(Swans - October 22, 2012) The most amusing moment in the Santa Fe Opera (SFO) production of Rossini's Maometto II (1820) during their 2012 season on August 2 came when the chorus warned the heroine that only flight could save her from the approaching (metaphorical) storm. The opera's audience, thanks to the SFO's long-established admirable technical system of having the text of the libretto's action flashing in front of the observer in the back of a wooden brace in front of him, actually laughed out loud. Why? Because right in front of their eyes through the open-to-the air construction of the opera house they could see nature putting on a show of its own: a visual show of spectacular lightning bolts, a percussion section of rolling thunder, and a sidewise rain whose intermittent showering helped alleviate, if only temporarily, Santa Fe's semi-permanent drought. The storm was not only approaching, it was already here! And through the balcony seats where I was sitting there blew the most refreshing rain-touched breeze which helped bring to its end the typical Santa Fe scorching day we had all just lived through. I saw several balcony patrons take the chorus' advice and rush by me to the exits, though where they would find a better shelter than the opera house itself I couldn't figure out. Very nice of the SFO's directors and managers to enlist the natural elements to reinforce the impact of the opera's story.
The opera itself was certainly stormy enough. In it the warrior leader of the invading Turks, Maometto II, is setting siege to a Venetian fortification on the eastern Greek island of Negroponte. It soon turns out that M II and Anna, the daughter of the Venetian defending general Erisso, once had a past romantic encounter when M II, sent out by his Turkish father as a spy in those Greek islands, disguised himself as a certain "Huberto" with whom Anna fell in love, and Huberto with Anna. Imagine Anna's surprise when Huberto shows up on her invaded doorstep in his true incarnation as the aspiring conqueror of the Venetians, her own society, relatives, friends, and loved ones. Anna's ultimate rejection of M II's suit and her defense of her own people even by way of her own suicide form the story of this very serious and dramatic opera by Rossini.
Serious opera by Rossini? Giaocchino Rossini (1792-1868), the composer of The Barber of Seville, The Italian Girl in Algiers, The Turk in Italy, Cinderella, etc., for all of which comedies the composer was and is justly famous and celebrated both in his time and ours? Yes, the same Rossini was a pioneer in creating and establishing as well the genre of the serious romantic Italian opera so brilliantly and prolifically carried on by his imitating followers, Bellini, Donizetti, and ultimately Verdi. This serious side of Rossini's œuvre has long been overshadowed by the brilliant reputation of his comedies. But in the serious operatic dramas Tancredi, The Lady of the Lake, Maometto II, Semiramide, William Tell, and others, Rossini showed the way in this genre as well.
Maometto II suffers from "versions." The original version for Naples, featuring the composer's own wife, the soprano Isabella Colbran, displayed its authentic tragic ending. But the dissatisfaction with this ending by the Venetians led to the revision of the ending for the Carnival season in Venice two years later. Finally, upon moving to Paris, Rossini cast the opera into French as The Siege of Corinth in yet another version. What the Santa Fe audiences have been seeing is the world premiere of the authentic Schellevis/Gossett version that will appear in the Baerenreiter Edition in 2013. This edition restores the original 1820 version plus adding in numbers that Rossini wrote for his later revisions.
This all reminded me of my own "revision" adventure some years ago in Rome. Long having read that Rossini's first big hit was the serious drama Tancredi, which the 21-year-old composer composed after a play by Voltaire in 1813, I determined to include that Rome production on my operatic tour list of that year. Wishing to familiarize myself with the opera I went to the Rossini Web site. There you can read the libretti (in Italian) of all the 39 operas the composer wrote. Having found the libretto to Tancredi I printed out all 58 pages and took it with me on my flight to Europe. I figured the nine hours of that flight would be sufficient time for me to extract the Italian of the original into English if I tried really hard and read very slowly. So I did and found I could make out about 85% of it. What I gleaned was a very happy ending in which the knight Tancredi wins his battles and the girl and everyone lives happily...etc.
I arrived at the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome and entered the lobby. There on a wall hung a memorial plaque which stated that in this very auditorium (when it was still called the Teatro Costanzi) there took place on May 17, 1890, the world premiere of Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (the opera that conquered the world for its composer but to which, despite his many efforts, he could never supply an equally triumphant successor). In reading that plaque I knew I was on hallowed ground.
