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Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
19 Oct 2006

Rossini By The Sea 2006 Enjoying The Unexpected

The Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy, had as many surprises on the stage inside as the weather had outside.

The month of August in this resort town is usually filled with sunshine, but this year, the festival's first week was filled with cloudy days, intermittent rain showers, fluctuating humidity and some choppy waters, rare for the Adriatic resort town. As unexpected as the weather was, the outcome of the main operatic productions, proved equally topsy-turvy.

First was L'Italiana in Algeri, one of Rossini's most popular endearingly tuneful comedies, followed by the festival premiere of Torvaldo e Dorliska, an opera semi-seria. In another debut was Adelaide di Borgogna, presented in concert form.

Audiences were most likely expecting the fast-paced L'Italiana, to rise to the top of the performance scale with the relatively obscure Torvaldo on the bottom end. Torvaldo has never garnered a lasting reputation in the Rossini canon, as say, The Barber of Seville or Semiramide have, and has failed to inspire much musical appreciation in operatic circles.

It was, however, Mario Martone's fluid production of Torvaldo, interspersed with alternating moments of standstill intensity that captured the eye and ear of the festival's audiences. The director, who two years earlier had produced the now-fabled Matilde di Shabran for Pesaro(recorded on Decca), readily accepted the challenge of mounting the Torvaldo. This pre-romantic opera steadily swings in and out of comic and serious dramturgy. Even die-hard Rossinians accustomed to the composer's penchant for running musical themes of both genres in one work, had not had the opportunity to hear this opera in which the comic and serious aspects are meshed into the opera's characters. How this was so skillfully accomplished points to the artistic insights of the director and the conductor, Víctor Pablo Pérez.

Torvaldo is set in an unspecified European country around the 16th or 17th Century, and Martone's idea was to emphasize the dark, hooded woods surrounding the Castle of the Duke d'Ordow so that he could move his band of singers around the set, letting the music's flow be the main motivating factor into the building of well-rounded characterizations. Martone and Pérez recognized early on two noticeable drawbacks to the opera: Cesare Sterbini's libretto was not always explicit enough to do the job; and two, the opera contained weak patches of unexceptional music. They handled these weaknesses by supplying the extra dimensions needed: namely, a thoroughly developed directorial point of view, coupled with conducting that constantly supported the singers in giving Rossini's music the fullest performance value.

Although Torvaldo, the knight, is the hero, and Dorliska, his beloved ,the heroine, Martone also emplasized the role of the tyrannical Duke of d'Ordow, sung with great vocal insight by bass Michele Pertusi and bass Bruno Practicò who forged an interpretive gem as Giorgio, the custodian of the castle. By bringing these two characters to the forefront of the action to join Francesco Meli's Torvaldo, sung with intense muscular tones and Darina Takova's Dorliska, portrayed with veiled vocal dramatics, the director was abe to move these four characters in constant ebb and flow fashion. And when necessary, he held the action at salient parts in the storyline so the singers could execute Rossini's challenging vocal line, thereby setting up the opera as an ensemble piece.

Aiding the director in his plan to match stage movements with Rossini's lyrical transitions was set designer Mario Tramonti, who extended the proscenium out and around the orchestra pit allowing the singers greater freedom of movement. The designer also built side steps that led into the two main aisles of the intimate Teatro Rossini extending the action into an even wider area, creating the illusion of a desolate space facing the castle which we never saw, but could full imagine was there.

But what about the music in Torvaldo, an opera which hasn't enjoyed many performances over the years nor critical acclaim as a total work? There is much to admire in this opera that happenstance placed between Rossini's very successful drama, Elisabetta, Regina D'Inghilterra, and possibly his most popular comedy, The Barber of Seville. Bruno Cagli, Rossinian scholar and critic describes Torvaldo's overture in his program notes as "...a magnificent number of Schubertian refinement and grace..." which also includes quick woodwind and string flourishes ending with a touch of dissonance reminding us we will hear serious motives that tip toward the comic throughout the opera. Most of the memorable music in this opera is couched in segments that often surprise the listener by rising to the surface as cresting musical waves that thrill rather than break on the the shoreline as those big Rossini finales audiences are accustomed to from his more familiar works.

Probably the best example of one of these distingushing moments occurs more that half way through Act One. In a trio where the Duke, thinking that Torvaldo is dead and is ravaged with his own unrequited love for Dorliska, sings that he may finally have his love for her realized, Torvaldo, in disguise, reveals he is ready to do what it takes to get to his Dorliska, while Giorgio reflects on his conflict of loyalties, one to his master, the Duke, and, the other, his empathy for Torvaldo's plight. Here, Rossini not only shows his talent for part-writing, but supports their anxiety with a number of musical inventions, including a variety of tempos that show every aspect of their personal struggle. In this trio, Perutsi, Meli and Practicò are able to give full value to their musical gifts through clear expression of the text, rhythmic correctness and, best of all, to demonstrate this ability by sailing through the music with vocal assurance and aplomb.

At the beginning to the finale of Act One, Rossini composes a quartet - now including Carlotta, Giorgio sister-in which the Duke,Giorgio, Torvaldo and Carlotta commiserate about Dorliska upon her hearing that Torvaldo is dead. By adding the soprano line, the composer is able to fully shape the vocal refrain with such pathos, equaling the type of emotional response Verdi would accomplish in the future.

In Act Two, Torvaldo's aria of hope in finding Dorliska and her aria denouncing the Duke's amorous advances, give Meli and Takova the opportunity to express both the lyrical and dramatic qualities inherent in their voices. When the couple finally meets up, Rossini gave them a lovely short duet in which they renew their devotion, ending in a cadenza of quiet beauty. All this eventually leads to the Duke's defeat by the people's uprising against an oppressive ruler, ironically led by Giorgio, a comic and serious character fashioned by Rossini into one personality, and which Practicò with his vocal acting turned into a work of art.

The opera ends with general rejoicing for the restored peace allowing Torvaldo and Dorliska to be reunited. Rossini's spirited musical finale points to his experience in the classical style that requires pre-romantic opera to have a happy ending. But it was the combined efforts of Matrone and Pérez to complete the festival's audience enjoyment - by hearing one of Rossini's seldom performed works - and seeing it staged with confidence and a thorough understanding of the opera's quaint but heartfelt story.

Nick del Vecchio
Living at the Opera

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