Sunday, August 26, 2012

Rossini’s Maometto II at Santa Fe Opera

Review by Rodney Punt

Late in his life, an ailing Beethoven praised visiting Gioachino Rossini’s comedic Barber of Seville, but bluntly told his houseguest that opera seria was “ill-suited to Italians; you do not possess sufficient musical knowledge to deal with real drama.”

Sometimes a composer can’t get a break. Even as he met with Beethoven, Rossini was facing resistance to reforms he was attempting at the Naples Opera. His serious Maometto II had boldly propelled dramatic continuity over audience-pleasing set pieces. As reward, the Neapolitans accused the Mozart-loving Rossini of being too “German.” The composer reluctantly toned down his dramatic innovations for the later Venice and Paris productions. But the oft-revised and compromised score was, alas, soon relegated to history.

Fortunately, scholars Philip Gossett and Hans Schellevis have peeled back layers of musty and murky adaptations to restore its stunning original version. What scholarship presented as opportunity, a skillful combination of stagecraft and performance at the Santa Fe Opera has realized in achievement. Maometto II proved the most compelling of five new productions I saw at the SFO this season.

The historic Maometto II was a character to contend with. A Turkish answer to Alexander the Great, the 21-year-old was the fifteenth century warrior king who conquered Constantinople and boldly crowned himself Holy Roman Emperor. Yet he ruled wisely, enforcing religious tolerance between faiths in his new territories -- a trait Rossini and his librettist, Cesare della Valle, would retain for their story.

The opera takes place at a later siege on the very edge of Western Europe at Negroponte, capital city of an outlying Venetian island. Commander Erisso and his intended son-in-law, Calbo, contend with Maometto’s attacking forces. Erisso's daughter, Anna, in love with a man she thinks a Venetian, resists Calbo’s advances. She soon discovers her lover is actually Maometto, whom she met when he had earlier visited the city incognito to spy on its defenses.

A betrayed Anna is now at the center of a clash of wills, regimes and religions. The men may fight the battles, but Anna will shape the outcome. Having made an inadvertent wrong choice, she will contend with an unyielding father and a hasty, unconsummated marriage to Calbo while she also confronts her mixed feelings for the still ardent Maometto. Offered leniency by the Turkish conqueror in return for her love, Anna’s greater sacrifice of her life for honor, country and faith decides the day. All Maometto’s warrior skills cannot conquer either Erisso’s world or Anna’s heart. The Turkish advance is stopped short at Italian soil.

Soprano Leah Crocetto’s rich-timbered, flexible coloratura captured the requisite pathos for the ill-fated Anna (her “shame” aria was a stand-out) though girth prevented her stage movement at the same pace has her vocal passions.

Bass Luca Pisaroni’s stentorian macho-with-a-heart Maometto (his florid “conquering” aria with flutes, piccolo, and clarinet was a blazer) made for fierce opposition to tenor Bruce Sledge’s stiff-necked Erisso. Mezzo-soprano Patricia Bordon, in a trouser role, made of the the hapless Calbo a vocally opulent and credible characterization.

David Alden’s stage direction maintained forward momentum through crowded sieges, cast groupings and scenic surprises. He was aided by Jon Morrell’s two curvilinear backdrops of gray, joined for interiors and separated for exteriors. A diagonal accent of blood red color announced the entrance of Maometto. Morrell’s costumes were updated to the nineteenth century for the Venetians, with period black regalia festooning the Turkish troops.

Stage effects, intentional and unintentional, spiced the production. A brick wall burst open at a critical moment in the siege, and a triumphant Maometto later entered in a massive three-horse chariot. Even more impressive, a seemingly on-cue real life rainstorm pummeled the audience from the open sides of the seating areas just as Erisso warns the town’s women of gathering storms. Only at the Santa Fe Opera's indoor-outdoor theater could such a thing happen!

Rossini’s richly scored and dramatically linked music is revelatory. Then at the height of his career, he crafted the work with care and uncanny skill, transforming his earlier-styled florid vocal fireworks into substantive dramatic bonfires.

From its moody, romantic overture, to emotionally charged arias like Maometto’s offer of clemency, imaginative ensembles and musical exotica, including a sort of Turkish “Anvil Chorus”, the work is imbued with invention and conviction.

The first act’s continuous twenty-five minute terzettone (literally “big fat trio”) was Rossini's most impressive innovation. It was also the one Neapolitans could not stomach, conditioned as they were to vocal displays tailor-made for frequent show-stopping applause.

Rossini’s reverence for Mozart can be heard in the orchestra’s extensive use of woodwinds, especially several meltingly lovely clarinet obbligatos. Another nod to the Viennese master is seen in the compassion and civility of Maometto, mirroring Mozart’s similar treatment for his Turk, Pasha Selim, in The Abduction from the Seraglio.

In his first season as Santa Fe Opera’s Chief Conductor, Frédéric Chaslin* has already made his mark. All the season's orchestral performances, not just the two he conducted, have been characterized by cohesion and style. On this outing, Chaslin’s command of the Rossinian line and devices such as his vaunted accelerandi were impeccable, the balances well gauged, and coordination with stage business sure-footed. Special accolades are due the woodwinds, notably the solo clarinet work of orchestra principal Todd Levy. As in all five of the season’s operas, the chorus of young professional singers shined under the direction of Susanne Sheston.

Many scholars believe Maometto II to be the best of Rossini’s Neapolitan operas. It’s not hard to see why. The musical dramatization of the clash between eastern and western cultures as seen through the eyes of its four struggling protagonists was ahead of its time. The restored version remains innovative and absorbing as a music drama that still speaks to our own time.


Maometto II, opera in two acts. Music by Gioachino Rossini. Text by Cesare della Valle.

Premiered at Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, 1820. Revised for Venice, 1822. Translated into French and reshaped as Le Siège de Corinthe in Paris, 1826. Reconstituted 1820 version, edited for the Works of Gioachino Rossini Edition by Hans Schellevis, under the supervision of its General Editor, Philip Gossett.

First performances of the work by the Santa Fe Opera, and a world premiere staging of the newly reconstituted 1820 versionPerformance reviewed: August 2, 2012

* Shortly after this review was posted, word came that Frédéric Chaslin had resigned his post as the Santa Fe Opera’s Chief Conductor.

Photos by Ken Howard, used by permission of Santa Fe Opera.
Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]


Anonymous said...

Bravo! Great writing, Rod!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful article Rodney! - such elegant writing. I love reading about how the composer's original version is the one that has lasting value