Eccoci (anco una volta) a Pesaro!


A (p)review of Rossini Opera Festival 2021 new productions

by Dr. Kyriakos P. Loukakos, hon. president of the Hellenic Drama and Music Critics Union (est.1928)

Foreword to a foreword      


Pier Luigi Pizzi al lavoro – ROF 2021

With the shocking pandemic pause having overturned the global order of performing and festival events, 2021 encapsulated renewed prospect of restauration, alas partly deluded owing to the virus -vide Nature’s- inventiveness. The Athens Festival completed its cautious circle in a sadly uneventful way and the Bayreuth Festival was revived but, altogether, only for a 50 % capacity audience in the Festspielhaus and without extending invitations to (all?) long standing reviewers from abroad. In this respect, the Rossini Opera Festival showed an interesting and hopefully rewarding flexibility regarding the indispensable international coverage of its long established and respected activity. Then, everybody populating its local «Jerusalem» realizes that, even after more than 40 unbelievably fertile years, ROF is likely to remain a primarily internationally orientated institution that depends largely to a worldwide congregation of thankfully augmenting seekers and believers. And that despite its evident contribution to the local cultural enrichment, including the progress of the Rossini Philharmonic Orchestra and the world wide renommée of the Accademia Rossiniana «Alberto Zedda», having provided more than a generation of exceptional vocalists and increasingly contributing to the formation of well-schooled greats of the future.

      So, what ROF did was to strike a bold and genial via media between striving to salvage the -albeit limited- income of its half empty theatres while not alienating international journalists and reviewers from the equally desirable propagation of its admirable activities. It will be not easy to convince certain colleagues that reviewing officially a general rehearsal conforms to the profession’s ethics. Nor to appease certain artists for forcefully overlooking rules of restraint, generally applying to anteprimas, in the awareness of performing in front of an exclusively professional public, and at the same time, of having to forsake the chance to be more fairly evaluated for an official performance. As for us, we sorely missed the vocal concerts, the «Il Viaggio a Reims» student performances and more so our compatriot conductor’s George Petrou tantalizingly interesting ROF debut. BUT, even considering those limitations, unfathomable in days of normality and hopefully manageable in good faith and mutual understanding, this insightful measure stresses the common noble goal of keeping the torch ablaze and, in this respect, we gratefully welcome it on the part of the festival’s direction.

Pier Luigi Pizzi at work – photo by courtesy of ROF

 Anyway, according to an ancient Greek maxim, widely used in its original form to our day, «οὐδὲν κακὸν ἀμιγὲς καλοῦ»! In this respect and thanks to a collective reassessment of priorities, we gratefully acknowledge the return of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI to the Festival, not only for staged performances but also for the final Gala honoring a quarter of a century of collaboration of Juan Diego Flórez with ROF, incidentally instrumental to his catapulting to stardom, a concert which alas we did not attend from a seat at Pesaro’s central Piazza del Popolo, but which was thankfully streamed in a direct relay. The Orchestra’s announced departure, shortly before the pandemic, had grieved us. Anyway, the first ever visit of an Italian President, His Excellency Sergio Mattarella, to the ROF and to this specific concluding event will contribute to deter from such unwise decisions.

       On the other hand, promenading in a moderately populated Pesaro, just before the festival, not only revealed hidden aspects of this adorable cultural summer resort, but also enthralled us by the decoration of a Teatro Rossini side way with the composer’s signature (in deep red) preceding a series of equally luminous air panels, each of which bore the title of one of his operas, forming an extensive arc of triumph for this most illustrious child of the city. A warm applause to all that envisaged, worked and delivered!


Moïse et Pharaon


Moise et Pharaon – Roberto Tagliavini as Moise [ROF 2021]

ROF ‘s programming proved on stage much more enterprising and effective than it looked on paper, at least on its first night, featuring the monumental «Moïse et Pharaon» (1827), an extended and extensive adaptation of Rossini’s juvenile «Mosè in Egitto» (1818), furthermore on a new libretto, by Luigi Balochi and Étienne de Jouy, and with a long ballet music to suit the Paris public. The extent of Rossini’s success to establish himself as the many-handed pillar of the French capital’s operatic life was also reflected to our own good time through an evening almost 4-hour-long! To many of us the attendance of this performance consolidated on hand of our own experience the historically attested huge influence of Rossini on French grand opéra. Irrespective of expected longueurs, even regarding the ballet music, one was increasingly startled by the melodic freshness as well as the formal and structural inventiveness of the proceedings.


