For bel canto fanatics, (among which number I count myself), the COC production of Rossini’s Maometto II (1820) will be nirvana. For others, the composer’s florid musical style, expressed through non-stop ornamentation, will seem like coloratura torture, and, not surprisingly, there were a significant number of early departures who did not come back after the intermission. Tant pis to them.
Rossini wrote far more opera seria than he did opera buffa, although it is the latter for which he is known. Yet, it is his opera seria that laid the groundwork for the bel canto composers who followed, with Bellini, Donizetti and early Verdi being the most famous. Rossini’s opera seria abound with orchestral accompanied recitatives, massive choruses, and a never-ending fund of principal singer ensembles be they duets, trios, quartets or larger. If the music of Maometto II sounds familiar, you probably own the old LP of L’assedio di Corinto (The Siege of Corinth) starring Beverly Sills, which was Rossini’s 1826 revised version of Maometto II for Paris – Le siege de Corinthe – in its Italian libretto.
This COC production, which originated at the Santa Fe Opera in 2012, is a new critical edition, and most importantly, the first performance of the original Maometto II since Teatro San Carlo premiered the work in Naples in 1820. In other words, Maometto II is opera history writ large, and this is what opera aficionados live for: the staging of rarities. Please Alexander Neef, give us more.
I associate English conductor Harry Bicket with early opera, but Maometto II needed someone with experience handling the florid arias of Handel, for example. When you look beneath Rossini’s coloratura wall, there are subtle shifts of emphasis, of nuance, of emotion, and Bicket is able to find these in his orchestral accompaniment. No two arias are the same, but in the hands of a lesser conductor, they could have become a same-same tsunami of ornamentation. The joys of this production are the fine delineation and detail in the music. Bicket gives us what we should be hearing in Rossini’s opera seria. He presents us with the emotional drama that sweeps through the score. Bicket’s conducting and the COC Orchestra’s playing, particularly the obbligato accompaniment by specific instruments, are as good as it gets.
Three of the four principal singers are from the Santa Fe production and what a blessing that is. All of them can toss off coloratura runs with aplomb, and the ornamental heart of Rossini’s music is safe in their hands.
Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni cuts a swaggering presence on the stage. He is every inch Maometto II, the Ottoman leader who is beginning his conquest of Europe by attacking the Venetian outpost of Negroponte. Pisaroni possesses a robust but surprisingly sweet voice which works well. He needs the commanding strength when he is before his armies, but also the tenderness when confronting Anna, the daughter of the Venetian general. The two fell in love when Maometto was in disguise as a Venetian nobleman on a spy mission. To say that Pisaroni has charisma is an understatement. He seems to be moving out of Mozart and Rossini opera buffa into bel canto which is good news indeed.
American soprano Leah Crocetto and fellow American tenor Bruce Sledge are the daughter/father duo, Anna and Paolo Erisso. Erisso is the Venetian general defending Negroponte. Crocetto was a Grand Finals winner of the 2010 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and for good reason. She has a rich, clear, soaring voice that thrills the ear. She also radiates emotion in every note. What a career she has in front of her, given she can range from Donna Anna to Aida. Sledge has a bright voice as smooth as honey with no apparent strain at the top. At first, it seems a bit light to capture the Italianate cadence needed for bel canto, but surprise, surprise, Sledge can really turn on the power when needed. He does seem a bit stiff on stage, but his angry father role is pretty limited in terms of characterization.
American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong performs the trouser role of the Venetian officer Calbo, Anna’s intended. She is just a tiny button of a singer who possesses an utterly surprising, full-bodied outpouring of sound that fills the theatre. She is also a coloratura virtuoso with solid placement and flexibility, an all-round talent to be sure. Her gorgeous voice was certainly a crowd-pleaser
American director David Alden and his director brother Christopher have been called “opera’s terrible twins” by the Times of London. Both are known for their excess of stage business, and on more than one occasion, their over-direction steeped in symbolism has been the bane of my existence. It is David that is responsible for this production of Maometto II, aided and abetted by English designer Jon Morrell, but this time around, he has shown restraint. The production’s visual core is a curved wall from which things open up, or move around, and which are meant to surprise the eye. The stage itself has hidden levels like wells or pits. Alden uses the chorus to move props around while keeping to the beat and the mood of the music. Morrell’s period costumes are simple and direct. Happily, this Alden production does not take away from the music, nor does his stand and deliver staging impede the drama.
COC ensemble members tenor Charles Sy (Venetian nobleman Condulmiero) and tenor Aaron Sheppard (Maometto’s confidant Selimo) perform their small roles respectfully, although both have very light voices in development.
Rossini’s Maometto II, Canadian Opera Company, conducted by Harry Bicket, directed by David Alden, Four Seasons Centre, Apr. 29 to May 14.