by Kyriakos P. Loukakos
With 3 major operatic ventures announced for its 2016 edition, i.e. La donna del Lago, Il Turco in Italia and Ciro in Babilonia, this year’s -the XXXVI- edition of Rossini Opera Festival might be mistaken as transitory. Nevertheless, the one but fizzing new mounting of La Gazzetta, with the reinstatement of a not so recently discovered quintet, coupled with the revival of 2 already classic Pesaro productions, Graham Vick’s superb version of the underestimated Neapolitan farse L’ Inganno Felice and Damiano Michieletto’s vehicle to fame, the 2007 La Gazza Ladra, alongside the customary Il viaggio a Reims with 2 casts by the Accademia Rossiniana, spectacular vocal recitals and major sacred works in superb interpretations, seem to belie such an assumption. On the other hand Alberto Zedda’s decision to retreat from his function as direttore artistico of the Festival, retaining mercifully the direction of the Accademia, as well as the designation of Ernesto Palacio as the heir to the long time Sovrintendente Gianfranco Mariotti seem already to pave the way for an adventurous but not unnecessarily risky development.
As seasoned friends (and there are many and true!) of the Festival already propagate, Palacio’s experience and well known contribution to the Rossini renaissance as well as his lasting capacity as the mentor to the Rossini tenor of our time κατ’ εξοχήν, Juan Diego Flórez, seem favourable omens for the future of this highly regarded institution. An institution which nurtured the charismatic talents of Flórez, produces and exports hoards of stylish singers as ambassadors of Rossini orthodoxy to the world and, at the same time, has led to a model presentation of his operas in up to date critical editions by the equally prestigious Fondazione Rossini and its eminent scholars. As it is lately the case with Wagner and the Bayreuth Festival, the bet for ROF’s future is the mounting of lesser known Rossini operas in lyric theatres all over the world while jealously retaining its status as the ομφαλός of Rossini performing tradition, mainly through well considered and in any case model revivals of his works by inspired and erudite directors, respectful of this ingenious composer’s intentions.
Messa di Gloria (and other gems) in glorious interpretations
Being confined solely to our acquaintance with the more often performed Stabat Mater and the monumental Petite Messe Solennelle, we were in for a pleasant surprise upon our arrival in Pesaro with his juvenile Messa di Gloria and 2 even earlier cantatas in the talented youth’s career, performed at the out of town Adriatic Arena, otherwise a venue reserved to the more demanding operatic productions (Tuesday 17/08/2015, 16.30). In a hall full to its capacity this 1820 Mass received as model a performance as it is likely to enjoy in our day. Despite its bipartite character (Kyrie and Gloria were the only parts set to music by Rossini), it is an obviously ambitious work of nearly an hour’s duration, intended to certify its composer’s ability in sacred music to an especially noble congregation of its first performance headed by no less than His Royal Majesty King Ferdinand IV of the 2 Sicilies himself! Rossini’s success has been amply documented a.o. in a critique of the time movingly copied by his father’s hand and reproduced in the booklet accompanying the concert, as always a discreet model of its kind.
The writing of the work is obviously operatic and it was ably served by a superb cast headed by already mentioned star tenor Juan Diego Flórez, who offered phenomenal singing of fiendishly difficult passages (Gratias, Qui tollis) after a seraphic Christe eleison duet with the second tenor, his talented Peruvian compatriot Dempsey Rivera. Flórez’s voice, at 41, retains its fascinating range having acquired an additional tinge of vocal manliness that further enhances the appeal of the extremely demanding vocal writing. In a part taken in the premiere by the renowned castrato Tarquinio, Bristol – born soprano Jessica Pratt offered a divine Laudamus and contributed celestially to the Domine Deus trio alongside the clear cut mezzo soprano Viktoria Yarovaya and seasoned Pesaro interpreter Mirco Palazzi. He offered a musically rewarding Quoniam, only his very lowest notes seeming to betray his beautiful basso cantante. The Mass commenced and ended by the chorus, and an excellent one it proved to be, the Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna led by its chorus master Andrea Faiduti, together with the local Filarmonica Gioacchino Rossini expertly conducted by Donato Renzetti, well known in loco and elsewhere.
