Clash of Civilizations
Rossini's 'Maometto II',
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
Nearly two centuries after its debut in Naples in 1820, Rossini's Maometto II reached Rome on 28 March 2014; my review is based on that premiere. The San Carlo debut was a flop: only one evening before being cancelled from the program. Rossini changed the finale from tragic to happy (by borrowing the final scene of La Donna del Lago) and tried again in Venice; a second major flop. The outcome was better in Paris in 1826 with a new title, ballet and division into four rather than two acts: renamed Le Siège de Corinthe, the opera was also successful in the nineteenth century for political reasons (ie the Western European struggle to free Greece from the Ottoman Empire). Le Siège de Corinthe was revived at the 1949 Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Festival and was a major hit in the seventies because of a major production starring Shirley Verret and Beverly Hills with Thomas Schippers conducting. This whole American enterprise which enthralled La Scala and other theaters is beautifully recorded. Maometto II was revived in Pesaro in 1985 and in Paris in 1986. Many specialists consider it Rossini's real masterpiece, far in advance of the time when it was composed.
Based on a Voltaire philosophical tragedy, and with an excellent libretto by Cesare Della Valle, the purpose of this love story during the siege of Venetian Negroponte by the Turks led by Mohamed II is to show a clash of civilizations: a thick wall between the feelings of individuals. Musically, it challenges all the early nineteenth century operatic conventions. It's almost Wagnerian in length — four hours with a short intermission. There are only a few 'numbers' — each is very extended (eg the terzettone, as called by Rossini himself, in the first part, lasts forty minutes). The orchestra, not merely a support to the voices, provides a heroic symphony. Also the four protagonists' vocal parts are really impervious.
The Rome stage production used sets and costumes from a 2005 Venice staging. The director (as well as authors of sets and costumes), Pier Luigi Pizzi, adapted the production not only to the larger Roman stage but to the different finale — the Neapolitan 'tragic' version. The cast was superb. In the title role, Roberto Tagliavini deserves a special mention: a young bass-baritone, normally playing minor parts, he was hired for the second cast but also had to fill in (for almost all performances), replacing the more experienced Alex Esposito. Even though he does not have the imposing look of Mohamed II (in the 1985-86 revival, Samuel Ramey acted as real Emperor and General), Tagliavini acted quite well but more importantly sang superbly in this role which often requires a very high register.
Marina Rebeka was Anna, the Venetian woman loved by Mohamed II. In 2008, during a new production in Pesaro, Bremen and Tokyo, she surprised the audience, being able, at only twenty, to handle one of Rossini's most taxing roles; she is almost always on stage and has to fly from very low to very high register in difficult arias (such as the prayer in the second act) and a long duetto and terzetto as well as in a concertato.
Juan Francisco Gatell was her father: he delved in belcanto as did Ernesto Palacio and Chris Merritt in the eighties and Juan Diego Flórez now. Alisa Kolosova was Calbo, the Venetian general in love with Anna and in the second act married to her, and handled the long aria entrusted to her quite well. They all received much open stage applause.
There was, however, a weak point: especially in the first act, conductor Roberto Abbado lacked vigor and slowed the tempos. The audience did not seem to mind. With the singers, stage director and production team, Abbado too received ovations and accolades at the final curtain calls.