Rossini’s rarely performed opera seria Maometto II opened at the Four Seasons Centre last night in a production by David Alden and with substantially the same cast as when it played in Santa Fe on 2012. This is the restored Maometto in the edition prepared by Hans Schellevis in an attempt to get as close to Rossini’s initial Naples score as possible. So, no happy ending and all the complexity of Rossini’s original design.
The plot is straightforward enough. Maometto, the conqueror of Constantinople, is besieging Negroponte, a Venetian outpost. The governor, Erisso, wishes to marry his daughter Anna to the noble Calbo. She demurs on the grounds that she is in love with the mysterious Uberto. All are captured by the Turks. Uberto turns out to have been Maometto in disguise and he still wants to marry Anna but she’s not having it. She is able to engineer the release of Erisso and Calbo and finagle an improbable turnaround that enables the Venetians to win the battle. Anna, still in the hands of the Turks, commits suicide on her mother’s tomb. This is supported by music of considerable complexity that strays a long way from the normal recitative – aria structure of opera seria. There are more ensembles than solo arias, some of them of great length, and it really anticipates the later through sung works of Verdi and, above all, Wagner. One can see why it rather baffled an 1820s audience. The writing too demands extremes of bel canto technique from the four principals and there can’t be many bass-baritones who have the agility to sing the title role.
David Alden’s production is quite striking. Much turns on Jon Morell’s set design. It’s all framed by two curved walls that can be moved apart to provide a view of something far up stage; for example, the flames of the burning city. There’s a sort of “door” stage right that can be lowered to reveal stuff; a shrine, Maometto’s chariot etc and stage left there’s a section of wall that Maometto crashes through in his initial entrance. Coupled with a dramatic lighting plot by Duane Schuler it allows for a wide range of sometimes spectacular effects without need for time consuming scene changes. The blocking, especially the choruses, is thoughtful and there is good use of dance (David Laera – choreographer), something of a rarity at the COC. I particularly liked the ninja Turk spearmen and the female death/shaman figure who taunts Anna in Act 2. Its exciting and spectacular but nothing is gratuitous and it supports our understanding of both plot and character development. Just what an opera production should be.
The performances are spectacular. I guess the big draw is Luca Pisaroni in the title role. He is pretty fantastic. He looks the part and does the necessary job of convincing us that the “alien” Maometto is really the most noble and human character in the drama, upsetting both ancient and modern stereotypes. And, yes, he manages the florid music with agility and ease. His antagonist, Erisso, is played by Bruce Sledge; a new name to me. He’s terrific. Pretty much the ideal Rossini tenor for a non comedic role. It’s a big, flexible, quite beautiful voice and he’s a convincing actor. Anna is played by fast rising soprano Leah Crocetto and she is superb. The final scene is heartbreaking and it’s a huge credit to Crocetto that right at the end of a very big sing she’s still got the gas to sing a breathtakingly beautiful and very long final aria. Actually it may be one of the longest “dying breaths” in opera. The quartet is rounded out by Liz DeShong as Calbo. It’s her first heroic pants role we are told and all I can say is that the heroic pants fit pretty well. Consistently excellent, she brought the house down with her big Act 2 number Non temer: d’un basso affetto. There are brief but effective appearances by Ensemble Studio tenors Charles Sy and Aaron Sheppard as the respective commander’s sidekicks. Sy in particular sounded well able to stand in starry company albeit for a brief cameo.
Harry Bicket conducts most sympathetically. Above all, he manages to maintain a forward momentum that respects the way the piece is scored. It has it’s fair share of Rossinian longeurs and if it had become a stop start affair with lots of pauses for applause it could have got pretty slow. It didn’t. He also managed to produce some lovely playing especially from the woodwinds who are the glory of this score orchestrally. There’s a particularly lovely clarinet solo to listen for.
Unless one has a particularly violent aversion to Rossini I’d say this was pretty much a “must see”. I’m going back on Tuesday and if I don’t see something I missed first time around it will be a first for a David Alden production.
Maometto II continues at the Four Seasons Centre until May 14th.
Photo credits: Michael Cooper except no.3 which is by Gary Beechey.