War, Water, Environment: Le Siège de Corinthe opens the 2017 Rossini Opera Festival
2017 marks a watershed year in the history of the Rossini Opera Festival. The deaths of Alberto Zedda and Philip Gossett deprived the world of two leading figures of the so-called Rossini Renaissance. Zedda, in particular, was an institution in Pesaro: not only was he an indefatigable conductor and one of the finest interpreters of Rossini’s music; he was also the artistic director of the Festival and the founder of the Accademia Rossiniana, the Festival’s young artists’ program. Some of today’s leading Rossini singers graduated from it.
A tribute to Zedda’s memory, the 2017 Rossini Opera Festival opened with a new production of Le siège de Corinthe, Rossini’s first opera for the Paris Académie Royale de Musique. An adaptation of his former Neapolitan opera Maometto II (1822), the opera was performed from Damien Colas’s new critical edition. Before this production, most performances adopted the version issued by the French publisher Troupenas, which omitted almost 400 measures of music. Because no full score of the original version of the opera has survived (only portions of Rossini’s manuscript have come down to us), Colas was able to retrieve the missing passages from the parts used during the opera’s premiere (1826). This production was the world premiere of the opera as Rossini originally wrote it: not even the audience attending the first performance had ever heard the complete music for the ballet, since it was excised a few days before the opening night (but preserved in the performers’ parts). The excitement for this production was understandably high, and so was the level of the musical performance.
Roberto Abbado provided a sumptuous rendition of this monumental score (the total length of the opera is close to four hours). Throughout the performance, he conducted with no lack of tension nor did he yield to the belief that, in writing some of the music, Rossini had to bow to French opera conventions (most notably, in the ballet). Rather, he built a compelling, multifaceted, and forward-moving narrative -one in which lyrical oases, choral scenes, and tableaux vivants combined into a coherent whole- resorting on well-paced tempi and a skillful treatment of the protean rhythmic range of Rossini’s music. The RAI symphony orchestra, at its debut in Pesaro, responded vigorously to the conductor’s stimuli. Its rich sound fulfilled the requirements of the opera’s lush orchestration. Far from indulging in hedonistic excesses, Abbado governed such sumptuousness to build and propel a variety of dramatic situations. The whole second act -with its chain of more conventional situations, ballets, and ceremonial music- gained much from Abbado’s approach: it acquired unexpected thrust and energy, reminding us of the many conflicts (first and foremost, Pamyra’s inner struggle between her passion for an enemy and her love for her father and people) that kept fueling the drama under the surface of apparently ephemeral and ever-changing arias and dances.
The singers followed Abbado in his path through this opera. The three main characters were particularly well cast. Luca Pisaroni was an authoritative Mahomet, singing with great assurance, beautiful tone, and commanding coloratura. Just like in the conductor’s case, Pisaroni channeled his impressive technical resources to build a well-rounded character -haughty, impassioned, yet also tender and protective. Nino Machaidze was almost ideal for the role of Pamyra: her voice features a remarkable and homogenous range, appropriate volume to emerge above all the other characters and chorus in the ensemble, and charming timbre. She also showed off her clear coloratura in the challenging aria at the beginning of act 2. I only wish she had searched for a wider palette of colors: in several sections of the opera (for instance, her act-2 duet with Mahomet), she seemed to focus only on the general affect of a piece without providing a more nuanced rendition of its emotional arch.
Sergey Romanovsky was one of the revelations of this Festival as Néoclès. The part requires an exceptionally high tenor voice: not only did Romanvsky meet the challenges of Rossini’s vocal writing; he also provided it with a heroic tone that was particularly suitable to the role of the young Greek soldier. John Irvin was Cléomène, the other major tenor role of the opera. Irvin sang correctly, but his vocal color sounded like that of a character tenor, therefore it seemed ill-suited for a part that would require an authoritative timbre and lofty elocution.
Carlo Cigni was an imposing Hiéros and Cecilia Molinari a delightful Ismène. Two secondary roles were cast with extremely promising young singers: Iuri Samoilov (Omar) and Xabier Anduaga (Adraste). A pleasant surprise was the flexible yet rich-sounding chorus of the Teatro Ventidio Basso which made a successful debut at the Festival under the direction of Giovanni Farina.
Less convincing was the staging by Carlus Pradissa on a project by La Fura dels Baus. The concept behind the production was promising: because echoes of the War of Greek Independence (1821-1830) permeated Rossini’s opera, La Fura dels Baus used the plot to reflect present-day concerns and turned the clash between Turks and Greeks into a conflict over water. The ecological theme was well-timed: shortage of water supply has become a matter of political contention in Italy during the summer. Moreover, the dry soil that covered the stage was a powerful reminder of the consequences of the wild fires that have plagued the Peninsula over the previous weeks. The whole project was not meant to be a mere update: the opera’s political meaning for Rossini’s contemporaries was evoked in the many quotations from Lord Byron which were projected on the back of the stage. All these layers, however, did not merge into a coherent narrative. The ecological theme at the core of the production, for one, got lost. Nor were many of the visual choices intelligible. The hanging paintings by Lita Cabellut (who was also responsible for the costumes and video projections) seemed to have little connections with the rest of the action while the projections of fluid substances (polluted water?) had more an aestheticizing than a dramatic effect. This is not to say that effective moments were lacking: the appearance of the Turks from underground halfway through act 1 was remarkable, as was the conclusion of act 2 with the opening of the wooden wings along the first rows of the orchestra seats. At the end of the opera, the representation of the collapse of Corinth’s walls with the falling of the piles of plastic water bottles was perhaps more predictable, but nonetheless well-conceived. But overall additive visual strategies ran against a full development of the main ideas behind this production.