckoned with and an indisputable favourite of the public. Although the possessor of a less imposing voice than his ROF predecessors Samuel Ramey and Ildar Abdrazakov, young bass Nahuel di Pierro rose to the challenge of Assur’s role by means of remarkable musicality and a believably urgent stage presence, less the villain of the plot and more a victim of his own manipulation by the Queen, due to his far from subdued ardour for her. Stepping in as priest Oroe, bass Carlo Cigni proved a welcome, phonogenous addition to the cast. A meanwhile veteran in Pesaro, tenor Antonino Siragusa impressed once more with his ringing top notes for the demanding arias of Prince Idreno, but the uncut version of his music exposed even more the comparatively insufficient evolution of Princess Azema’s character (the visually enchanting soprano Martiniana Antonie), much referred to but actually with very little to act and sing. Full marks also for the imposing young Russian bass Sergey Artamonov as Nino’s Shadow, baritone Alessandro Luciano as a luxury casting for the secondary role of Mitrane and the lively Coro del Teatro Ventidio Basso led by Giovanni Farina.
Sins of youth
Transferring from the somewhat inconvenient Vitrifrigo Arena to the central Teatro Rossini and from a ripe masterpiece, as «Semiramide» nowadays tends to be regarded, to the first operatic venture of a barely adolescent Rossini was a nice turn in our Pesaro sojourn. For one and to appease prospective newcomers to this delightful early attempt to a dramma serio, «Demetrio e Polibio» is no homoerotic love story. This early commission to the 15 year old maestrino by the renowned tenor of the time Domenico Mombelli for his family opera company, on a libretto by his wife Vinzenza Mombelli, née Viganò , goes back to the Seleucid Hellenistic kingdom. It is the story of the persecuted prince Siveno (a contralto role), son of King Demetrius II «Victorious» (in Greek «Νικάτωρ», 146-139 and 129-125 b.C., a tenor), entrusted to and raised fondly by King Polybio (bass), seeked as an adult by his real father and in love with Polibio’s daughter princess Lisinga (soprano). There is a happy ending formed by a recognition scene that leads to universal love and friendship.
The opera was presented in a new airing (Alessandra Premoli) of the 2010 ROF production signed by Davide Livermore, who places the action to a ghastly backstage theatre ambience, after a performance, with the four characters performing fire magic, coupled to well directed shadows and with mirrors enhancing the sparse action. Musically the work was entrusted to the experienced Paolo Arrivabeni conducting the semi – professional Coro del Teatro della Fortuna M. Agostini and a greatly improving (thanks to maestro Donato Renzetti’s efforts) Filarmonica Gioacchino Rossini. As for the soloists, we enjoyed greatly all four of them, presided by the exceptional Australian Belcanto mistress Jessica Pratt who seemed to relish in the demands of her taxing part possessing every secret of this repertory. She combined exquisitely with the young, charming and promising contralto Cecilia Molinari, who provided smooth and well schooled singing, befitting Rossini’s birthplace. Tenor Juan Francisco Gatell as Demetrio, an internationally renowned belcantist, belied credibly on stage his amazingly youthful looks and excelled in clear and styling singing of ringing quality, well matched by young bass Riccardo Fassi as Polibio.
For the following evening we were again on our tedious way to the Vitrifrigo Arena for «L’ Equivoco Stravagante», an enchanting dramma giocoso by young Rossini on a libretto by the Bolognese statesmann Gaetano Gasbarri, extremely contested in its time but genuinely post modern in contemporary terms of perception, that had led to an unsuccessful premiere (Bologna, Teatro del Corso, 26/10/1811) and ultimately to the withdrawal of the work altogether, after its 3rd performance. The story centres around Ernestina (powerful yet smooth contralto Teresa Iervolino), a wishful literate of comically inadequate education, torn between Ermanno (the clear voiced tenor Pavel Kolgatin, a young singer of considerable promise), in love with her, whose feelings, in her confusingly amusing way, she reciprocates, and wealthy boorish Buralicchio (delightfully vivid and robust baritone Davide Luciano), whom her nouveau riche father, Gamberotto (Paolo Bordogna in the full maturity of his basso buffo career) intends as her bridegroom. The story culminates as the pair of servants Rosalia (soprano Claudia Muschio) and Frontino (tenor Manuel Amati) misinform Buralicchio about Ernestina’s supposedly fake identity as … a castrated son of Gamberotto, dressed up as a woman and deserter of the army!
The frantic atmosphere of the work is full of character and the music is blessed with Rossini’s originality of invention, present already in a highly sophisticated overture. The spirited production by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, with imaginative and stylish scenery by Christian Fenouillat, as well as tactfully retouched epoch costumes by Agostino Cavalca was further stimulated by the vivid and refined baton of Carlo Rizzi conducting Coro del Teatro Ventidio Basso, led by Giovanni Farina, and the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai, sadly with its contract with ROF expiring this season.
