Monday, December 12, 2016

Rossini’s Two Faces

Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri (1813)
Metropolitan Opera
October 15, 2016

The bey has eyes for any and every dame
Photo credit: Met Opera
Going into Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri, I was ready for some pure escapist entertainment. It is, after all, Rossini in all of his early opera buffa glory. What I didn't brace myself for was the absolute timeliness of the piece. In it, an ultra wealthy man abuses his power and status to grope and fondle any woman he wishes. The plot was all too close to the scene unfolding on the national political stage.

The production takes us back to the good old days with Ponnelle
Photo credit: Met Opera
But it was still an unplug-and-have-fun kind of evening, nevertheless. Just let the music and vocal acrobatics wash over you. Silly, yes, but so pleasurable. Like a bubbly, exotic cocktail you can’t get enough of. The Met’s long-standing easy-breezy production dates back to the more traditional (but no less boisterous) days of the great Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. It is minimal enough in its period detail to provide many fluid changes of scene, but the elephantine stage felt too big for the charming scale of the mad-capped action.

Ildar steals the show with his sultanesque shenanigans
Photo credit: Met Opera
The outstanding Russian baritone Ildar Abdrazakov as the bey Mustafà stole the show – not only was he hilarious, but he sounded great too. He literally chewed the scenery to shreds with his zany take on the crazy sultan, right down to his feverish finale as a new recruit to the ranks of the illustrious Pappataci. I've never seen such an energetic performance on stage at the Met. He was straight out of a cartoon and clearly having a lot of fun playing the self-absorbed, sex-driven, capricious, exuberant bey.

Lindoro holds fast to his romantic ties
Photo credit: Met Opera
Tenor René Barbera filled his role as the pining lover Lindoro with warmth and grace (which was particularly appreciated after hearing the tenor in Tell). His Languir per una bella caught me off guard as it often does – the tender hearted nucleus of the first act that it is. So nice.

Soprano Marianna Pizzolato was vocally solid too, though she seemed to be missing that certain sparkle and maybe came off bit too matronly, though in many regards she is the one figure who actually grounds the piece. The other three male leads are merely satellites in orbit around her gravitational pull. So the matronly may not be entirely misguided.

The matronly gravitational center of the piece exerts her pull
Photo credit: Met Opera
You could not help but smile and often just burst into bellyful laughs. Billed as Rossini’s first big breakout piece, L’italiana is truly irresistible bel canto. I rather prefer Il turco in Italia – with its more dynamic, less schematic plot – but come on, really, who can resist Rossini when he’s at his opera buffa best?

It's back to the beloved patria for these wayward souls
Photo credit: Met Opera 

* * *

Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (1829)
Metropolitan Opera
October 21, 2016

Time for a very dramatic change of pace, but this is still Rossini
Photo credit: Met Opera
Less than a week later and we found ourselves back at the Met for another helping of Rossini's genius. After seeing his first big hit, it was time to see the last opera he would ever compose, the august and profoundly dramatic, Guillaume Tell. You really couldn't conjure a starker opposition. These two operas are really like night and day.

The Met’s new production by Pierre Audi was neither here nor there. Guillaume Tell is a timeless story about a marginalized people rising up against oppression but the costumes were all over the place and made it distracting to really get into the emotions of this story that is so full of hope. Guillaume looked like Obi Wan Kenobi from the initial Star Wars franchise and together with the abstract sets it seemed like maybe they were going for a sparse modern Druid à la Norma kind of thing, in Ikea-looking raw lumber framed houses. But then some bits were futuristic. Costumes ran the gamut from Shakespearean wench to nineteenth-century garden-party dandy to dominatrix to Nazi officer. Then all of a sudden the world was divided into those who wear linen and those who wear black leather. The whole thing was hard to pin down. With visual touches that were added as mere symbols like the hull of the boat that recalls the shape of the bow that Tell will use to save the day. All in all, the production did very little for me.

The new production is all Star Wars meets Ikea
Photo credit: Met Opera
In the title role, Canadian bass-baritone Gerard Finley came out a little cold for me. He didn't have the forceful muscularity that I look for in his duet Ou vais tu in the first act. His accompaniment should give Arnauld a basso ostinato ground that is deep and full against which the young lover can dance his fanciful ear-candy melody. It is one of my favorite duets in the opera, not least of all because it bears certain similarities with a number from Rossini’s earlier Otello, which I rank as one of the greatest overlooked gems at the top of his oeuvre. But by Act III, Finley had warmed up. His Sois immobile (to his son, right before aiming at the famous apple) was extremely moving.

The lovers meet across enemy lines
Photo credit: Met Opera
Soprano Marina Rebekah as Mathilda was out of this world. She is bright and agile and strikes a commanding stage presence. Tenor Bryan Hymel may have been proficient technically but he has a high-pitched sound that I found grating and annoying. I cringed when he opened his mouth for most of the evening. It sounded like he had a frog stuck in his throat. Maybe it wasn't his night, though he seemed to be quite warmly received by the rest of the audience. He really wasn't doing it for me.

It's all linen versus leather, all of a sudden
Photo credit: Met Opera
Rossini’s use of the chorus is utterly striking. In the first half of the opera the chorus is all hippie happy in their celebration of their provincial lifestyle as an open-air mountain loving people. The joy is palpable in those first movements, which is what makes it extra poignant that Rossini’s third act ballet takes the form of an exhibition of dominatrixes and domination. The female cronies of the Habsburg tyrant lash and whip the poor peasants forcing them to party till they drop. The palpable choral joy of the previous acts gets pushed to exhaustion, crisis and collapse. Many people sitting in our section thought it was too long, overly extravagant, done to death. But that is exactly the point. Rossini very effectively does the poor oppressed peasants to death.

Tell puts young love in its revolutionary place
Photo credit: Met Opera
As the great bel canto composer’s swan song, Guillaume Tell is grandiose, complex, deep. It's hard to believe that less than two decades later Tell could come from the same pen that produced L’italiana in Algeri. Little Gioachino is all grown up. There are just so many more layers at play here. Melody and vocal acrobatics are not just virtuosic ends in themselves but are actually used to express emotions and to tell a compelling story of profound socio-political importance. Its pervasive nationalistic sentiment provides another link to a brief jingoistic interlude toward the end of Litaliana in Algeri. The same spirit will go on to pervade the works of the later Verdi as well. In fact, Rossini’s use of the chorus as a true character of the opera made me think of some of the innovations Verdi brings to his haunting and unique Giovanna D’Arco.

Sois immobile! In other words: Be still!
Photo credit: Met Opera
And of course the Tell overture is such a blockbuster and so much fun and electrifying, that I could just not sit still. So much so that when it was pouring rain after the show, we had to forego our usual stroll home and took the subway instead. On the platform, the resident sax player was bringing down the post-show house by playing bits from that very same overture, which was more joyous fun. I was still shaking it to the endlessly recycled melodies of Rossini’s immortal genius.

All in all, the opera was very long but it was nevertheless pretty action packed so it never felt weighed down. Actually, the first act kind of sets the stage and after that there was a whole slew of plot developments that kept me on the edge of my seat. So much going on in the narrative, so many musical ideas and so much dramatic tension. It is a very enjoyable opera. I only wish the production delivered on its new Met production promise.

– Lei & Lui
The last will be first.
Photo credit: Met Opera

The apple of daddy's eye
Photo credit: Met Opera

Evil is really, really evil in this one
Photo credit: Met Opera

No comments:

Post a Comment