GIUSEPPE PENNISI sends a second report
from the 2014 Rossini Opera Festival
from the 2014 Rossini Opera Festival
The main objective of the Rossini Opera Festival (ROF) is to stage 'critical editions' of Rossini's works. This year, with the staging of the critical edition of Aureliano in Palmira, this task had been accomplished after a journey that has lasted thirty five years. However, even though Rossini retired from active duties at the age of thirty-seven, his production is an immense attraction: a new quintet for La Gazzetta has been discovered, and of course, a new 'critical edition' of that opera will be staged in the 2015 festival, along with a new production of La Donna del Lago and a revival of Adelaide di Borgogna.
Aureliano in Palmira has been shown several times in Italy and once in Germany, but in drastically curtailed versions. Also, as one of the key roles had been written for a 'castrato', several adjustments had been made to the vocal score. Commissioned to inaugurate the Teatro alla Scala season on 26 December 1813, the opera was a flop, and caused twenty-one-year-old Gioacchino Rossini some sorrow. In fact, though, he reused most of the best music for Il Barbiere di Siviglia, even though Aureliano in Palmira is not a comic opera but a four hour drama based on complicated affairs of love and power in the Middle East. There is, of course, an enlightened Roman conqueror giving way to a happy ending after some really gruesome adventures. The libretto by Felice Romani (also quite young, twenty-five years old) mirrored Pietro Metastasio's melodramas. Thus, it belonged more to eighteenth century opera seria than to the early nineteenth century musical theatre. The length of the opera is due, in part, to its many da capo arias.
I was at the 12 August 2014 opening night. Stage director Mario Martone attempted to throw some action into the series of arias and duets. The stage set by Sergio Tramonti and Ursula Patzak's costumes were quite effective. American musicologist Will Crutchfield conducted the Symphonic Rossini Orchestra, and as he had worked on the critical edition, we can be sure that each tonality and each register was in place. The three protagonists (Michael Spyres, Jessica Pratt and Lena Belkina) marvelled with very imperious singing. However, my conclusion is that Rossini was right: there is plenty of good music in Aureliano in Palmira. But it is more effective when reused in another opera, as he did. The singers were warmly applauded. I think that Rossini scholars may need a good recording of this edition but I doubt that it will travel very far. The ROF may feel it appropriate to attempt another revival in ten years or so.
On 10 August, the festival opened with Armida, written by Rossini when he was twenty-five-years-old and deeply engaged in a sexual affair with Isabella Colbran, who later became his wife, but in 1817 she was also the mistress of impresario Domenico Barbaja, then the boss of the Naples theatres. Isabella was seven years older than Gioacchino. Essentially she was an 'amphibious soprano', able to reach a very high register, to span in very elaborate coloratura and also to descend to an 'alto' register. Armida was a love gift to her. She has to confront four tenors (in six different roles), each of them with a texture slightly different to their colleagues. There is, of course, a bass as the villain. It is a fairy tale, an operatic style very successful in Germany, the United Kingdom and France but never fully accepted in Italy. In short, nearly three hours of vocal hedonism. The four tenors — Antonino Siragusa, Randall Bills, Dmitry Korchak and Vassillis Kavayas — acquitted themselves quite well of their responsibilities. Carlo Lepore was an effective villain. On the other hand, the very attractive Carmen Romeu could handle both the high register and the coloratura well, but had difficulties with the low register and a rather small volume. Conductor Carlo Rizzi seemed to be dealing with Verdi rather than Rossini.
To make things worse, Luca Ronconi's stage direction (with sets by Margherita Palli and costumes by Giovanna Buzzi) started well by setting the plot in a Sicilian marionette style (as we are at the time of the first Crusade), but in the second part (including both the second and third act), the action appeared to move to a dreary prairie. Also, the long ballet in Armida's garden of delight (a reflection of Gioacchino's sensual affairs with Isabella) was as sexy as a week of steady rain. The audience was polite. There were some boos directed at the staging, but also applause for the singers and the production as a whole.