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Even before I left Pesaro last summer, I had decided not to return for another festival season. I didn’t care for, much less enjoy the ROF’s productions of Adelaide di Borgogna and Mosè in Egitto. As you can read in my reviews,* it was the singing and what I considered the lack of respect for the festival’s critical editions of the scores that I disliked the most. My dissatisfaction with the directions, sets and costumes only reinforced my decision not to return for the 2012 season.
But after looking at the 2012 ROF schedule, I changed my mind and decided to attend this year’s festival. Those who put the brochure together never fail to make the upcoming season look as if it were going to be the best one yet, and, besides, they know that diehard Rossini fans like me are vulnerable to any enticement. But before going over this year’s schedule, I’d like to look at my experiences attending the festival.
Except for two seasons, I have attended the festival every year since 1999 and fell in love with the town and the festival from the first. And it was the outstanding vocal performances and the festival’s desire to present the best singers available that compelled me to return year after year. From 1999 and for a few years after, audiences and I were taking the same operatic journey expressing our appreciation with vociferous applause and palpitating hearts for the heroic vocals so many singers had brought to the festival.
Looking through my festival programs, I recall four productions that were outstanding because the drama, the music, the sets and the direction joined together to produce an evening of operatic magic and five in which some of the aforementioned qualities were so vital, their evenings ended up being equally magical.
In 1999, on my first visit to Pesaro, what a thrill it was to attend one of the most memorable opera productions in all my years of living at the opera. There was an overwhelming outpouring of audience approval for Pier Luigi Pizzi’s sets, costumes and direction of Tancredi, and Gianluigi Gelmelti’s expert conducting of the score’s critical edition from musicologist Phillip Gosset. They were happy to share the spotlight with a cast that introduced us to mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona in the title role, who was to become a festival favorite, and the debut of tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, who at that time had the bright vocal agility for Rossini. Add to that, Darina Takova’s Amenaide, whose soprano melded so touchingly with Barcellona’s warm tonality in their duets together. What an introduction to Rossini’s body of work!
The same intense audience response for an opera production occurred again in 2004 with Director Mario Martone’s Matilde Di Shabran, but this time, the words “rapturous joy” can be easily applied to one of Rossini’s lesser-known works. Martone was able to project the opera into a higher realm of operatic fulfillment. Again, with all the artistic elements present to do this work justice, it was the cast, conductor and those on the technical end that so effortlessly produced Martone’s ideas that led to the euphoria.
Tenor Juan Diego Florez has been a stalwart member of the festival’s community since his debut in Shabran in 1995, but in an older production. In 2004, however, under Martone’s direction, he excelled in the opera as the quasi curmudgeon Corradino. Soprano Annick Massis, sang Matilde, the woman who comes not only to reform Corradino, but also to marry him. Massis and Florez made a delightful couple. Their vocals were outstanding and their comedic timing was a joy to listen to and watch. In fact, audiences fell hard for Massis’ natural charm, showering her with wild applause. We can add to this exciting mix, Bruno De Simone’s poet, Isidoro, in perfect Neopolitan dialect; Marco Vinco’s strong vocals as Aliprando; and Chiara Chialli’s slightly wicked Contessa d’Arco. And what made this production complete were Sergio Tramonti’s clean design using just a circular staircase for much of the action and Riccardo Frizza’s tunefully-swift conducting. Surely one of the festival’s best!
In 2006, something quite unexpected happened: a first-class production of what many consider a second-rank Rossini opera – Torvaldo e Dorliska.* Again it was Mario Martone’s direction which guided the singers to develop well-rounded performances for an opera that many critics consider inferior to other Rossini operas tagged semiserio such as La Gazza Ladra. For starters, Michele Pertusi as the Duca d’Ordow and Bruno Pratico as his man servant Giorgio added their splendid vocals to their dramatic interpretations and delineated the intricacies of the master-servant relationship through to the end of the opera.
The production also introduced festival audiences to the bright, full-throated tenor of Francesco Meli as Torvaldo and auspiciously partnered him with soprano Darina Takova as Dorliska. Takova proved these were successful years for her at the festival, and her Dorliska was rightly praised by audiences.
Martone, again, got expert work from set designer Sergio Tramonti. His depiction of the stark, hooded woods in a desolated space that faced d’Ordow’s 17th century castle along with Ursula Patzak’s beautifully-tailored costumes gave a dynamic physical image to the exciting vocals. Then add Victor Pablo Perez’s assured conducting of Rossini’s music to the mix, and you have another totally satisfying production at the festival.