Rossini’s genius, albeit in a germinal phase of its evolution, was detectable also in the very early cantatas that formed the more brief second part of the concert. Whoever combines La Morte de Didone with mature compositions of a roster of composers from Purcell to Berlioz runs the risk of underestimating the feat of its composition, incidentally conceived, rather prophetically, for an important Rossini interpreter-to-be, the soprano Signora Ester Mombelli. With Jessica Pratt as the tragic queen the declamatory power and exigent florid character of the piece were in the safest hands imaginable, making us doubly repentant for missing her last year Pesaro assumption as Zenobia in Aureliano in Palmyra.
Both in this and the following cantata, Il pianto d’ Armonia sulla morte d’ Orfeo, the latter from the pen of a barely 16-year old apprentice, there was a significant part for the chorus as well, commenting and inciting the protagonist accordingly. Hot on the footprints of his predecessor Ernesto Palacio, from whose recording many of us came to know this work in the first place, Juan Diego Flórez offered emotionally motivated singing of tantalizingly assured bravura bringing this extraordinary afternoon concert to a memorable conclusion.
L’ inganno felice – the return of a Cinderella
Tackling the question why this of all five farse that Rossini composed as a young man in Naples, namely the one that established him as the much awaited heir of Domenico Cimarosa, seems to remain the least popular in our time, Emilio Sala, in his illuminating contribution to the ROF accompanying booklet, cunningly points to the fact that L’ inganno felice (1812), not mounted in Pesaro since 1994, is the only one of the five that follows the pattern of the semiserio genre. A genre that, even today, seems to puzzle audiences not only regarding a farsa but also larger scale works like La Gazza Ladra, which also returned to the ROF in this season. In order to state his point that the farsa is mainly linked to brief duration and not necessarily to the comic character or -for the same reason- to the slightness of its plot, Sala invokes no less than Carlo Goldoni, while adding that by Rossini’s time semiserious dramaturgy had become a means to achieve dramatic realism, while the comic element itself was usually absorbed by the lower class characters. In any case, L’ inganno felice seems to be a potted version of an “unjustly wronged wife” thematic, widely popular for centuries in opera, that almost inevitably culminated in a dramatic recognition scene.
Having been unjustly accused of adultery by the courtier Ormondo, just because she resisted his advances, Isabella is repudiated by her husband, Duke Bertrando, who sends her without a hearing to meet her death in the sea. The lady is rescued by the miner Tarabotto, who hosts her for 10 years presenting her as his niece under the name of Nisa. The sudden approach of the Duke and his soldiers brings not only a series of recognitions, but also the revelation of the old and a new conspiracy and its culprits. All this thanks to the lady’s astuteness and Tarabotto’s inventiveness that bring the 1 ½ hour one-acter to its belatedly happy ending.
Even in the face of the late Jean – Pierre Ponnelle’s simply irreplaceable L’ occasione fa il ladro, Graham Vick’s production from the remote past remains unsurprisingly fresh, acute, simple and accurate, respecting the guiding lines of the plot and inducing elements of ever actual social critique, such as children’s labour and exploitation, without pretending any kind of self conscious Regietheater. Scenery and costumes by Richard Hudson conspired with the sensitive lighting by Matthew Richardson to delight the eye, to serve the plot and to let the music make its touching point. And what a music, from the first to the last note of the collective finale setting at last the morals straight.
Even immediately following the star – studded afternoon sacred concert, the cast of the performance (Teatro Rossini, 20.00 hours) held its own remarkably well, commencing with Greek tenor Vassilis Kavayas as the Duke in his first major assignment in ROF, a perhaps too young looking but clear – voiced tenore lirico leggero, with exemplary diction, a stylish sense of singing line and patrician nobility of enunciation. As his discarded wife Mariangela Sicilia had more opportunities to shine in a deeply felt portrayal of Isabella which she served with honest and accomplished singing of remarkable agility. Experienced Carlo Lepore’s Tarabotto was simply a tour de force of idiomatic vocal acting, with Davide Luciano’s Batone equally rewarding in an intriguingly crucial role. Rossini opted for more prominence to this character than to the arch villain Ormondo, in whose orders Batone serves and whom he finally leads to his doom. In this case not to the performance’s detriment, since Giulio Mastrototaro, despite his long experience in Rossinian territory, proved a dry voiced and untidy vocalist. The Orchestra Sinfonica G.Rossini rose to the occasion more than decently thanks to the sympathetic and unobtrusively narrative baton of Russian conductor Denis Vlasenko adding up to a delightful all round performance enthusiastically received by a grateful audience.
