Since founder and conductor John Crosby’s retirement in 2000, and the appointment that October of Richard Gaddes as General Director, with the subsequent assumption of those duties in 2008 by Charles MacKay, Santa Fe Opera’s musical quality and artistic values have grown impressively.
The pit orchestra has been constantly improved by such conductors as Edo de Waart and Alan Gilbert, and now by Frédéric Chaslin the current chief conductor. As a result, this season’s performances of two rare and especially challenging scores by Rossini and Szymanowski were beautifully realized by Chaslin and the young American music director Evan Rogister, showing high competence. Chaslin’s input as chief conductor for SFO, and especially as conductor of Rossini’s 1820 masterwork, Maometto II, proved invaluable. He’s a major asset.
Gioachino Rossini’s little-known tragedy enjoyed a splendid cast that included four highly gifted singers doing full justice to the severe vocal and musical demands set by the great Rossini in his fruitful Naples-San Carlo Opera years that were so creative (18 operas in seven years!). Santa Fe has now produced a superb Ermione (2000), as well as Maometto II from those years, and next season, La Donna del Lago (Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake), will be heard, completing a rich sampling of a famous, if not oft-performed, period of Italian bel canto history. This is true festival fare, and few opera companies have the resources or resolve to make it work as well as does the Santa Fe troupe. General Director Charles MacKay took risks in producing such repertory but all concerned have been well rewarded.
The rare Rossini had two key advocates to make it happen just now at Santa Fe: Italian lyric basso Luca Pisaroni, who was keen to sing the title role, and the distinguished musicologist Prof. Philip Gossett, who is editing a new critical edition of all Rossini’s works, and had ready at hand a reconstruction of the ‘original’ Naples version of 1820, mainly the work of distinguished Dutch musicologist and editor Hans Schellevis. Mr. Gossett said in a recent interview that the Santa Fe premiere is a tryout of the new scholarly score for evaluation in performance as part of the forthcoming edition of which he is General Editor.
Bel canto specialist Pisaroni wanted to perform the grand tragic piece that had haunted him since his young years when he witnessed the American basso Sam Ramey, in 1985 make a signal success as Maometto in Italy. Under MacKay’s leadership, the necessary support and talents were found and the rest is, literally, musical history. I expect future performances of Maometto II will in some way derive from Santa Fe’s premiere presentation of this important and newly refined masterwork of the Rossini canon.
Over the three hour duration of Maometto II, one may be challenged by the pouring forth of endless florid singing and flood of set pieces, connected by orchestrally accompanied recitatives in bel canto style. We are simply not used to hearing so many notes, so many verses, so many melodic and musical tropes and schemes, and their repetition and lengthy development - so much material, in fact, that Rossini’s middle-period serious works may briefly turn tedious. But then a new idea or musical delight makes it all worthwhile. The music is often glorious, romantic or heroic; solo arias, trios or larger forms, much of it pleases and often thrills. I cannot detail it all, but the performance of a 30-minute terzetto in Act I is one of the most remarkable developments in musical form in its time, even if today it may occasionally seem redundant. In Rossini’s time he was pushing the art with his experimental operas. Maometto II is a Rossini tragic opera, not known to the general opera public, that could command any major world stage and just now there are singers capable of performing it.
In addition to Pisaroni, to whom all laud and glory for his performance, the cast included a young Connecticut soprano Leah Crocetto providing a lovely assumption of Anna, in love with Maometto the Turkish general who is seeking to conquer her homeland, the Venetian colony Negroponte, and the stunning Irish mezzo soprano Patricia Bardon, as Venetian General Calbo (a trouser role), who loves Anna - a highly theatrical triangle, as Anna is put in the true focal point of the opera in making a choice between love and honor. Ms. Crocetto’s youth gives her the ability to move freely and well on stage, in spite of a certain avoir-du-pois, and most of all her warm singing is fresh, strong, technically brilliant and filled with great potential for the drammatico d’agilita roles of Rossini, Bellini, perhaps Spontini and others that are popular today. If she seemed to be occasionally marking time, all was forgiven in the death scene finale, when over a full chorus she spun out ravishing pianissimo tones and then, in her suicide scene, forceful dramatic outcries that bespoke an end to her agonies. Wow!
Ms. Bardon had a similar success with her big scene, an aria encompassing the widest possible mezzo range of both emotion and music. Her voice was full and mature in the best way, filling all florid demands and offering exhilarating color and rhetorical ‘punch.’ Bardon gave her all and maybe ten per cent more, with spectacular results. One more singer was a key to success, as Paolo Erisso, Anna’s desperate father and Head of the Venetians in Negroponte, attempting to defend all against the irrepressible Turks, namely California tenor Bruce Sledge whose bright high tenor served perfectly.
I heard the second performance, July 18, when Susan Sheston’s chorus, comprised mainly of the opera’s apprentice singers, performed their important music accurately and nobly. They had serious work to do and did it well. Smaller solo roles were successfully taken by Matthrew Newlin and Michael Daily.
Stage direction and scenic and costume design were in the hands of the celebrated Director David Alden and visual designer Jon Morrell who were highly effective. Alden’s work was mainly traditional, as it should be for Rossini, and much enhanced by Morrell whose innovative unit set was dynamic and surprising with costumes that were rich and pleasing. Choreographer Peggy Hickey must be commended for her dancers and dancing singers who made the Turco-Venetian hand combat scene into a quasi-Ninja ballet, cleverly realized. Fight director Jonathan Rider had a strong hand in this as did reliable lighting director, Duane Schuler. Maometto II turned out to be one of the most compelling evenings of music theater, if of a certain bel canto style, that I have seen in Santa Fe.
© J.A. Van Sant, 2012