For Rossini lovers, ROF’s commitment to stage Rossini’s operas using the most recent critical editions has been the unmistakable selling point for their yearly pilgrimage to Pesaro, Italy, regardless of August’s oppressive heat. Since 1999, the first year I attended the festival, I have watched audiences react with enthusiastic joy to the splendid musical renderings of Tancredi, Ermione, La Gazza Ladra and Matilde di Shabran, to name just a few of the festival’s outstanding artistic achievements. Performances of these works were defined by thrilling vocal virtuosity of exemplary singers buoyed by dedicated conductors. And stage directors, understanding Rossini’s dramatic intentions, presented the works worthy of their critical praise.
Not so in 2011.
For this season’s productions of Adelaide di Borgogna and Mosè in Egitto, stage directors Pier’Alli and Graham Vick, who are well-known in the opera world for their staging of operatic classics, were making their directorial debuts at the festival. Pier’Alli’s Adelaide and Vick’s Mosè productions showed how their artistic visions went beyond what appeared on the stage; their influence resulted in arias cut from the critical editions of both operas, no doubt with the approval of Artistic Director Alberto Zedda.
The Italian press had mentioned that in 2011, ROF was using the new critical edition of Adelaide prepared by Gabriele Gravagna and Alberto Zedda for the opera’s first staged presentation at the festival. But the edition had already been used successfully in ROF’s 2006 concert version which was a big hit with audiences. This time, however, Berenegario’s great aria “Alle voci della gloria,” which premiered in 2006, was replaced with, “Se protegge amica sorte,” an aria which Gravagna and Zedda described as “modest” in their opera program notes in 2006. Also, Gravagna and Zedda ignored their previous tribute to Patric Schmid, the original artistic director of Opera Rara for using the “Alle voci” aria when he presented Adelaide in London over thirty years ago. And, as they noted in their ’06 program, manuscript sources revealed “Se protegge” was not the work of Rossini, and, soon after the premiere, the composer replaced it with, “‘Alle voci della gloria,’ which the Maestro had written in the golden years of Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri…”
Fortunately, we still have access to the 2006 performance* and to bass Lorenzo Regazzo’s exciting performance of the “Alle voci,” aria. In reviewing his contribution to the performance, I said at that time on livingattheopera.com, “Lorenzo Regazzo brought a full-bodied and burnished vocal ease to his Berengario. In the restored aria, ‘Alle voci dell gloria,’ Regazzo literally stopped the show with a vocal demonstration, best described as a coloratura bass. His breath control, runs, and spot-on textual accents created a minor frenzy.” In listening to Regazzo’s vocals again, I find my initial comments still hold. Today, Regazzo is enjoying a world-wide career and garnering great praise for his roles in Rossini and Mozart operas. In this production, Pier’Alli and conductor Dmitri Jurowski went with the “Se protegge,” aria — an easier aria for Nicola Ulivieri’s lighter, serviceable bass.
When ROF invited Pier’Alli to direct, he came with the whole package. He was responsible for not only the sets and costumes, but the visuals which comprised projections that covered the entire back wall of the Rossini Theater. Basically he took over the entire production, but with varying results.
Adelaide is originally set in the Middle Ages with Emperor Ottone in charge of saving King Lotario’s widow, Adelaide, from the avaricious Berengario who not only wants her kingdom, but is pressuring her to marry his son Adelberto. Naturally Ottone comes to her rescue by marrying her, and the opera ends with a big final aria for the Emperor, an obligatory ending for many of Rossini’s operas classified as dramas. Pier’Alli moved the opera’s time period ahead to what looked like Prussia at the end of the 19th Century. I say “looked like” because almost all opera productions today sort of resemble a certain historical period. Today, most opera directors like to mount productions culling from several historical eras.
Pier’Alli’s costume designs were the best asset in the production with clean, tailored lines for the soldiers in dark reds and grays and soft green and brown tailoring for for the ladies, particularly Jessica Pratt’s beautifully sewn dresses. And the latter’s warmly-sung and cleanly-articulated Adelaide was the vocal hit of the festival and provided the only musical moment to cheer about in this production.
The decor was a mixture of three-dimensional pieces and two-dimensional projections. There were angular sofas, large picture frames, and small decorated stools. For the finale of the first act, Pier’Alli constructed a representational altar piece with large candle sticks. It appeared to be made of a dark brown substance that shimmered under the stage lights. All this was in stark contrast to the visuals projected on a large screen. They were the strong component in the stage design, but often they were distracting for the audience.
The projections consisted mainly of quick shots of marching soldiers interspersed with castle walls, followed by soldiers again, this time munching on gruel. Pier’Alli seemed to be obsessive about rain, and boy, did we get a lot of it. Armies shlepping through mud and, most annoying, gigantic rain puddles showing up when least expected. In Act Two, all during Jessica Pratt’s gran scena, “Cingi la benda candida,” Adelaide’s poignant farewell to Ottone as he’s going into battle, the soprano had to fight her own battle against a full screen image of a numbing, repetitive raindrop plopping again and again into a puddle. Fortunately, Pratt’s exceptional delivery overcame Pier’Alli’s water fixation.
Also in Act Two, a passionately sung quartet was backed up by a dancing chorus of dueling umbrellas, an unintentional tribute to Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies.
In an interview in Il Resto del Carlino, Pesaro’s local newspaper, mezzo-soprano Daniel Barcellona mentioned that the role of Ottone is written for a contralto and does lie low for her, but she very much wanted to play this character in a staged production. Barcellona certainly looked the part. Her height allows her to take on the many trouser roles prevalent in 19th Century Italian operas. Her Malcom in Rossini’s La Donna del Lago is just one example. In Adelaide, the mezzo had no problem in adapting her own personality to the character’s majestic image. Her voice, however, did not display the freedom from top to bottom nor exhibit the secure note placement that she demonstrated in her 2006 performance. Barcellona is a big favorite at the festival and deservedly so. Last year her Sigismondo stood out as one of her best in all the years she has performed in Pesaro. This year, she just didn’t produce enough vocal excitement to warrant a memorable performance.
Completing the fourth major role in the opera was tenor Bogdan Mihai as Adelberto. New to the festival, Mihai’s wiry and intense appearance added an extra depth to his acting, although opinions were divided about his back of the throat vocal production.
Finally, Jurowski’s conducting didn’t demonstrate the necessary finesse nor the exciting musical flourishes found in Rossini’s music that encourage audiences to feel involved and enthused. Two qualities which this Adelaide was never able to conjure up.
* available from Premiere Opera Ltd