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A scene from L'Italiana in Algeri [Photo courtesy of Rossini Opera Festival]
22 Aug 2013

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro 2013

An overly sophisticated L’italiana in Algeri, a sublime, interminable Guillaume Tell (William Tell), a nostalgic L’occasione fa il ladro.

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro 2013

A review by Michael Milenski

Above: A scene from L'Italiana in Algeri

Photos courtesy of Rossini Opera Festival


Two years ago Italian metteur en scène Davide Livermore (lee-ver-mo-ray) staged Rossini’s very first little opera, Demetrio e Polibio. The staging wasn’t about Demetrio e Polibio, it was about fire (live flames were passed about the stage and floated through the theater), surprising effects that distracted us from the slightness of Rossini’s adolescent attempt. Last year Sig. Livermore staged Rossini’s first tragedy, Ciro in Babilonia. The Livermore metaphor was silent film, likening the primitive moments of cinema to the primitive Rossini. The slight opera was told in startlingly complex early filmic image and color, the magnitude of which overwhelmed any tragic innocence that might have flowed from the young composer.

Just now the prestigious festival bestowed Rossini’s second full length comedy, L’italiana in Algeri (1813) upon Sig. Livermore. L’italiana is in fact Rossini’s first masterpiece though it does not yet host all of the musical and dramatic complexities that operatically deify the composer from Pesaro.

Sig. Livermore does not however lack in complexities. He smothered the Rossini comedy with sight gags, lazzi in commedia dell’arte terms. They were non-stop, some amusing, some really amusing, some annoying, some really annoying, and everything in between. It was an immense, astonishing catalog that towered in sheer scale above the simple comedic process of the libretto which Rossini had taken on after another composer had backed out.

The Mustafà, the bey of Algiers, accidentally shoots down a DC 6 (four propellers) carrying the Italiana to Algiers from where her distressed boyfriend had telephoned her for help. A section of the plane crashed onto the stage from which emerged two stewardesses who joined two platinum wigged ladies of the harem and one eunuch in non-stop backup routines à la Supremes through the curtain calls.

Mustafà took some pre-Viagra stimulus that so enflamed his prowess that smoke poured from his pants. However pages of women’s magazines from the 1960‘s were projected to inform women how to be beautiful, keep fit and cook good food, in short how to be the worldly and wily Italiana who could make short work indeed of a simple male libido.

Comic book style videos abounded to take us from place to place, and make us homesick for mamma, a real mamma seemed to be present most of the time (it looked like a guy in travesty) to remind us that mamma is not always beautiful. Sig. Livermore is nothing if not slickly theatrical. Rossini, come to think of it, is slickly theatrical too but these two theatrical minds did not seem to be talking to each other.

The Rossini Festival layered on the ironies casting an Italiana who was not Italian at all, but Russian! Mezzo soprano Anna Goryachova is a toothsome young singer from the Zurich Opera. She held the stage with her looks and her long legs more than with her voice which is of burnished beauty and capable of clean if not joyous fioratura. Her rival Elvira, young Italian soprano Mariangela Sicilia has much less to sing but has the obligation to top off the ensembles which she did with force of voice if not personality.

_DSC5867totale.gifA scene from Guillaume Tell

Italian bass Alex Esposito commanded our full attention as Mustafà with strong, firm fioratura that raged magnificently when necessary. Mr. Esposito in the prime of vocal estate, a spirited, charismatic actor of inextinguishable theatrical energy. Director Livermore did not wish to channel this splendid young performer into a character who would finally charm us with the warmth of his male simplicity, instead he turned him into a pig in the failed Pappataci finale leaving us bereft of sympathy for such a fine performance.