La Gazza ladra – ripe and meaningful
It had created furor back in 2007, the revelatory co production of ROF with Arena di Verona for The Thieving Magpie by the then younger and relatively unknown Damiano Michieletto. First because he managed to present an abstract but shrewdly adaptable scenery and foremost because he combined it ingeniously with an imaginative choreography for the eponymous Gazza. This takes the form of an elusive young girl, the Italian – Indian dancer Sandhya Nagaraja, incidentally a survivor of the 2007 production, acting and reacting on her bed throughout the overture till a sheet fallen from heaven seems to liberate her. From this moment onwards she leads a double existence, as the eponymous bird and as an omnipresent albeit unnoticed witness and unconscious motivator of the plot.
And what a plot! If the semiserious genre paved the way to a post – revolutionary dramatic realism, then this opera acquires a new importance through our awareness that the central heroine, the innocent and merry soumding -at least in her cavatina- peasant girl Ninetta, falsely accused of stealing a silver spoon, was in real life subjected to the capital punishment, hugely disproportionate to her alleged crime, alas with her innocence revealed too late to save her. In the 8 years that have elapsed since its first mounting, both the production and the audience seem to have also acquired an extra sensibility to the real issues tackled in this only seemingly peasant frame of action, that is the injustice of judiciary system towards the socially weaker citizens as well as the Fidelio – like autocracy of certain dignitaries, surely actualized during the Restauration period of European history. And besides the fact that Rossini’s amateurish but philosophically motivated librettist Giovanni Gherardini opts for a happy ending, this acquires in the Maestro’s music the traits of a forced conclusion, hasty, hardly believable, even sarcastic. What nevertheless stroke us for the first time during our following of the spectacle at Pesaro’s Adriatic Arena (Wednesday 19/08/2015, 20.00), thanks to the ever helpful surtitles, was the all too obvious in the libretto petit bourgeois meanness of certain characters, especially Lucia’s and her son’s Gianneto, too fast and easily convinced of the maid’s guilt, although both of them, as well as the villain of the plot, the Podestà Goddardo, a Scarpia – like character ante litteram, are conveniently accorded and make suitable use of their chance for repentance towards the end of the play.
All these were thankfully reflected to the rather unsmiling conducting of Donato Renzetti, at least in comparison with the lighter and to many preferable one of his predecessor Lu Jia. Renzetti, besides guiding safely chorus and orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, was determined to emphasize the powerful tragic element of the work, culminating in the marche funebre of Ninetta’s imminent execution, a piece of quasi Mahlerian vehemence, while minimizing the relief offered by the comic situations, surely used in Rossini’s time as a distraction for the censorship’s ever vigilant eye.
Renzetti’s seriousness combined in a revelatory way with the impressive vocal weight of Goddardo as impersonated by the scenically imposing and vocally voluminous Croatian Marco Mimica, a really dangerous character inclined to abuse cruelly his power in order to satisfy his carnal desires. His deep and dark bass, that Pesaro should care to sculpt and nurture accordingly for further use in this voice Fach, was well contrasted not only to Fernando Villabella, Ninetta’s deserter father, vividly sung and enacted to huge public acclaim by a powerful Alex Esposito, incidentally the only other survival from the 2007 series, but also to the seemingly harmless but in reality cowardly weak and constantly inebriated Fabrizio Vingradito of much loved in Pesaro Simone Alberghini. To the assets of the new cast we also enumerate young mezzo Teresa Iervolino as a vocally homogeneous Lucia with a thrilling deep end in her contralto range and the already renowned Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze, who, besides the acquired taste of a certain metallic edge akin to the ex – Soviet school of coloratura singing, proved a charming and strong willed Ninetta, rising superbly to the vocal and dramatic heights of her role. The Operalia Contest winner, American tenor René
Barbera possessed the necessary high notes for the lover Gianneto but failed to shape as credible and secure a scenic and vocal character as the one that Dmitri Korchak had managed to offer back in 2007, then not only thanks to his strikingly boyish good looks but also to the pathetically innate lyrical quality of his singing. Mixed feelings also for mezzo Lena Belkina in the trouser role of Pippo: she seemed nervous and insecure for much of the first act but settled down later for some well rounded although less than characterful singing for this sympathetic character. A succès fou for Rossini then, enhancing our knowledge for one of his indisputable masterpieces that still attends the high order it deserves in the central repertoire of its period.