Memorable Concerto Lirico Sinfonico…
What for many of us was intended as a feast of all-Rossini Belcanto, that is the combination of Jessica Pratt with Varduhi Abrahamian, at the Concerto Lirico-Sinfonico of Monday August 19th, at the Teatro Rossini, ended as a delightful confirmation of promise. Mme Abrahamian was announced indisposed and was thankfully substituted by Cecilia Molinari, the previous evening’s young and euphonious Lisinga at the same venue. The concert was introduced with the overture to «L’ Italiana in Algeri», a spirited reading in the best tradition of the light touch interpretations of the (post-) Abbado era by the Orchestra Sinfonica G.Rossini tastefully conducted by Carlo Tenan. Visually dashing in her purple red gown, Molinari impressed further with her noble and articulate enunciation of the recitative preceding the eponymous hero’s cavatina from «Tancredi», which gave ample opportunity to introduce a warm projection of tone in the room coupled with remarkrable fluency and accuracy in coloratura. Her decent comic side was revealed later on in the program with the lesson scene from act 2 of «Il Barbiere di Siviglia». Jessica Pratt introduced herself with an extreme rarity, a fiendishly difficult aria of the eponymous heroine from «Adelaide di Borgogna». As also in the Rondo and Finale secondo from the comparably rare «Mathilde di Shabran», that was to follow later on, Pratt amazed with her vocal feats, encompassing with scandalous ease inhuman fireworks without sacrifice of line and most important a -vocal as well as visual- smile. Her high notes, floating piani, impeccable runs and trills combined sane vigour with scintillating clarity of music and words. The two artists interacted fondly on stage and combined most musically in delectable duets from «Zelmira» and «Tancredi», as well as in their «Demetrio e Polibio» encounter, a virtual echo of their common triumph in the previous evening’s performance.
… and a glamorous 40th anniversary Gala!
The curtain of the 40th ROF went officially down with a final celebratory concert at the Vitrifrigo Arena (August 22), which for once deserved its Gala designation. It was a real reunion of world quality Belcanto established stars as well as definitely rising ones. Indisposition of tenor Sergey Romanovsky required dropping Pirro’s aria from «Ermione» as well as his substitution by Ruzil Gatin (a young singer of extraordinary vocal presence and brightness of tone) in Chevalier Belfiore’s duet with Anna Goryachova’s Marchesa Melibea from «Il Viaggio a Reims». On the other hand, Mirco Palazzi’s withdrawal (he was substituted by the sonorous Carlo Cigni) meant no further changes to a program summarizing the Rossini comico in its first part and the Rossini serio after the interval.
With Carlo Rizzi presiding over the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI and in direct relay via giant screen at Pesaro’s central Piazza del Popolo, the scintillating overture was followed by 3 arias from the Maestro’s most indisputable masterpiece, «Il Barbiere di Siviglia». ROF veteran Franco Vassallo in Figaro’s cavatina was succeeded by the idiomatic Paolo Bordogna as Don Bartolo of iconic yet measured character, while tenor Lawrence Brownlee defended the often omitted 2nd act big scene with tonal evenness and breathtaking coloratura technique. American star contributed also to the finale primo from «L’ Italiana in Algeri» that brought the first part of the concert to its exhilarating conclusion and introduced us, among others, to our first direct confrontation with the big, full and round sound of Michele Pertusi as Mustafa, a stalwart among Italian basses of our time. Earlier, the imposing Nicola Alaimo had brought the house down with a zestful reading of Don Magnifico’s 2nd act aria, fizzing with excitement, intense word pointing and Rossinian fluency.
What Brownlee misses, that is a metallic element in the voice, is a Juan Diego Flórez trademark, leaving the Brownlee-ists and the Flórez-istas in constant dispute. A dispute that, by the way, enhances respectability of ROF that manages to host these and other great artists at the same composite event, a real Sängerkrieg, to quote Wagner, if ever there was one! Bright toned Flórez excelled in an intoxicating performance of Prince Ramiro’s aria from «La Cenerentola», inspiring the Coro del Teatro Egidio Basso in their exchanges. In the 2nd part of the concert, after a dramatic Gran Scena from «Ermione», fearlessly executed by Angela Meade in the title role, Peruvian star tenor returned as Arnold for an extensive selection of highlights from Rossini’s operatic swansong «Guillaume Tell», a real odyssey of high notes and innumerable other, more discreet Belcanto delicacies. The opera’s visionary finale brought somewhat abruptly the official conclusion of the event, but nothing could stand in the way of a general feeling of excellence that prevailed…