Young Chinese tenor Vljie Shi is a protégé of the Pesaro festival. These days he seems to be the festival’s artistic director Alberto Zedda’s tenor of choice for Rossini’s elegiac heros. Mr. Shi sang Lindoro with superb Rossini style if not with impressive voice. He is a willing if not convincing actor. His was the least vivid performance of the evening earning him the biggest ovation from an audience that had suffered way too much stimulus. Not to be overlooked was the fine performance of Davide Luciano as Mustafà’s lieutenant Haly, a character that director Livermore constantly paired with the silent eunuch for some reason. Mr. Luciano gave a fine account of his obligatory aria, included even though it was not penned by Rossini.

Festival culture vaunts risk, and risk always seems to be dramaturgical rather than musical. But the Rossini Festival threw caution to the wind and engaged Spanish conductor José Ramós Encinar for L’italiana. Mo. Encinar who is a specialist in contemporary Spanish orchestra music and opera informed Rossini with a clarity of tone developed by studious tempos, achieving at rare times a near Rossini delirium. Notable also was specific and unusual articulation in the ensembles. The dissatisfaction expressed toward Mo. Encinar at the bows of the second performance may have been a response to the stage rather than to his pit.

Rossini’s Guillaume Tell premiered in Paris in 1829. It was in the line-up of operas each year at of the Paris Opera until 1876, missing only 1849, the year of the Spring of Nations revolutions that pitted downtrodden Europeans against undemocratic authority. For good reason — Rossini’s opera is about abused Swiss peasants who rebel against tyrannical Austrian rule. It is a purely political piece that would have further fueled the fires of that particular French revolution.

Rossini’s Guillaume Tell is a French “grand” opera, meaning there is a surfeit of ballet and spectacle, and there is a sentimentalism that is not at all Rossini. It is the final, and a unique moment in the Rossini operatic oeuvre signaling that the two centuries of opéra seria of which he was the final glory were now history.

These days it is rarely performed because it is simply too long — five hours plus — and impossible to cut without sacrificing dramatic integrity and extraordinarily fine music. The French grand opera form demands a ballet in the first act (here a peasant triple wedding) and a ballet in the third act (a peasant celebration). At the end there is a huge storm that must be staged to wipe out the villains so that everyone can live happily ever after or until another revolution is needed.

The Rossini Festival supplied brilliant solutions to the grand opera challenges. First and foremost the opera was staged in the Adriatic Arena, a sports coliseum that the festival transforms into a viable 1500 seat theater. Here a production is an installation rather than scenery placed behind a proscenium, and the installation space is immense. Over the past several years it has proven itself one of the world’s most challenging, spectacular and rewarding stages.

Graham Vick is one of opera’s most overtly political stage directors. With his designer Paul Brown he created a massive white space with a single point forced perspective into the corner of a museum exhibition space, its ceiling a reverse perspective thrust well into the auditorium enclosing the audience visually within the museum.

Along one wall huge glass windows revealed a diorama exhibition space, along the opposite wall was a high gallery opening. The museum image was complicated by the presence of a period movie camera in the Austrian public scenes and by a massive wooden trestle supporting huge theatrical lights that descended finally to the floor in the battle scene where realistic looking, life size horses were mounted by the chorus. It was a sculpted, onstage diorama.

These images insisted that the production was not fiction, it was actual documented history, illuminated on a stage. William Tell was not simply a mythical figure made a household word by the overture that bears his name but was an actual husband and father and martyr for freedom.

Without the famed ballet of the Paris Opera to execute about an hour and a half of dance Graham Vick worked with his long time collaborator, choreographer Ron Howell to create dance sequences that were pointedly political, therefore more acrobatic than balletic (abrupt, muscular rather than refined movement). Nine dancers plus one talented singer (the evil tyrant Gesler) were soloists with a corps de ballet made up of supernumeraries, and sometimes the chorus all of whom managed some smooth looking background dance movement.

