By 1820, Gioachino Rossini, still not yet 30, felt sufficiently self-assured in his role as Italian opera’s preeminent hit-maker to allow himself the luxury of scaling back his feverish output. During the course of scarcely a decade, he had premiered no less than 30 fresh works for the stage, diligently raising the curtain on at least three new productions a year. It had been a gruelling if not entirely unwelcome grind. Still the enterprising maestro’s flair for showmanship was far from exhausted.
On December 3rd, Rossini unveiled a recently completed 2-act dramma per musica at his increasingly preferred base of operations, the celebrated Teatro San Carlo in Naples. Loosely based on the historic exploits of the rampaging 15th century Turkish sultan, Mehmed II, the highly fanciful, musically striking thriller met with spectacular indifference. Despite the prevailing appetite for bel canto extravagance, Rossini’s bold sweeping score, his repeated use of bountiful dramatic forms, seemingly proved unsettling to traditional-minded locals. Maometto II struggled to gain popular traction. Six years of determined tinkering with the score and a major rewrite to the story made little impact. The opera, one of the composer’s self-confessed favourites, embarked on the prescribed rounds, Venice, Milan, Vienna, surfaced in Paris in 1826 as Le siège de Corinthe and then, almost as startlingly as it had appeared, slipped into obscurity, overlooked and undervalued for more than 150 years.
Faithfully reassembling director David Alden’s landmark Maometto II premiered by Santa Fe Opera in 2012 complete with several original leads, the Canadian Opera Company essentially reverses the current of history, restoring Rossini’s sprawling, unapologetically hyperbolic blockbuster to greatness.
Like so many of his contemporaries, the choice of story for Rossini was largely driven by a quest for lavish scena, broad emotional panoramas across which he could splash his trademark musical elaboration. Maometto II, libretto by aristocrat playwright Cesare della Valle, Duca de Ventignano, though a basic, undemanding tale of love and honour presented in stock neoclassical style provided the shrewd composer with ample opportunities for invention.
Byzantium has fallen to the Turks. Pressing his advance, the ambitious Ottoman ruler, Maometto Secondo has laid siege to the Venetian colony of Negroponte in northern Greece. The city faces the threat of annihilation if its governor, Paolo Erisso, fails to surrender the garrison. A council of war is convened. The Venetians’ champion, the youthful general Calbo, urges tireless resistance. Erisso, fearing his daughter Anna’s fate at the hands of the menacing invaders, begs her to marry his brave commander to assure her safety. But Anna’s heart belongs to another, Uberto, a nobleman she encountered while her father was absent on affairs of state. Erisso proclaims the stranger an impostor. The real Uberto was at his side in Venice. Suddenly, the sound of cannon fire announces Negroponte’s imminent fall. The Turks have breached the walls. Erisso and Calbo are taken prisoner. Maometto arrives on the scene. Unable to compel them to surrender the city, the warrior sultan has no sooner ordered their execution when Anna enters from prayers. Almost at once, she and Maometto recognize one another. He was the handsome pretender she had found so irresistible. Anna threatens to plunge a dagger into her heart if he does not spare the lives of his latest captives. Maometto yields, as enthralled by his enemy’s daughter as when they first met. Erisso seethes with rage.
Ushered by armed guard to Maometto’s headquarters, Anna resists the seductive air of sensuality wafting through the Muslim camp. Suddenly, as she is about to flee, she re-encounters her former lover. Pledging his unfaltering devotion, he pleads for her hand in marriage, promising to protect her and her household come what may. Frantic and confused, Anna is thrown into despair. Passion, patriotism, faith, a torrent of emotions engulf her. Handing her his Imperial ring, proof she dwells in his protection, Maometto exits to lead his army’s assault on the Venetians’ citadel. Elsewhere in the city, Erisso and Calbo have taken refuge in the local church. Erisso fears his daughter has betrayed family, country, God. Calbo staunchly defends her. Anna rushes in. Pressing Maometto’s ring into her father’s hand to guarantee his escape, she asks him to bless her pending union to Calbo. Their marriage will serve as proof of her loyalty. Events rush to a terrible conclusion. Re-energized by the reappearance of their leaders, the Venetian defenders mount a heroic counterattack. The Turks are repulsed. Enraged by Anna’s involvement, Maometto returns to exact revenge. Anna stiffens and embraces her true destiny, falling on Maometto’s clenched sword.
Part romance, part morality play, part action saga, della Valle’s tumbled narrative defies a literal approach when transplanting it to the stage. The task of bridging from exposition to witnessed events raises pressing issues for producer and director alike, a tricky challenge to both budget and entertainment values. Confronted with a torrent of pivotal off stage action, vast battles, intricate backstory, the clash of history, David Alden opts for a stream of vivid, static tableaux interspersed with brief bursts of spectacle to anchor the opera in time and place. It is a brave creative strategy, one that runs contrary to 21st century expectations to a large extent. Stand and sing productions, are generally regarded, certainly by most opera commentators, as little more than quaint anachronisms in an age that demands non-stop distraction. Fearlessly spotlighting this conspicuously statuesque Maometto II on its expansive Four Seasons Centre stage, the COC effectively shreds the entire critical premise, creating a dynamic, starkly dramatic show pulsing with energy.
