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Stormy Weather, But Strong Performances from Pisaroni, Crocetto, Bardon, Sledge in Rossini’s “Maometto II” – Santa Fe Opera, August 2, 2012

August 5th, 2012

Santa Fe Opera Festival atmosphere is usually most felicitous, the New Mexico weather almost always well-behaved. Yet, if one attends enough Santa Fe performances, there will be times when the term “atmosphere” has more than metaphorical significance.

Distant lightning can supplement the lighting director’s design, as it did two nights earlier at a performance of Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers”. But on very rare occasions, the elements will gather much closer to the partially open Santa Fe Opera Theater and will test the mettle of both performers and audience members [For a previous example, see 21st Century Maugham: Morevac, Racette Reopen “The Letter” in Santa Fe – July 29, 2009.]

Such was the case of the August 2nd performance of the original Neapolitan version of Rossini’s “Maometto II”. But the meteorological mayhem marking this “Maometto”, however integral it was to this particular performance, was but a sideshow to the opera itself and its relationship to both this season and to the performance history of the Santa Fe Opera.

[Below: Maometto II (Luca Pisaroni, center) astride his horses; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Recondite Harmonies in the 2012 Santa Fe Season

There are many considerations that go into the selection of the five operas that comprise a Santa Fe Opera Festival season, that certainly include considerations of which artists – vocalists, conductors, production designers, stage directors and their other creative colleagues – will be available, what past productions should be revived, and, of course, what projects the opera company’s management wishes to take on, whether immediately or at a later date.

Often opera companies will announce a theme binding together disparate  projects – usually something like “dangerous passions” that might describe the vast majority of operas. However, I think Santa Fe’s 2012 season does have some underlying themes, which even the oldest, 1820’s “Maometto II”, shares with the other operas.

In the plot of “Maometto”, as in each of the four younger operas – in descending order of age, Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers”, Puccini’s “Tosca”, Szymanowski’s “King Roger” and Richard Strauss’ “Arabella” –  individuals seek to escape from a prescribed orthodoxy, imposed through sets of behaviors that individuals are required to observe. Those societal requirements are in each opera enforced by the state, its religious components, or through social customs that the privileged classes are expected to follow.

[Below: Paolo Erisso (Bruce Sledge, center, seated) considers an offer of leniency for Corinth if he surrenders to the Turks; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The Bonapartist French Connection

Each of the five operas is about or was impacted by great forces in European history. Three are concerned – directly or indirectly – with the Bonapartes.

“Tosca” takes place in the context of the suppression of the Bonapartist-inspired Republic of Rome and the resulting deaths of four persons only a few hours after Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Marengo.

“Pearl Fishers” takes place in Ceylon, rather than Acapulco as originally conceived, because the man that Napoleon III backed for the Mexican throne was defeated on the Cinco de Mayo of the year that “Pearl Fishers” was being written.

Significantly, Lee Blakeley, the director, apparently did not wish to see his production of “Pearl Fishers” taking place in some Sri Lankan fantasyland in which Disney’s Aladdin might be comfortable. Instead, he set it at the time of opera’s premiere during Napoleon III’s Second Empire, when Ceylon was a British colony.

Although “Maometto” is ostensibly about 15th century military affairs – the 1470 defeat of the Venetians by the Turks in the Battle for the Greek town of Negroponte (on the Island of Euboea) – its theme of Barbarians invading the fatherland would hardly seem irrelevant to the geopolitics of 1820 Naples three and a half centuries later.

Just five months before “Maometto’s” premiere (July 1820)  a pro-Bonapartist (“pro-fatherland”) revolution against the restored (barbarian) King of Naples had to be squelched by the (barbarian) European alliance of conservative states.

Thus, the heroics of the operatic characters Paolo and Anna Erisso and Calbo against the Barbarians (metaphorically speaking, the Congress of Europe imposing its will on Naples) had the potential to get Rossini in trouble with local authorities. For his own safety and to protect the opera, Rossini is known to have softened passages of the libretto that the censors would have considered incendiary.

