Sunday, February 26, 2017

Rossini Discoveries in Philly

Rossini’s Tancredi
Opera Philadelphia
February 19, 2017

A man goes down in this Rossini innovation
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia 
We can never get enough bel canto, so when we heard that Opera Philadelphia was staging the rare Rossini opera seria Tancredi with an intriguing cast, we seized the opportunity and made a Philly weekend getaway out of it. When it comes to satisfying high quality opera tourism near New York City, it turns out that Philadelphia is an excellent destination. It’s a highly walkable city with great museum (Barnes Foundation!), a robust food and drink scene and a well-balanced, quality opera program. The 2016/2017 season at Opera Philadelphia includes two contemporary works (Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves and a modern adaptation of Verdi’s Macbeth – same libretto but new music by Fabrizio Cassol), two classics (Turandot and Nozze) and the revival of a forgotten Rossini gem, Tancredi.

The Academy of Music
Photo credit: Geoffrey Goldberg
In a burst of nerdiness, we got to the Academy of Music one hour before the show, to catch an introductory talk, that also gave us ample time to take in the stunning theater. Relatively small and beautifully decorated, it felt like stepping back in time and being swept to a historic European opera house. Interestingly, the 1857 theater is claimed to be the oldest venue in the U.S. still used for its original purpose. Opera Philadelphia seems to be doing a good job of luring crowds that are beyond the usual octogenarian upper crust opera public. We are glad to report that the Sunday matinee we attended had a very diverse set of patrons of all ages and from all sorts of backgrounds. A lot of families with teenage kids, too – gotta start them young!

Miscommunication belies the plot
Photo credit: Kelly & Massa
Now, about Tancredi. First things first, a summary of the little known plot that isn’t exactly the tightest. (Though to be fair it isn’t that crazy). Amenaide, a Siracusan Juliet-type, sends a letter to her exiled love interest, Tancredi (who is traveling and never receives the letter). Meantime Amenaide’s father makes peace with the opposing family in town and betroths her to his previous enemy in an act of good faith. She is reluctant to go along with the feudal arrangement, when the letter that never arrived is intercepted near the external enemy’s camp and is taken as proof of her treachery against her fatherland and family. Even Tancredi (who suddenly pops up in Siracusa) takes it as such. Amenaide is sentenced to death for treason (by decree of her own torn father!). However Tancredi won’t abide by the sentence. He steps up to challenge her accuser and betrothed in a duel to defend her honor. But getting her off the hook isn’t enough to satisfy the stubborn and fearless Tancredi.

After defeating the evil internal villain, Orbazzano, Tancredi takes his fight to the external enemy, the unseen Muslim invader Solamir. Amenaide is desperate to express her gratitude and explain the whole mix up of the mislaid letter but Tancredi won’t hear it. He’s on a mission to win glory against the Saracens. And although (at least in this version) he is mortally wounded in the skirmish, he nevertheless emerges the victor. As the savior of the day, he dies triumphantly in his beloved’s arms and the opera comes to an abrupt dramatic end with the quiet expiration of its eponymous hero.

The action has been transposed to the early 20th Century
Photo credit: Kelly & Massa
A co-production of the Opera de Lausanne and the Teatro Municipal de Santiago, in the vision of Spanish director Emilio Sagi, the action has been transposed from the Middle Ages to the post-WWI era in Europe. Costumes are all flashy military coats and flowy early twentieth-century gowns, sets are dominated by a grandiose palace, all marble and mirrors with the occasional art-deco flourish, all very handsome.

From the first notes of the overture, the orchestra, under the baton of Corrado Rovaris, sounded tight and well versed in Rossini’s fiery melodies that are always such a pleasure to hear, notwithstanding the deja vu sensation at inevitably accompanies the experience (given how much the composer recycled bits of his works, particularly the overtures).

Blythe takes the whole thing up a notch (or two)
Photo credit: Kelly & Massa
Just as I was thinking in the opening movements of the opera that the sets looked great and that the supporting cast seemed solid, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe made her entrance as the hero Tancredi and everything changed. She effortlessly elevated everything to a whole other level. Her instrument is fluid, effortless and deeply melodic, particularly in the lower range that borders on a contralto sound at times. While Rossini has lots of mezzos in its operas, it’s pretty rare to see them in pants roles, let alone as leading heroes. Blythe’s tessitura is impressive in terms of power, color and agility. Her expressivity, too, was utterly moving. Time stopped every time she opened her mouth, embodying the wronged noble loving Tancredi with truly heroic tones. And could she ever fill the space with her voice. It was stunning.

Argirio orchestrates peace for family and patria
Photo credit: Kelly & Massa
When the leading singer is so strong, everybody else in the cast gets dwarfed a bit, no matter how good they are. Tenor Michele Angelini in the role of Amenaide’s father Argirio, sounded technically accurate with a handsome enough sound, however he never let his vocal line really soar in the upper range and often came off as a bit restrained, which is a pity as the beauty and excitement of bel canto tenors lies also in those high explosions of emotions.

Amenaide unwillingly betrothed to the vile Orbazzano
Photo credit: Kelly & Massa
Soprano Brenda Rae as the heroine Amenaide had some excellent moments, particularly when interacting in duets with other characters, however she seemed to have a bit of a hard time with some of the higher notes in her solo showstopping arias. Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs as the villain Orbazzano was a great grounding force, particularly in the ensemble pieces, and took perhaps a bit too much pleasure in uttering an evil laugh each time he walked off stage. Mezzo Allegra De Vita displayed expressive agility as Amenaide’s friend Isaura.

All in all, Tancredi was a thoroughly enjoyable bel canto opera. Perhaps not the most compelling plot (all dramatic tension would dissipate if only Amenaide would have just told Tancredi about the letter he never got) but it was definitely a great pleasure to hear, with several exciting vocal moments. Through the introductory talk, we discovered one important bit of opera history: who knew that this was the first opera to end not with a summation finale with the sextet and chorus, all out on the stage commenting on the action, but rather with a slow fade into death with its abrupt dramatic resolution? What a discovery. I had recently been reflecting on this shift in taste. Rusalka, Manon Lescaut, La Bohéme among other gems in our recent outings all end in this fashion, whereas L’italiana, Don Giovanni, the list could go on and on, all close with a choral metanarrative moment. When did it all change? Turns out it was Rossini’s Tancredi when the composer was only 21. Who knew?!

- Lei & Lui

The climactic death after which opera would never be the same
Photo credit: Kelly & Massa

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