Gesler and his Austrian cronies abused the peasants in the third act dances in a crescendo of ugly images of subjugation ever more painful to observe. Rossini’s Parisian divertissements became quite real representations of repression. Some of the spectators at the second performance really got the point (the very real need to rebel) and booed the dancers when finally (it was very, very long) we could offer some applause and move on to William Tell’s attempt to save his son’s life with the famous arrow/apple trick.

There may be only one person more appreciated in Pesaro than Juan Diego Flórez and that is young conductor Michele Mariotti (the son of Gianfranco Mariotti [the sovrintendente of the festival] and graduate of Pesaro’s Rossini Conservatory), already one of the world’s most sought after conductors for the bel canto repertory. The Rossini overture was played in front of the red fist of the show curtain, a balance of classical elegance, Rossini verve and dramatic intensity — forget the Lone Ranger, it was hearing a magnificent piece of music in perfect context for the first time.

Pesaro_L'occasione2.gifA scene from L’occasione fa il ladro

Conductor Mariotti paced the long evening carefully, carving Rossinian detail and new found sentimentalism in unhurried expositions of singing, the extended dramatic recitatives integral to French opera, the arias of course, and more particularly the ensembles — the huge male trio of the second act (Tell, his accomplice Walter Furst and the lovesick Arnold), the mind-boggling quartet in the third act (Tell, his son Jemmy, the tyrant Gesler, his henchman Rodulphe), and finally, many hours into the performance the stunning trio for three female voices (Tell’s wife and son Jemmy plus Mathilde [Arnold’s Austrian girl-friend]) still probing musical and dramatic depth with total indifference to audience fatigue.

Making an opera about Swiss peasantry was as uncontroversial back in 1829 as it would be now. Nonetheless Guillaume Tell is about oppressed peasants and there are always lots of them everywhere, plus French grand opera likes big music. Rossini responded with a huge number of complex chorus numbers and chorus in concert with soloists as in the magnificent finale when William Tell himself leads the emancipated peasants into a world reborn to freedom, to the rebirth of pure, enlightened nature. The outward point of the ceiling of the museum descended revealing a red staircase leading upward and outward of the museum. William Tell urged his son Jemmy into this pure world to Rossini’s moving, pastoral adieu to the tyrants and villains of opera.

There were no cuts made to the 1995 Fondazione Rossini critical edition so the performance began at 6 PM rather than at 8 PM — meaning we could get back to our hotels by midnight. There were no supertitles, in fact the program booklet (in which it is standard practice to include the libretto) provided the libretto only in French. The Rossini Festival provided a perfect cast, listed below.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, in Rossini parlance this means the sublimely ridiculous and that was L’occasione fa il ladro, one of the three, one act farces (about one and one half hours in length) Rossini composed in 1812. The truly dumb, incredibly complicated story defies summary, except to say that a petty theft resulted in two couples living happily ever after after just about everything had become therefore totally messed up.

Only a Rossini could make sense of it, and that sense was musical, stretched out into five major arias, one duet, one quintet and a finale. Of the six singers needed the Rossini Festival cast four who are in initial career stages, three of whom have participated in the festival’s Accademia Rossiniana. This is the festival’s young artist program that each year tutors young singers in Rossini style and results in the annual performance of Il viaggio a Reims.

Consistent with current vocal tastes at the festival the two female roles were cast with Russians! Soprano Elena Tsallagova of the Deutsch Oper Berlin sang Berenice (a proto-Rosina role) though her career seems to be heading well outside bel canto. Mezzo soprano Viktoria Yarovava who sings the maid Ernestina was in the Accademia in 2009, then invited to sing in Demetrio e Polibio on the main stage the next year. Her warm and supple voice and apparent charm are leading her to the more famous Rossini roles, notably Rosina and Cenerentola.

Consistent with the national genius all four male roles were sung by Italians! Don Eusebio was sung by tenor Giorgio Misseri, an Accademia participant in 2011 who proved himself here a singing actor of true promise. He is now a part of the young artist program at the Teatro de la Scala. Conte Alberto, Ernestina’s rather colorless protector, was sung by tenor Enea Scala, a former participant in the Pesaro Accademia who has embarked on a lively career.