Moise et Pharaon – Matteo Roma as the Egyptian high priest Aufide with the four movement mimes-Nicolò-Donini

This was also due to the all-round high quality of Pier Luigi Pizzi’s splendid production, its innovative but far from insulting concept and its aesthetically impeccable realization, a triumph for this doyen among opera directors and his inspired perception of the parola scenica come scritta. The discreetly meaningful, economical and practical scenery was movingly enhanced by an equally limited, yet imposing when needed, use of the necessary visual effects, splendidly supported by colorful and original costumes as well as a model and demanding choreography by his longtime associate, the Romanian born Gheorghe Iancu, a former partner on stage of no less than the late and globally lamented Carla Fracci.  A further revelation of the spectacle was the young shooting star of Italian ballet, the Neapolitan Gioacchino Starace, a prospective heir of Roberto Bolle, from one of whose TV shows he emerged!


Moise et Pharaon – Giacomo Sagripanti in prova per Moïse et Pharaon insieme ai cantanti, i mimi, il coro e il regista Pier Luigi Pizzi

Like many of its genre that followed, «Moïse et Pharaon» calls for an exceptional cast of singers and, in this respect and isolated past comparisons notwithstanding, ROF provided much of the current international cream in this repertoire. Roberto Tagliavini is not a particularly low bass but cut a warm toned, mellow yet imposing figure as the eponymous Jewish leader, in welcome contrast with the more generalized scenic vanity and the largely

Moise et Pharaon – Maria Celeste Losa and Gloacchino Starace, solo dancers, with white clad boy in final dance sequence image

insensitive text articulation of the Egyptian King, the ever-imposing Uruguayan bass Erwin Schrott.  Although he gradually acquired confidence, tenor Andrew Owens as crown prince Aménophis (a role modelled on the legendary Adolphe Nourrit) yielded to the vocal supremacy of Russian

tenor Alexey Tatarintsev who proved an indomitable Éliézer. No excuses needed though for the female protagonists. The supreme confidence and the rare power of singing more than made up for the yet limited acting of fast emerging mezzo soprano Vasilisa Berzhanskaya’s imperious Queen Sinaïde. Her regal portrayal differentiated her well from the more lyrically imbued writing for the Jewish maiden Anaï, fluently and sensitively sung by Eleonora Buratto. Her voice blended memorably with the experienced mezzo’s Monica Bacelli as her ageing mother Marie, a vignette of noble authority. Giacomo Sagripanti led an ever-alert performance, visibly meticulous in detail that also enabled the Coro del Teatro Ventidio Basso (leader: Giovanni Farina) to raise to this memorable occasion.

Early efforts in comedy and drama


Il Signor Bruschino-Jack-Swanson-Marina-Monzo-photo by courtesy of ROF

Anybody who was first acquainted with Rossini via the historical record of his overtures conducted by Arturo Toscanini sensed that the somewhat halfhearted reading of the «Il Signor Bruschino» one, by the Filarmonica Gioachino Rossini under the baton of the 28-year-old Michele Spotti, was not promising the whole story of this delightful score. Intrigue around its first performance has been reported to have aimed to a decided flop due either to a presumably faulty libretto or to music intended by the young composer to be a mockery, but Rossini’s early farsa giocosa decidedly belies any such liability. Hosted at the Teatro Rossini on the second day of our attendance, it formed a welcome and formally convenient comic interlude framed by the big dramas revived at the well-organized Vitrifrigo Arena. Measures for the pandemic led to the placement of the orchestra in the main ground floor of the theatre, devoid of seats, with spectators limited to the balconies, an instance unfortunately overlooked by the Barbe & Doucet production team, who, as in the case of Pizzi the evening before, were also responsible for scenery and costumes. Their scenery, rather akin to Puccini’s «Il Tabarro», depicted a modest boat docked at the left side of the stage, thus offering limited visibility to half of the public.


