The very long first act takes it time to set up a basic situation. Contareno, a Venetian noble,
wants his daughter to marry Capellio, a sometime enemy. Bianca, the daughter, however, is in
love with a military hero, Falliero. Contareno threatens Bianca, forcing her to submit to the
marriage, but Falliero breaks up the ceremony. In act two he manages to meet Bianca alone, only
to have to flee. When caught at the Spanish Embassy, he is arrested. In the prolonged climax,
Falliero faces execution as a traitor to Venice, but Bianca’s protestations of love convince
Capellio to release her from the marriage to him, and eventually Contareno relents as well.
Characters in such a scenario do not have “arcs” — they tend to veer with manic speed from
exulting in triumph, through declarations of love, to cries of despair. The prolonged exposition of
the first act makes for slow-going, but Rossini composed some wonderful music for the second
act, with its greater variety of situation.
As with the better-known Tancredi, Rossini wrote the heroic lead for a mezzo, and Daniella
Barcellona would surely have delighted the composer. Almost twice as tall as her soprano, Maria
Bayo, Barcellona can use her size to effect a masculine pose. More importantly, her strong yet
flexible instrument delivers the music with style. And it takes some formidable singing to make a
viewer overlook the hideous costume forced upon Barcellona, a bizarre mish-mash of fur apron,
silky ruffled sleeves and leather. Perhaps her wild mane of hair is meant to evoke that of a lion,
since a huge representation of that animal, symbolic of the city, also dominates the staging of
Although close-ups reveal that Bayo is not truly of ingenue-age, in this performance her light
soprano sounds fresh. The duets with Barcellona have electricity, and her final scenes come off
especially well. The tenor lead here is the bad guy, Contareno, and the able Francesco Meli sings
him from a wheel-chair. At first your reviewer wondered if this was a director’s conceit, but the
Meli’s crutches at curtain indicate otherwise. The explanation for the painter and easel
throughout much of act one remains elusive.
Director Jean-Louis Martinoty tries to keep the action comprehensible and fresh, with the effort
being rather more evident than any success. The rear of the stage is often an enclosed space, and
occasionally Martinoty stages tableaux, such as Bianca asleep on a bed when Falliero reminisces
about her from his holding cell, and a fantasy wedding for the two lovers. A libretto like this
probably would be too nakedly archaic in a truly traditional production, while some updating or
director’s conceit would crush its fragile structure. Martinoty hasn’t found the solution, but he
hasn’t mangled the opera either.
The handsome sets are by Hans Schavernioch, and Daniel Ogier designed the attractive
costumes, apart from the misbegotten one for Falliero.
And since singing is what it’s all about in such an opera, special mention must be made of the
cameo by tenor Karel Pajer, actually double cast as Officer/Usher. His pungent, high-lying voice
melds beautifully with Barcellona in a short prison scene.
Rossinians will need no urging, but other opera fans should consider this set for the singing of
Barcellona and Bayo, especially in the strong second act.