Friday, October 28, 2016

Albuquerque's Opera Southwest in Lively Tancredi

Lindsay Ohse (Amenaide), and Heather Johnson (Tancredi)

Opera Southwest
National Hispanic Cultural Center, Albuquerque

Doomed lovers, warring families, invading armies, an incriminating letter and glorious bel canto thrilled in Gioacchino Rossini’s Tancredi. Albuquerque’s innovative Opera Southwest brought Tancredi back to life on October 23 under the baton of Maestro Anthony Barrese, who is also the Artistic Director of Opera Southwest. Tancredi had been a big hit in the 1800s, playing all over Europe, but it fell by the wayside until returned sporadically to the repertoire in the 1970s and 80s. Although the composer was not quite 21 years of age at the time of its composition, Tancredi was already Rossini’s tenth opera, and it was this work that launched his magnificent, if hectic career. Fully staged here, with singers from all over the US, Barrese has returned the masterpiece back to the spotlight.

The story centers around Amenaide, daughter of the powerful Argirio who lived in the city-state of Syracuse in the eleventh century. In an effort to combat common enemy Solimar, leader of the Saracen forces, Argirio pledges his daughter to the head of the rival family, Orbanzanno. Amenaide resists because she is in love with Tancredi, a knight defeated in battle and driven off his lands years before. He now returns from exile incognito, hoping to be reunited with Amenaide. She writes him a letter welcoming him back to Sicily but neglects to write his name on the title page, probably to protect him from discovery. The letter is intercepted and misinterpreted as having been intended for Solimar, the enemy, and for this traitorous act Amenaide is sentenced to death. The plot thickens but ultimately ends with the truth revealed and Tancredi and Amenaide united in a happy-ever-after ending, as was expected of such works in Rossini’s time.

Opera Southwest's production was staged in the work's original time period. The action takes place on rising platforms on either side of the stage and under projections of cut-outs taken from original Byzantine mosaics of religious images. The scenes, via projections, shifted unobtrusively but highly effectively from one scene to another. A master hand was apparent in the set design by Dahl Delu and ably lit by Daniel Chapman. There were minimal props, though the spears carried by the men of the two opposing families seemed welded to the hands of the chorus, limiting their movements for much of the show. One had to concur with comments from audience members about the circular pie-plate “armor” perched on the shoulders of Tancredi, armor that took on a distracting life of its own every time the singer moved. They need to go, along with the dinner-plate sized shield which the singer seemed only too happy to relinquish anytime he/she could.

Opera Southwest’s lead singers come from New York: mezzo soprano Heather Johnson sang the title role in the pants role of Tancredi. There is warmth and careful phrasing in her presentation of the music and its embellishments -- beautiful singing as it should be, without effort or strain. Johnson sang the hit aria "Di tanti palpiti" with tender feeling.

Soprano Lindsay Ohse sang Amenaide, a strong woman in any time period, easily managing the soaring challenges of the role – and there are many – in defense of her character's innocence. Her long aria in the second act brought to mind the final scene in La Donna del Lago where the winner takes all. Ohse opened up with more lyricism and relaxed into the role as the evening progressed. One wonders, in fact, why this opera was not titled "Amenaide" since the greater part and deeper introspection stems from her role. We understand why Rossini chose a soprano and mezzo for his leads when we hear the exquisite duets blending the two voices.

Another pants role is Roggiero, Tancredi’s squire, sung attractively by apprentice Chelsea Duval-Major. The role of the hapless father, Argirio, was sung by tenor Heath Huberg from Sioux Falls. Huberg’s voice has a clear timbre, but was a little challenged at the top of his range. He managed well the mood shifts from anger to sadness, a troubled father who first condemns and then seeks leniency for his errant daughter.

The powerful bass Matthew Curran sang Orbazanno, the war-mongering head of a noble family. It is he who accuses Amenaide of being a traitor, this after she rejected him as a husband. Curran has a forceful stage presence that is well suited to this role. Apprentice Madelyn Wanner sang Amenaide’s sympathetic friend, Isaura, with assurance and empathy. This is a difficult smaller role involving much hand-wringing and pleas for mercy for her headstrong mistress. One would have liked more vigor from the male chorus both vocally and physically in the way they stood, acted and reacted; they are playing warriors after all.

Barrese set a sprightly pace in the work's overture, a familiar stand-alone piece played by symphony orchestras worldwide. Small solos from woodwinds and trumpets wedded the action to the score. The conductor’s light but firm control allowed soloists in and out of the pit to shine. In the give and take between orchestra and stage, Barrese was always aware of the needs of his singers.

The score has the freshness and exuberance of youth. Many of the themes, ideas and musical events that followed Tancredi are readily recognizable in this melodramma eroica; there is predictability and comforting familiarity in Rossini’s operas, most of which we know today as comedies or opera buffa in the bel canto style. Tancredi may be a heroic melodrama filled with pure, lyrical passages but this opera is in no way harrowing. The heart of the work is the music and how well it is sung. Opera Southwest did not let us down.

This opera is known for two endings and Opera Southwest treated audiences to both. The premiere in Venice in 1813 was a major success using the required happy ending. A month after the premiere, however, Rossini created a tragic ending, aligning the opera with the ending of its source, Voltaire’s play Tancrède. In this, the Ferrara ending, Tancredi is mortally wounded and returns at death’s door to Amenaide. The truth is revealed. Argirio marries Tancredi to his daughter as Tancredi dies in his wife’s arms. Much cut’n’paste occurred in the score, back and forth over the years to accommodate the different endings. Nineteenth century Italy preferred the happy ending, while today the tragic one is more popular and in keeping with our expectations. It should be noted that the totally unpredictable tragic ending to this Rossini opera is as deeply touching as it is unexpected. As Barrese describes it, “Tancredi struggles to recite his text, his words broken apart as he quietly sinks into unconsciousness. Accompanied first by strings, the orchestra too starts and stops, eventually disappearing into hushed C major chords,” as the curtain falls on a sobbing Amenaide holding her dead beloved.

Barrese first presented the tragic Ferrara ending with great effect. When the final soft chords had died away along with the hero, he announced and then had the orchestra play the final minutes of the original Venice ending. In this version, Tancredi does not die, reconciliation is achieved, and the happy couple sang of their joy. That interesting double finale left the enthusiastic audience amused.

One goes to Rossini operas anticipating gorgeous bel canto in plots that do not stretch one too far, be they comedy or tragedy. In Opera Southwest’s production audience members left the theatre with a light step as they made their way in perfect fall weather to their cars parked alongside the serenely flowing Rio Grande river. For a few brief hours, all was well with the world as peace and harmony were restored to the strains of Rossini’s infectious score.


Final performance: 2pm, Sunday October 30, National Hispanic Cultural Center, Albuquerque.

Photo by Lance Ozier used by permission of Opera Southwest.

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