[For my discussions of another opera in which a "barbarian" invasion had obvious other meanings to the audiences of the time (and of the present day), see “Attila” in Italy with a Phenomenal Ferruccio Furlanetto – San Francisco Opera, June 12, 2012 and A Second Look: “Attila”, Verdi and Italian Opera in the Luisotti Era – San Francisco Opera, July 2, 2012.]

The Rossini Revival, Second Stage

In these webpages, I have often referred to what I characterize as the “stages” of a 20th and 21st century revival of Gaetano Donizetti’s works, including what is now a substantial body of major performances of Donizetti operas worldwide.

Over the past forty years or so, there has been a major scholarly effort, centered at the Fondazione Rossini in Rossini’s native land, Pesaro, Italy, to develop critical editions of Rossini’s works. Simultaneously, there has the commitment of major operatic singers, notably Marilyn Horne and Samuel Ramey in the 1970s and 1980s, to perfect the Rossinian style of singing.

That style abounds in repeated rapid runs and arpeggios that give Rossini’s operas a floridity in sound to which modern audiences, including those that attend a lot of Donizetti and early Verdi operas, are not necessarily accustomed. In the 21st century a new group of artists are becoming Rossini specialists, including the current cast and mezzo Joyce Di Donato, who is announced for the 2013 Santa Fe Opera Festival.

Below: Paolo Erisso (Bruce Sledge, standing center) threatens his daughter Anna (Leah Crocetto, kneeling, center) as Calbo (Patricia Bardon, left) looks on; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The Santa Fe Opera was chosen as the venue for the world premiere of a new performing edition of “Maometto II” by Hans Schellevis, as part of the multi-decade efforts in Rossini scholarship supervised by the University of Chicago’s emeritus professor Philip Gossett. Significantly, the Santa Fe Opera’s Chief Conductor, Frederic Chaslin, took on the premiere of Schellevis’ critical edition as his personal project.

The Rossini Revivals in the American Southwest

A half century ago, most opera companies had a single Rossini opera in their repertory, “The Barber of Seville”, shorn, of course, of Almaviva’s great final aria Cessa di piu resistere. For example, the San Francisco Opera’s second Rossini opera in its history, “La Cenerentola” was not performed at all before 1969.

Then during the next decade and a half San Francisco Opera produced “Tancredi” (concert version, 1979), “Semiramide” (1981), “Maometto II” (1988), and, for the bicentennial of Rossini’s birth “L’Italiana in Algeri”, “Guillaume Tell” and “Ermione”, followed by “Otello” in 1994. The Los Angeles Opera staged “Tancredi” in 1987. In 2000, the Santa Fe Opera mounted “Ermione”.

The availability of Rossinian singers, notably Marilyn Horne, Montserrat Caballe, Chris Merritt, Samuel Ramey and Simone Alaimo, and of researched and performable editions of the works, made these revivals feasible.

[Below: Maometto II (Luca Pisaroni, center) arrives in Negroponte surrounded by his Turkish troops; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

I had seen three of the four principal singers in the 2012 Santa Fe production in non-Rossini roles, including Leah Crocetto’s Liu [See Luisotti Leads Superb “Turandot” Cast In David Hockney’s Treasured Production – San Francisco Opera, September 9, 2011], Patricia Bardon’s Prince Andronico [See Domingo’s Towering “Tamerlano” Bajazet: Los Angeles Opera – November 22, 2009] and Luca Pisaroni is several classical and baroque operas, most recently as Argante [See Handel’s “Rinaldo” in Chicago: Francisco Negrin’s Finely Sung, Fun-filled Fantasy – Lyric Opera, March 16, 2012.]

The fourth member of this awesome quartet was Bruce Sledge, in the tenor role of the father, Paolo Erisso, whose fate in this version of the opera (in a later, happy-ending version, the Turks lose the battle) is more glorious than the fate that befell the actual Paolo at the hands (and swords) of the Turks.

The events of this opera occur in a rather leisurely fashion, certainly when compared to the fast-paced operas of Bellini and Donizetti of the succeeding decade. Three of the characters (Sledge’s Paolo, Crocetto’s Anna Erisso, and Bardon’s Calbo) spend much of the first act discussing what they will do if and when Negroponte falls to the Turks. They sing a remarkable trio that continues for a considerable time, interrupted on occasion by choruses.