The fourth production produced as much drama off the stage as on. This Otello* from 2007, had illness, cancellations and bad opening night weather — all bad omens for subsequent performances. But the opera’s third performance, on August 14th, gave audiences one of the most thrilling vocal evenings ever at the festival.
On that evening, tenor Gregory Kunde, who was a replacement for Giuseppe Filianotti, gave a vocal and dramatic interpretation to Rossini’s Otello which, today, is rightly considered as one of his best. He was joined by Juan Diego Florez’s vocally-brilliant and dramatically-astute Rodrigo and Jose Manuel Zapata’s clear vocal expression as the malevolent Iago. Giancarlo Del Monico’s direction guided the tenors in developing interpretations that were so vocally and dramatically distinct, they gave audiences that rare opportunity of experiencing how well performers can sing and act. The opera also introduced Olga Peretyatko as Desdemona to Rossini audiences. The soprano is currently singing starring roles at the festival. The critics had negative comments about Del Monaco’s unit set, painted with a sea/sky motif. On the 14th, audiences overlooked any qualms about the production, demonstrating the main reason they had come to the festival was for the exciting vocals – something that was in short supply in the 2011 season.
The second tier of productions offered plenty of operatic magic to be considered among the festival’s best.
In 2000, the festival presented Luca Ronconi’s production of La Cenerentola with Margherita Palli’s set design consisting of many chairs placed around Don Magnifico’s house and then to Don Ramiro’s palace which featured a large walk-in fireplace. Three of the opera’s vocal performances were praiseworthy. Sonia Ganassi’s lyric mezzo interpretation of Angelina-Cenerentola, showed at that time, her voice was capable of handling all the role’s coloratura passages. Juan Diego Florez as Prince Ramiro, soon to become festival favorite, was at the beginning of his illustrious career as king of Rossini’s tenor roles. And Bruno Pratico, another festival favorite, proved to be a comedic and vocal delight as Don Magnifico Angelina’s father.
In 2004, along with Martone’s production of Matilde Di Shabran, the festival presented Stefano Pavesi’s Il Trionfo Delle Belle. Billed as an heroic comedy whose story line paralleled the text for Shabran, we were introduced to director Damiano Michieletto’s charming and energetic vision of this seldom-performed work. With only two performances at the intimate Teatro Sperimentale, audiences gave Michieletto’s work a very heartfelt reception. Today, he is a popular opera director and designer who, I feel, may have traded some of the easy flow found in his theatrical insights for a more hard-edged, self-conscious approach, as he did in the festival’s production of La Scala di Seta in 2009.
In 2007, Michieletto, however, won the prestigious Abbiati prize for the staging of La Gazza Ladra.* The award was given, “for its originality and brilliance with which he recreated on stage the Thieving Magpie at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro.” The director emphasized the darker parts of Rossini’s melodrama (semiserio) by having Ninetta, the opera’s heroine, suffer through a visibly painful trial before she is exonerated by the town’s people of stealing some silver spoons that were really purloined by the magpie. But the opera also garnered definite praise for two of its performers. Bass Michele Pertusi portrayed the mayor as a thuggish pursuer of the innocent Ninetta and bass Alex Esposito as her father, Fernando, who is an army deserter fleeing from his captors. Both singers projected strong vocals along with fully-developed characterizations, obviously with Michieletto’s assistance, giving good reason the festival international success.
Both Ermione,* an azione tragica, in 2008, and the drama Zelmira, in 2009, had moments of outstanding vocal drama to become part of this memorable group.
Sometimes a new production takes a few performances to fulfill its dramatic promise and such was the case for Ermione. Throughout the run, however, Roberto Abbado’s conducting was consistently true to Rossini’s score and director Daniele Abbado kept the performers moving in unison with the text. But the vocal performances didn’t reach their emotional peak until the last performance. Sonia Ganassi, although quite effective in portraying Ermione, seemed to be saving her vocal resources for Act Two’s Gran Scena throughout the run. But as I said in my review, at the last performance on August 21st, Ganassi and Antonio Siragussa as Oreste brought real fervor, first to their short, reflective duet in the finale of Act One and then reached an explosive level in Act Two’s final duet. They did it by vocally throwing caution to the wind which in turn garnered a thunderous ovation for one of Rossini’s best dramatic musical finales. Happily, this one particular scene has remained firmly etched in my mind as one of the best operatic experiences at the festival.