Designer Jon Morrell’s single, all purpose set, a shattered, war-scarred ruin, more suggestive of Rossini’s time than Maometto II’s original fictional coordinates, conveys a forceful sense of unity. Stagecraft is simple and self-revealing. Supers and chorus members become stagehands, tweaking visual elements to add new surprising dimensions to the enclosed, supremely theatrical landscape. Battered wall panels slip to one side exposing the crumbled suggestions of a devastated church. A brilliant vermillion ramp supported by a single decorative post evokes a sultan’s tent. A team of proud stallions, life size maquettes echoing the iconic bronzes of Venice’s Basilica of San Marco, symbolically surge through the smoke and destruction of battle, Maometto triumphantly astride.
As enthralling as this Maometto II may be from a production standpoint, however, it is the music and singing that mesmerizes.
Working from a newly published edition of Rossini’s authentic autograph score painstakingly restored by internationally respected musicologists Hans Schellevis and Philip Gossett, period specialist Harry Bicket leads the superb Canadian Opera Company Orchestra on a wild, breathtaking romp. So many active notes compressed into so many rambunctious passages. The scope of the composer’s inventory is utterly daunting. Spectacular bel canto arias, closely hewn duets, intricate fugal-like ensembles emerge lustrous and buoyant from a lush tapestry of orchestral colours highlighted by brass, woodwinds and percussion. A uniquely virtuosic Rossinian terzetonne, literally “a big fat trio”, fills the first act to overflowing, a piece so massive and resolute that it can pass unscathed through the sound of booming cannon fire, a great upwelling of choral dismay followed by a lengthy bout of heartfelt communal prayer, only to regroup an impossible 30-minutes later before pressing on to its triumphant conclusion. Musically monumental in scale, Maometto II all but defies written description. Bickett and players bring Rossini’s masterful, magical concoction to life in all its outrageous glory.
Appearing in the title role, Italian headliner Luca Pisaroni casts a long shadow across this Maometto II. An influential voice in Santa Fe Opera’s decade-old decision to craft this epic iteration, the much in demand bass baritone dominates the production. His command of character is exemplary. Literally tearing up the scenery to make his grand entrance through a breach in the Venetian defences, the mythic focus of European panic and paranoia, charismatic invader, impulsive lover, sets pulses raising with his dazzling cavatina Sorgete: in bel giorno, o prodi mei guerrieri (“Arise: in one fine day, oh marvel my warriors”). It is the first of many preeminent dramatic moments for the complex Ottoman conqueror, all dispatched with great skill by this consummate singer actor. A master of bel canto, Pisaroni astonishes, his voice a seamless blend of audacity and lyricism. Coloratura, a slippery vocal technique not generally demanded of soloists in his Fach, is delivered with sustained precision and confidence.
Singing Anna, soprano Leah Crocetto gives a passionate performance as Rossini’s conflicted heroine, a confused, emotionally abandoned young woman, ruled by loneliness, desperate to be loved. The character is a difficult one, passive and victimized. Crocetto’s vocal embodiment of Anna’s anguish, a series of improvised high notes, C to E, delivered during the course of her many intense appearances is quite simply heart stopping. Her long demanding death scene, relentlessly expanding from plaintive pianissimo to the shrill scream of her suicide refuses to fade from memory.
Featured in the travesti role of Calbo, Anna’s dashing suitor, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong unquestionably stops the show with an electrifying rendition of Rossini’s stupendous coloratura Act II aria, Non temer: d’un basso affetto (“Do not fear: that heart was never capable of base emotions”). A strong, sympathetic character, Calbo attracts our admiration though not necessarily our deep affection. That DeShong is able to plant the inherently one dimensional general so firmly in our consciousness is a testament to her vibrant, larger than life powers of expression.
Tenor Bruce Sledge is Anna’s tormented father, the Venetian leader Erisso, his crystal clear Italianate timbre an ideal counterpoint to the darker, more sonorous tone of his Muslim foe nowhere more clearly on display than in the tumultuous Anna/Erisso/Maometto terzetto Ritrovo l’amante nel crudo nemico (“I find the lover in a harsh enemy”).
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus does extraordinary multiple duty singing curtain to curtain, scene after scene with almost Verdian grandeur, Rossini’s earlier but no less stirring settings notwithstanding. Appearing as a veiled clique of carefree harem girls, a troupe of altos and sopranos particularly enchants.
Meticulously restored, resonantly staged, sensationally played and sung, this is a Maometto made magnificent. It must not be missed.