La Gazzetta – a lost ensemble rediscovered
Sandwiched between Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola, with which it shares its overture, La Gazzetta (Teatro Rossini, Thursday 20/08/2015, 20.00), premiered at the Teatro dei Fiorentini of Naples on September 28, 1816, didn’t achieve the lasting success of either of them, nor of the other comic two – act operas by Rossini that followed. And that despite the amount of work that Rossini invested in it, in close collaboration with his librettist Giuseppe Palomba, not only for the composition of delectable original music but also for the integration of numbers borrowed from earlier works, carefully edited in order to ensure seamless dramatic and musical coherence of the new play.
La Gazzetta was the only new production in this year’s Rossini Opera Festival and a great success not only for a refreshingly witty production by a newcomer to ROF, Marco Carniti, but also for being the first ever scenic presentation that incorporates the relatively recently (2004) unearthed first act quintet, as the 2005 revival of the 2001 production had then failed to include it. And what a marvelously constructed quintet it is, full of Rossinian bewilderment and consecutive eruption of energy, drawing on thematic material from Barbiere’s finale primo, yet evolving with genuine Rossinian originality.
The plot could easily be accommodated to an one – act farce and, as devoid of Goldoni’s subtle social and ethical remarks, it is ultimately too thin for a full length comic opera. It presents two Italian fathers, Don Pomponio and Anselmo, arriving at a fancy hotel in Paris in order to achieve a profitable marriage for their daughters, Lisetta and Doralice respectively. Don Pomponio, turned by Rossini’s librettist to a Neapolitan self important character singing in dialect, chooses to advertise his daughter’s availability in a newspaper. Since the girls have already cast more than a favorable eye on specific young gentlemen of their choice, Lisetta sighing for the well to do Alberto and Doralice for the hotel owner Filippo, a comedy of disguises and misunderstandings is offset, leading to a happy ending for the couples involved and crowned by the reluctant fathers’ blessing as well.
Coming from the realm of dance, director Carniti opted for a totally abstract scenery (signed by Manuela Gasperoni), enriched only by minimal scenic elements, such as the inscription of the hotel’s name. The action makes use of platforms cunningly moved around by dancers – waiters of the hotel as an ever evolving frame for the fashionably dressed and energetically participating singing actors (costumes by Maria Filippi).
Indisputable star of the evening was the sappy Don Pomponio of baritone Nicola Alaimo, a Neapolitan himself, who relished in the dialect verses of his role, mostly indecipherable to non Italian spectators, even with surtitles available. The performance signified also the triumphant return to ROF for the Russian tenor Maxim Mironov, who offered plangent singing of great insolence in the higher register as Alberto coupled with an assured and utterly charming stage presence, bringing the public to vociferous applause after his act 2 aria. After a somewhat nervous start, Armenian soprano Hasmik Torosyan presented an adorably perky Lisetta relying as much on her great beauty as also on her exciting singing of great dash and panache. Raffaela Lupinacci as Doralice and Vito Priante as her Figaro – like scheming lover Filippo proved equally agile and characterful not only in their more sparse solo numbers but also in the allround demanding ensembles. We didn’t care much about the dry voiced Anselmo of Dario Shikhmiri, but we were taken in by Jose Maria Lo Monaco’s rotund sounds as an under – acted Madama La Rose and, unexpectedly, by the well integrated contribution of Ernesto Lama in the mute role of Tommasino, a commedia dell’ arte character as Don Pomponio’s kinsman and alter ego. Vivid conducting by Enrique Mazzola but less than alert initial response in the woodwind section for the overture by the Bolognese orchestra. All in all high production values ensured unalloyed pleasure of the highest calibre and enthusiastic acclamation by the overflowing public of the Teatro Rossini, not a mean feat for everyone involved!
