04 Jun 2013

Rossini Maometto Secondo at Garsington Opera - David Parry speaks

Garsington Opera at Wormsley is producing the British premiere of Giacomo Rossini´s Maometto Secondo. Garsington Opera is well-known for its role in reviving Rossini rarities in Britain. Since 1994, there have been 14 productions of 12 Rossini operas, and David Parry has conducted eleven since 2002. He´s very enthusiastic about Maometto Secondo.

"It's a masterpiece", he says. "It's great music drama, with a strong story presented very clearly. There are four main characters - not many for a Rossini opera - and each of them are conflicted in interesting ways. Rossini writes big musical constructions so there is an epic feeling about the piece, and the scenes are very animated".

Two empires collide in Maometto Secondo. The Ottoman Turks have conquered Constantinople and now are poised to control the western Mediterranean. They have besieged the Venetian outpost at Negroponte. Both Maometto II and Paolo Erisso, the garrison commander, were historical figures, although their portrayal in the opera is fiction. Anna, Erisso´s daughter, is expected to marry a Venetian hero, Calbo, but has fallen in love with a mysterious stranger. When the Turks capture the fortress, the stranger turns out to be the Sultan himself, who had been disguised as a spy. Torn between love and loyalty, Anna kills herself. Rossini expresses her turmoil in a long passage of extreme coloratura with stunning effect.

"All the parts are written with amazing coloratura passages, but that´s not simply for display", adds Parry. "It is a dramatic device. Its principal function is to push singers to the edge of their abilities to project the extreme situations they are singing about".

"Rossini knew the singers he worked with in Naples very well, and knew what he could expect from them. His first Anna, who premiered the role, was Isabella Colbran, whom he later married. Fillipo Galli, who sang Maometto, had a range of over two octaves and was one of the most celebrated basses of the time"

"I have heard many difficult operas in my life, but Maometto Secondo is one of the most demanding for voice. Between the 1830´s and the 1980´s, the opera wasn´t performed because singing was absorbed into the Wagner/Verdi/Puccini nexus where volume and heft were prized, and rightly so, but it was at the expense of flexibility and the ability to sing long decorative runs. Maria Callas started the ball rolling again for bel canto. She could fill a house with Isolde yet also sing Norma and Elvira." She defined it not as "good singing" but as an aesthetic based on discipline and good taste. "When she was interviewed by Lord Harewood in 1967, she told him that all singers should be able to do coloratura. `If you can´t do coloratura, you can´t sing´. I completely concur with that. It´s as if a pianist were to say he could only play chords but not progressions. Now singers are trained to sing different styles, and we can again cast operas like this".

Garsington Opera at Wormsley is using the new critical edition of Maometto Secondo compiled by Hans Schellevis, staged for the first time last year in Santa Fe. "It´s scholarly and supported by men like Phillip Gossett. The physical presentation of the old edition was terrible, covered with amendments. It reinstates the original Rossini wrote for the Teatro San Carlo, Naples in 1820. When the opera was performed in the Teatro La Fenice two years later, he had to revise it with a `happy ending´ to flatter the audience in Venice. Rossini created a third version, Le siège de Corinthe, which is effectively a different opera. The mezzo part is taken by tenor, for example. The new edition we are using at Garsington Opera at Wormsley is definitely the strongest, musically and dramaturgically".

The staging at Garsington Opera will be completely new, directed by Edward Dick with designs by Robert Innes Hopkins. "Rossini was agnostic and the opera is not religious. There are no black and white heroes or villains. It´s a clash of cultures. The Venetian colony was business oriented, devoted to wealth creation, quite buttoned up and repressed. The Turks are much more free and easy, with their bodies and with life in general. So Anna is swept off her feet by this extraordinary free and loving person whose attitudes on life and sex are so different to her parents. But she can´t resolve the conflicts.She commits suicide on stage, which in itself was a shock to the mores of the time".

"Rossini uses a very clear formal structure, but within that there is very expressive music. The atmosphere of each opera is distinctive though the formal procedures are similar. This creative tension between formality and musical content makes the drama interesting. In recitatives, tempi can flow naturalistically. In arias, time is frozen, though the music is continuous. The music prolongs the intentions behind the words that are being sung. Music is the engine of drama in opera. A good libretto helps, but without music, we might as well be listening to a play with sound effects".

David Parry is a charismatic figure, highly respected in British opera circles for his championship of bel canto and other operatic rarities At Garsington Opera, he has conducted so much Rossini that he has helped create its reputation as a specialist Rossini house. He´s also involved with Opera Rara and Chandos Records. He conducted Anthony Minghella´s award-winning Madama Butterfly at the English National Opera. He´s keen on contemporary work as well, and was Music Director of Almeida Opera from 1992.

Rossini´s Maometto Secondo at Garsington Opera at Wormsley runs from 8th June to 10th July. More details are available on the website here. Anna will be sung by Siân Davies, making her European debut. The veteran Paul Nilon, a long term Garsington Opera stalwart, will sing Paolo Erisso.Darren Jeffery will sing Maometto Secondo and Caitlin Hulcup will sing Calbo.

Anne Ozorio