I had a similar emotional reaction to Zelmira, but spread out over several scenes rather than condensed into one. Again, Roberto Abbado was on the podium bringing his searing insight to one of Rossini’s neglected works. But there were critical grumblings about the physical production. John Allison in The Sunday Telegraph objected to Giorgio Barberio Corsetti’s sets consisting of broken classical statues lying in the sand under a huge, tilting mirror that also highlighted disturbing images of victims of war. The result was that Corsetti, who also directed, seemed to forego character development by making the visual images more important than the story, which was compounded by the opera’s excessive length. Luckily, it was the singers who provided the necessary emotional jolts that propelled this production into memorable status.
Tenor Gregory Kunde interpreted Antenore’s passionate jealousy with an equally strong vocal performance and Juan Diego Florez as Ilo easily handled all the required vocal fireworks in Rossini’s longest work. Lyric mezzo Kate Aldrich in the title role, showered expressive tone throughout her vocal range, and Marianna Pizzolato’s mezzo also added vocal warmth as Emma. Finally, bass Alex Esposito as Polidoro gave another great dramatic and vocal reading at the festival. The contribution of these five singers made Rossini’s opera glow with vocal finesse.
And another word about Roberto Abbado. To my mind, the conductor made the best artistic contribution to Graham Vick’s ubiquitous production of Mosè in 2011. I thought Abbado saved Vick’s work from falling apart at the seams. I must note, my opinion is a minority one, since Vick’s production received Italy’s prestigious Abbiati prize as best opera production of 2011. To quote the festival’s website, Vick, “turned the children of Israel into Palestinians and the Egyptians into armed Israeli settlers.” The critics called it, “vital in symbolic confrontation.”
In 2012, one event Rossini opera lovers are anticipating with great relish is the return of Polish contralto Ewa Podles in the title role in Ciro in Babilonia. In 2009, Podles sang Joseph Haydn’s Arianna A. Naxos in concert at the festival and received a tumultuous ovation for her intense, sonorous interpretation. It will be a real treat to hear her debut in a staged version of an opera at the festival. She will be joined by soprano Jessica Pratt, who in 2011, sang the title role in Adelaide di Borgogna to great acclaim and by new comer, tenor Michael Spyres. Also, expert musicologist and conductor Will Crutchfield will make his debut at the festival. Well-known opera director Davide Livermore will mount the work using Nicolas Bovey’s projections. The production premiered at the Caramoor Festival in July, and critic Heidi Waleson said, “They made the show a tongue-in-cheek nod to silent movies.” Let’s hope they don’t resemble the jittery, cumbersome projections that director Pier’Alli made audiences sit through at last year’s Adelaide.
The second new production is the farsa giocosa, Il Signor Bruschino, the fifth of the one-act comedies Rossini composed for the Teatro S. Moise in 1813. I am not familiar with the work of producers, the Accademia Di Belle Arti De Urbino and their director listed as Teatro Sotterraneo as I did not see their production of Demetrio E Polibio in 2010. We’ll see if taste and restraint, two qualities that today are in short supply with opera directors, are in their working vocabulary.
This season two Bel Canto concerts seem to be real standouts. Jessica Pratt will sing a program of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini arias. And the great Italian soprano Mariella Devia will appear under the concert title, Voce Che Tenera. She will also sing arias by the big three composers mentioned above.
The last event will be a concert version of Tancredi with Daniela Barcellona in the title role. It has been 13 years since she took on the role at the festival. Everyone is hoping that she will again conquer the role as she did before. No doubt with Alberto Zedda on the podium, Rossini fans are betting on her to succeed.
But the real challenge for the festival this year will be the return of 2004’s vociferously acclaimed production of Mario Martone’s Matilde Di Shabran, again with tenor Juan Diego Florez. Originally designed for the intimate, jewel-like Teatro Rossini, this year the production will be moved to the physically unattractive Adriatic Arena, obviously for more financial gain. While this is an important consideration, how the festival will adapt Martone’s production to the larger arena will be a significant artistic challenge acoustically, as well as, visually. When Florez last sang at the arena in Zelmira, the acoustics were not particularly flattering to his voice as the space seemed to diminish his vibrancy. But helping the opera succeed is the cast consisting of soprano Olga Peretyatko as Matilde and Paolo Borodogna as the poet Isidoro, a role written in Neapolitan dialect. On the podium will be Michele Mariotti, a very talented musician and conductor who does not always get great reviews. But along with these words of caution, comes a heartfelt wish from every fanatical Rossini lover that this season will be the best ever.
* Go to livingattheopera.com and at the top, click on the link Rossini Opera Festival for reviews of these productions.
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