Vocal concerts and serious finale
There is no ROF without special vocal recitals by internationally acclaimed artists, already established or still rising to fame. And the cozy atmosphere of the Auditorium Pedrotti of the Rossini Conservatory provides the ideal surroundings for those events. We sadly missed Chiara Amarù’s recital on August 16th, but we were amply compensated on 2 afternoon (17.00) concerts by soprano Olga Peretyatko (August 19th) and baritone Nicola Alaimo (August 21st), both having already reached the Metropolitan Opera of New York.
Olga Peretyatko ‘s first Rossini solo album has just been issued under the specialist baton of Alberto Zedda who was present at her concert lending further credit to her long term association to the Accademia Rossiniana, a fact only reinforced by her marital commitment to conductor Michele Mariotti, under whose baton she is due to appear in La Donna del Lago at the Met’s following season. The Rossini element though did not prevent her from presenting herself to a capacity audience and in this of all venues with a largely Russian list of confections. Operatic gems, such as Mikhail Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla and Nikolai Rimsky – Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel and Snow Maiden, were happily coupled with popular as well as less well known romances by Sergei Rachmaninov. In all these she displayed the dazzling virtuosity of a healthy and gratefully not excessively acid coloratura, but also the lyrical warmth of a well accorded vocal instrument, as for instance in the Queen of Schemakhan’s exotic hymn to the sun. The quasi obligatory homage to Rossini was thus limited to the final part of the concert, first with Corinna’s act 2 lyrical improvisation in Il viaggio a Reims, the one praising His -last Bourbon- Majesty, King Charles X of France (1824 – 1830) for whose coronation this glorious “cantatone” was originally composed, followed by the well known aria of the eponymous Babylonian Queen in Semiramide, the demandingly florid “Bel raggio lusinghier”. A torrent of encores, among others from Gioacchino Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia and Il Turco in Italia along with Juliet’s act 1 waltz from Charles Gounod’s opera Roméo et Juliette, crowned the well deserved success of this assured coloratura at the height of her youthful powers singing with the provocative vocal smile we so sorely miss since the times of legends of the Erna Berger or Rita Streich calibre. Full marks also for her accompanist, the experienced Giulio Zappa, ever alert to his primadonna wishes.
His own Neapolitan roots formed the introductory section in baritone Nicola Alaimo’s recital given at a more moderately full Auditorium Pedrotti. Overturning and augmenting the order of the printed program, the renowned baritone introduced his outpouring generosity in Pietro Mascagni’s Serenade before tackling such evergreens as Luigi Denza’s Occhi di fata, Stanislao Gastaldon’s Musica proibita (although for that we remain faithful to Mario Del Monaco’s inimitably tenorial despair) and Sir Francesco Paolo Tosti’s L’ alba separa dalla luce l’ ombra. With only a few hours relaxation after his demanding impersonation in the previous day’s La Gazzetta, Alaimo’s voice seemed a bit tired and constricted especially in the heavier Verdi items of the operatic fare such as Iago’s Credo in Otello, less so in Falstaff’s honor monologue, evidently thanks to his stage experience in the part. For our taste though and despite his impressive stage presence and theatrical handling of the text, we would urge him not to hurry towards heavier roles and linger in cavalier baritone ones, like in Bellini’s I Puritani and Donizetti’s Poliuto, that do not endanger the balsamic smoothness of his organ. Such safety is also guaranteed in French roles, represented in his recital by his already acclaimed and moving Guillaume Tell by Rossini and Sancho Pancha’s preaching in favor of Don Quichotte in Massenet’s homonymous late masterpiece. With such a vocal affluence and personal charisma the public proved implacable in its demands for encores. The artist responded with a self accompanied Neapolitan melody, which also presented him as an accomplished pianist, who offered more colorful playing than the rather phlegmatic one of his otherwise experienced partner, Richard Barker, and the feast continued with, among others, the well loved Marecchiare and ended with Figaro’s rather obligatory cavatina in a performance of splendid panache.