Rossini used the term terzettone for the trio (which I suppose could be translated as “super-duper trio” to get the impact of the meaning in Italian.) Then the Turks arrive and Maometto takes the three of them prisoner. This occurs in a 90 minute first act, that itself is as long as Szymanowski’s entire opera “King Roger”.

[Below: Maometto (Luca Pisaroni, right) takes Paolo Erisso (Bruce Sledge, left) as his prisoner; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The evening’s second act, when compared to the later Italian operas inspired by the literature of the Romantic period, also has minimal action. Maometto in disguise had courted Anna at an earlier time. When Anna finds out about the deception and that Maometto still fancies her, she uses that advantage to secure his official seal, and then employs the seal to have her father and Calbo (whom she marries on the spot) released from prison, angering Maometto and resulting in Anna’s suicide.

Wisely, the Santa Fe Opera enlisted David Alden as stage director, who injected many fascinating ideas to add interest and some action to the stage. Maometto’s Turkish soldiers were dressed in exotic black uniforms with choreographed movements. Much was made of the memory of Anna’s mother, with a large portrait over one scene and an imposing monument at her gravesite, where Calbo and Anna marry.

If Naples in 1820 was more concerned with battles between the Bonapartists and Hapsburgs, the 21st century Western world again has shown artistic interest in the age old tensions between jihadists and Crusaders. Alden’s production (with sets and costumes by Jon Morrell) makes it quite clear that what was happening in the Corinthian town of Negroponte was another episode in a centuries-old historic struggle.

[Below: Anna Erisso (Leah Crocetto, far right) prays to the Virgin Mary with other women of her faith; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

A Most Meteorologically Memorable “Maometto”

Prophetically, or perhaps recognizing the odds of an occasional thunderstorm in the vicinity of a Santa Fe Opera performance, the opera’s conductor, Frederic Chaslin, writes in the Festival program that “[s]torms, rain, can add effects to the staging – and amazingly those natural elements manage frequently to happen at an appropriate moment”.

During the first act, lightning and its accompanying thunder was close by as the Turks mounted Negroponte’s defenses. At intermission, many members of the audience, particularly those who were new to what was possible at this site in the high mountains, expressed amazement at the intrusion of the elements into the performance.

Yet this was only the beginning. In the second act, heavy rains and winds were evident, especially to those who were closer to the open sides of the theater. Had Alden planned the weather effects, he could not have made them more precise. The amazingly good-spirited audience laughed as the back of the seat simultaneous English translation had the principals and chorus singing such lines as Only flight from the approaching storm will save you.

A few dozen, then probably a hundred or so, audience members left their seats for more hospitable sections of the theater. Doubtless some braved the rain for the parking lots.

What was extraordinary, though, was the ability of the entire cast, conductor and orchestra to sustain the performance levels, and for the artists to continue to sing  the difficult Rossini style impeccably under conditions that were at their calmest, distracting and surely uncomfortable, and likely on occasion worrisome, if not frightening.

Personally, I’m not sure that I can recall every detail of Sonja Frisell’s stage direction or Nicola Benois’ sets for the 1988 production of “Maometto II” at the San Francisco Opera, but I doubt if I will ever forget the Santa Fe “Maometto II” of 2012.

Recommendation

I am a strong proponent of the scholarly efforts to develop authentic, performable editions of the operatic output of the major opera composers. Even so, the laudable efforts of the Rossini Foundation in Pesaro are designed ultimately to aid in performance. Without live performances, especially by major companies, the scholarly work is incomplete.

This premiere of the new performance edition of “Maometto II” is a major effort on the part of the Santa Fe Opera. The company, which already has announced Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago (The Lady of the Lake)” for the 2013 Festival, has provided the venue for audiences to see and hear the results of these years of work on the Rossini scores.

I recommend these performances for everyone who is interested in how the Italian style of singing developed over the 19th century, for the vocal performances of the four superb principals, and for the loving care that Conductor Frederic Chaslin brought to realizing in performance the work on the original 1820 Neapoilitan version of “Maometto II”.

For a previous interview with Conductor Frederic Chaslin, see: Living the Seine to Santa Fe Circuit: An Interview with Frederic Chaslin.

 

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