I took my seat for Tancredi and experienced the event. Towards the end of the final act I observed something strange. Tancredi, instead of winning his final battle, was actually fatally wounded and lay supine on the stage with his head to the audience. He took almost as much time to die as did Tristan in Wagner's later Tristan and Isolde. But die he did and the curtain came down in front of a very puzzled operagoer, myself, who was expecting an entirely different ending. Through further research I discovered that, just like the Venetians ten years later, the operatic citizens of Ferrara, where Tancredi was to enjoy a revival, also did not want to experience such a tragic ending. So, similar to the practices of the century-later Hollywood studios where many a happy ending was supplied to satisfy potential moviegoers, Rossini went with the good-times flow and supplied the Ferrarians with what they wanted. He rewrote the opera into the form that I had read on the Web site, with the happy ending. And since this was Rossini's final version of the opera, this was the version chosen for the Web site. But obviously the more serious Romans wanted Tancredi the way the composer originally wrote it, with Voltaire's tragic ending, and that was the version they put on, and which I saw.
In watching Maometto II I was deeply impressed by the composer's success in setting up his concept of serious Italian romantic operatic drama. I was constantly reminded how Rossini's successors drew upon the plotlines I was witnessing. This play was created by Cesare della Valle, aka the Duke of Ventignana, and his play had themes and tendencies of its own he was trying to further. And, of course, Rossini's followers had different plays of their own upon which to base their works. But still, the parallels are striking. For example, when M II, a royal Turkish prince, disguises himself as a commoner, "Huberto," and successfully woos Anna, one thinks inevitably of Victor Hugo's Le roi s'amuse and Verdi's Rigoletto made from it. Then when Anna is driven to distraction by her conflict and indecision over the man she must marry -- the man she loves is the enemy of her people resulting in her ultimate suicide, we think of another such disastrous outcome: that of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. And when Anna convinces M II to spare the life of her father, Erisso, and out of love for her he does so to his own later military detriment, we think inescapably of the parallel story in Verdi's Aida. And when the drama culminates in front of Anna's mother's tomb, having been preceded by Anna's long, slow arias of reminiscence and acceptance, we are reminded of another drama ending similarly in front of a tomb, Verdi's Don Carlo.
Also quite striking in this opera are Rossini's many formal innovations in through-composition; that is, a method to keep the drama tightly moving by omitting the usual forms by which singers were accustomed to drawing drama-interrupting stop-the-show applause from their audiences. Many were the moments in the SFO production when the audience felt compelled to reward the singers for their spectacularly-achieved vocal acrobatics by the expected rounds of applause. But these trickled out unimpressively as the music demanded the drama to move inevitably forward. Thus inhibited throughout the evening, the audience gave the final curtain calls of all the spectacular artists a special frenzy not usually heard even at the end of other successful productions.
And who were these wonderful singers who carried out Rossini's over-the-top demands with such perfection? I was reminded of a serendipitous event regarding this opera. I was driving down the road and turned on my satellite radio to the Metropolitan Opera channel. They must have known I was on the way to Santa Fe because they proceeded to broadcast the very opera I was about to hear, but in its later French version as The Siege of Corinth in a historical performance from the Met in 1976 starring Beverly Sills as Anna, Justino Diaz as M II, and Shirley Verrett as Calbo, a pants-role character who ultimately becomes Anna's husband in order to ward off the advances of M II. This was the first time I had ever heard this opera and was mightily impressed with the vocal acrobatics demanded of the singers and looked forward to their being draped out in costumes and backed up by sets.
Bass baritone Luca Pisaroni was making his second appearance in a role at the SFO. The audience was looking forward to his reappearance because they greeted his entrance onstage as M II with a round of welcoming applause. Leah Crocetto as Anna; Patricia Bardon as Calbo, Anna's eventual husband; and Bruce Sledge as Erisso, her father, also sang with virtuosity, flexibility, and strength. Frederic Chaslin conducted the excellent SFO orchestra. All in all it was a revelatory and meaningful performance full of that depth of emotion befitting the serious opera Rossini considered one of his best; and which the SFO program commentator considered one of the greatest serious operas of the whole 19th century.
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