Martino, Don Eusebio’s servant (the proto-Figaro role) was soundly executed by 41 year old baritone Paolo Bordogna, who has performed roles at the Rossini Festival since 2005. Don Parmenione, was sung by veteran baritone Roberta de Candia who seems now to be exploring buffo roles rather than the straight baritone roles of his earlier career.

The Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini was conducted by Mlle. Yi-Chen Ling, a young Taiwanese woman who comes out of the Accademia Rossiana as well. She seems to be very comfortable in the Rossini ethos, though providing a tight musical ambiance in which the singers were held in strict control and from which Rossini seemed to escape from time to time in brief flights of spirit.

The major interest in this production was however the revival of the 1987 production by the great French designer/stage director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (1932-1988). Typical of many Ponnelle productions this one too was referential to staging techniques that had long sense fallen from use. In L’occasione fa il ladro he plays with sketches of painted canvas panels that used to be the basis of all scenery. These drops were hung inside the stage constructed within the Teatro Rossini stage. During the performance about 15 stagehands were busily at work, a vista, manipulating old ropes connected to an old style wooden grid (the skeleton of the roof structure of a primitive stage). The drops and props were changed, always a vista by the stagehands when the action moved from place to place.

Ponnelle acolyte Sonja Frisell, a stage director of great subsequent accomplishment, recreated the Ponnelle staging that played with the stage space, making use of the auditorium itself as an entrance (Martino started the proceedings by rushing down the aisle to hand the maestra her score). he later used the orchestra pit as a quick escape from the stage jumping into it and out of it as need be to move along the action. The floor of the stage within the stage was a low platform from which the singers stepped down onto the apron of the Teatro Rossini stage for the larger, purely musical events.

A sense of nostalgia was very present for the work of one of the 20th century’s most important and influential stage director, for a time when old opera as contemporary theater was finding its footing, and for a simplicity of concept that may now seem naive but back then seemed, and in fact was a brilliant way to give new life to old art.

Michael Milenski

Cast and production information:

L’italiana in Algeri

Mustafà: Alex Esposito; Elvira: Mariangela Sicilia; Zulma: Raffaella Lupinacci; Haly; Davide Luciano; Lindoro: Yijie Shi; Isabella: Anna Goryachova; Taddeo: Mario Cassi. Orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Conductor: José Ramón Encinar; Metteur en scéne: Davide Livermore; Scenery and projections: Nicolas Bovey; Costumes: Gianluca Falaschi. Teatro Rossini, Pesaro. August 13, 2013.

Guillaume Tell

Guillaume Tell: Nicola Alaimo;  Arnold Melchtal: Juan Diego Flórez; Walter Furst: Simon Orfila; Melchtal: Simone Alberghini; Jemmy: Amanda Forsythe; Gesler: Luca Tittoto; Rodolphe: Alessandro Luciano; Ruodi Pêcheur: Celso Albelo; Leuthold / Un Chasseur: Wojtek Gierlach; Mathilde: Marina Rebeka; Hedwige: Veronica Simeoni. Orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Conductor: Michele Mariotti; Metteur en scène: Graham Vick; Scenery and costumes: Paul Brown; Choreographer: Ron Howell; Lighting: Giuseppe di Iorio. Adriatic Arena, Pesaro, August 14, 2013.

L’occasione fa il ladro

Don Eusebio: Giorgio Misseri; Berenice: Elena Tsallagova; Conte Alberto: Enea Scala;   Don Parmenione; Roberto de Candia; Ernestina: Viktoria Yarovaya; Martino: Paolo Bordogna. Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini. Conductor: Yi-Chen Lin; Metteur en scéne scenography and costumes: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle; Stage director: Sonja Frisell. Teatro Rossini, Pesaro. August 15, 2013.

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