For the last all – Rossini event of the Festival, relayed directly on a giant screen of Pesaro’s Piazza del Popolo, conductor Michele Mariotti chose highlights from Guillaume Tell’s ballet music, including choral contributions, as an appetizer for Stabat Mater, works that the still young maestro considers highly and serves in a most devoted way. The fact that the latter did not attain the revelatory heights of Tell’s most recent ROF production may reflect the stylistic diversity of this sacred work’s parts, a fact that even Alberto Zedda’s fervent editorial advocacy does not quite manage to transform to a virtue out of necessity. There was a well integrated vocal quartet (Yolanda Auyanet, Anna Goryachova, René Barbera, Nicola Ulivieri) supported by solid singing on the part of the Bologna Comunale’ choir, though the playing of the distinguished theatre’s orchestra did not uniformly rise to the highest of expectations. In any case we were moved by a performance of noteworthy expressive and emotional power, gloriously affirmative of a genuine religious feeling in this most jovial of Italy’s 19th century operatic composers.
 Music and Lyric Theatre critic Kyriakos Loukakos is considered to be a leading vocal connoisseur in Greece. He is an attorney at law and a Dr. Juris of the Cologne University. In 1991 he joined the Greek Ministry of Home Affairs as a member of its Strategic Policy Unit and, as of 1998, he is a senior investigator at the Quality of Life Department of the Greek Ombudsman’s Office. But music has been his lifelong passion, leading to the formation of his own extensive archive of records and privately recorded performances on several kinds of sound carriers. Therefore, from 1994 to 2010 he has commented and presented almost every opera feature for Greek Radio 3, including innumerable EBU direct relays and deferred transmissions, as well as contributing an extensive series of vocal artists’ and conductors’ portrayals. In 1997, commemorating the 20th anniversary of her passing, he presented a 28- hour step-by-step biographical radio homage to Maria Callas and the total output of her recorded roles, for the first time as a whole in radio chronicles. He also reported for the ERT WORLD TV cultural program “9+1 Muses”. Since 1997 he is the music critic of the Sunday edition of the Athens daily journal “I AVGI”. He has provided texts for practically every major musical institution of his country (Athens Megaron Concert Hall, Athens Festival, Thessalonica Megaron Concert Hall, Greek Parliament Foundation, Athenaeum International Cultural Center, European Cultural Centre of Delphi, etc.) as well as serious cultural magazines (Peritechno, Odos Panos, To dendro, Classical Music, as well as and for the bimonthly periodical ILIAIA). He further supervised a CD-set edition of 7 complete operas in rare archival recordings featuring distinguished soprano Vasso Papantoniou. In 2011 he managed extensive bilingual texts and overall supervision to a lavish 4-cd set, issued by “The Friends of Music Society” of the Athens Megaron Concert Hall and devoted to hitherto unpublished recordings from the archive of the late (mezzo) soprano Arda Mandikian, a close collaborator of Benjamin Britten and Sir Peter Pears and the Dido in both the first ever complete performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, in Oxford (1950), and the subsequent first complete recording of its second part, Les Troyens a Carthage, under the baton of Hermann Scherchen. The set was favorably reviewed by such prestigious international periodicals as International Record Review, Opera magazine, The Record Collector and Classical Recordings Quarterly and was accorded the 2012 “Gina Bachauer International Foundation” Record Prize. Since 2011 Dr. Loukakos has further reported regularly, in Greek and in English, for the e-magazine for drama, dance and music critique www.critics-point.gr, an activity he now refreshes through his new e-magazine address www.criticscorner.gr .
As of January 2018 he is Honorary President of the Greek Drama and Music Critics Association, a Union established in 1928 and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics, operating under the auspices of UNESCO, whose Executive Committee he duly presided for 4 consecutive terms (2005 – 2018). Since 2013 he is Secretary General of the “Maria Callas Scholarships Society” and, in 2015, he enrolled as a Member of the “Citizens Movement for an Open Society” and of the “Athens Conservatory” Society.