Il Signor Bruschino ROF anteprima 7.08.2021

It is true that Rossini’s flair won us over in no time, but the staid conducting prevented the performance from taking off to the frenetic exhilaration that the best of its kind offer at a really memorable evening. And that in spite of the presence, in the title role, of such a seasoned Rossinian as baritone Pietro Spagnoli, who offered a performance of splendid accuracy and wit, making the most even of such repeated gags of the character as his dry humored comment on the warm weather. And, in this respect, he had a fine counterpart in Giorgio Caoduro’s exuberant Gaudenzio. The young lovers of the play were assigned to equally young singers, the sharp witted (but occasionally acidulous) Spanish soprano Marina Monzó as Sofia and a fresh voiced American newcomer, the Minnesota born Jack Swanson as Florville. A fine supporting cast contributed to an enjoyable evening.

     Well known to ROF and elsewhere for his interesting and often colorful productions, Davide Livermore was entrusted with one of Rossini’s earliest attempts to produce a dramma per musica. «Elisabetta, Regina d’ Inghilterra», first presented in 1815, was not free from trouble for the young newcomer to Naples, as its first performance coincided with the interim vacuum and the first days of reinstatement of the Bourbon Royal family to the throne of Two Sicilies. The opera presents a free version of ageing Queen Elisabeth’s amorous involvement with the young and handsome Count of Essex but its conclusion deviates from the historical fact of the Count’s execution as presented in Donizetti’s later «Roberto Devereux». Exhausting the boundaries of poetic allowance, librettist Giovanni Schmidt’s lieto fine finds the hero a Grandee and Protector of the Queen’s Crown!

     While aesthetically of a highly polished standard (thanks to the scenery by Giò Forma, costumes by Gianluca Falaschi, lighting by Nicolas

Elisabetta – Sergei Romanovsky as a virile Conte di Leicester in Rossini’s Elisabetta [ROF 2021]

Bovey and video design by D-Wok), Livermore’s production committed a capital error by transplanting the 16th century drama of the notoriously autocratic virgin Queen to the 21st century domestic situations of Her Majesty Queen Elisabeth II, an option tastelessly divergent from the original plot and its dreary atmosphere.

As for the music, ROF presented the work in an absolutely full and painstakingly critical edition, edited by Vincenzo Borghetti, in collaboration of the Fondazione Rossini with Casa Ricordi, including recitative passages that, especially in act 1, did not contribute to the work’s sense of continuity. The opera has occasionally been revived after the 1960s with recordings which document the title role as interpreted by divas of Leyla Gencer and Montserrat Caballé ‘s calibre. The latter was caught in her prime in a Philips set of 1976 featuring also the thrillingly youthful Leicester of José Carreras and the sweet voiced Ugo Benelli as his secret opponent Norfolc. A later 2002 Opera Rara lavish set has yet to come our way but is reported to have offered musical completeness but singing of lesser individuality. As in the case of the new ROF production, it boasted a mezzo soprano in the eponymous Collbran role, the distinguished American Rossinian Jennifer Larmore. Her Canadian colleague Karine Deshayes, who starred the ROF performances, may not be a novice to Rossini, but tackling this demanding soprano role at such an advanced stage of an altogether respectable international career did not prove wise, at least on the account of the dress rehearsal we witnessed. The voice seemed dry, shallow and unsupported in the high register to a considerable detriment of the role’s appeal.  In this respect she offered neither Gencer’s regal command nor Caballé ‘s hypnotic belcanto feat. When not forcing though, as in the dreamy brief duet with her rival Matilde, in this play Mary Stewart’s descendant and secretly espoused to Leicester, her well known musicality came to the fore. Salome Jicia’s Matilde didn’t face such problems and offered sound, though not exceptional singing.

It was the men that won us over! Sergey Romanovsky is a great asset for ROF and his handsome, virile singing and clear cut, heroic acting attained star quality. His dark timbre made for a welcome contrast with Barry Banks’s sleezy character and high voiced tenor. After some initial nervousness the experienced British belcantist offered real and welcome challenge to his Russian colleague. Under the baton of Turin born Evelino Pidò making his surprisingly belated debut in Pesaro, the performance took off in the second act but its success did not really overcome the central heroine’s vocal misplacement. Rarely as it happens with ROF airings, we will continue to go back to the above-mentioned recordings that, in spite of their age, convince us more readily of young Rossini’s early maturity.