On December 27, 1814, the day after the premiere of Sigismondo Rossini sent his mother a letter and on the envelope he drew a squat wine bottle (flask=fiasco, a flop) to tell her how his newest piece had been received by the heretofore Rossini-mad Venetians. After the success of his Tancredi it came as a great disappointment. Since that time the work has been seldom performed though there is a recording of a performance from 1993. Its a work few people, myself included, have heard or seen but the music is very familiar. Wait a minute! How can that be? Queries my faithful reader, one eyebrow raised quizzically. You've never heard it or seen it but you know the music? Well though prolific Rossini was also frugal – if he knew there was a good chance that a work would never be heard again elsewhere he simply lifted the parts he could use and fitted them to new words and situations.
After Michele Mariotti, a young conductor fast becoming a favorite here in Italy, acknowledged the welcoming applause he launched into the opening sinfonia and I swore for a minute I had wandered into a performance of Il Turco in Italia by mistake. Then when the curtain rose the Polish courtiers – according to the libretto but here a group of voyeurs in a 19th century mental hospital (more about that later) – started singing and I swore I was back at last month's opening of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. And so it went for a good part of the evening – but I eventually gave up on Name That Rossini Tune and sat back to enjoy the music whatever its source. And there were some extremely lovely things that he wrote for Sigismondo that did not show up – to the best of my knowledge but I may be wrong as I'm no Rossini scholar - elsewhere. In particular the duets for the title character and Aldmira his wronged wife, Aldmira's second act Rondo and the scenas for Sigismondo himself. And since these two parts were in the hands of Daniela Barcellona and Olga Peretyatko they were given full value.
King Sigismondo (Daniela Barcellona)in the midst of a fit of madness is observed by his wronged wife Aldimira (Olga Peretyatko).
I make no bones about it, where Barcellona is concerned I adore her. I have never seen her give less than a great performance whither part of an ensemble in a Hasse cantata at Salzburg Whitsun; tearing the house apart here two summers ago, despite being indisposed, in Maomatto II; or in Il Viaggio a Reims in Milan. She shots off the most complex vocal fireworks with ease and more admirably with grace. There never seems to be a sense of strain or effort. But she is also capable of a simplicity that gives dramatic passages full weight. In her final Gran Scena she threw off the frightened mouse persona imposed on her by the director and let us see the full power of both her and Rossini's art.
Moments like this were rare in this production - the two leads (Peretyatko, Barcellona) standing quietly, alone, undisturbed by mimes and extraneous action simply singing gloriously.
Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko's star has risen quickly here at Pesaro, in 2006 she was performing in the Academia Rossiniana's annual production of Il Viaggio the following year appearing as Desdemona in Otello opposite Gregory Kunde. A beautiful woman and natural actress she has the vocal chops to pull off the second Act Rondo with flair if a little unease at the top. Her voice does have a slight metallic edge to it that can sometimes upset the balance in ensembles but the duets with Barcellona were a perfect blend.
Director Daminao Micheletto staged the intense duet between the scheming Ladislao (Antonino Siragusa) and Aldimira (Peretyatko) as a rape scene - for shock value it worked, in the context of the music, like many of his ideas, it didn't.
In the other major role tenor Antonio Siragusa as the villain Ladislao sang with power if little subtlety and at times he resorted to that Rossini-hoot that can be annoying when overused. Of the other singers bass Andrea Concetti provided strong support as both a worthy nobleman and the wronged lady's avenging father. The cast was rounded out by Manuela Bisceglie (Anagilda, Ladislao's scheming sister) who was frankly over parted – as often seems to happen at Pesaro in smaller roles – and couldn't handle her big aria and Enea Scala – a young man to watch – as a co-schemer. The male members of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna gave their usual support as Polish courtiers, Bulgarian soldiers and assorted inmates of the asylum - yes I'll get to the asylum bit in a moment.
The young Maestro Michele Mariotti acknowledges the applause of an audience that obviously recognizes a developing talent - and he's a hometown boy to boot.
This is the second work I've heard conducted by Maestro Mariotti in the past month - both by Rossini. It may sound cliche to say it but he was born to this music - no really he was, he was born in Pesaro, his father is one of the founders and the long time Soverintendente of the Festival. But given the talent that he has shown both last month at La Scala when he stepped in at the last minute and in his conducting of Sigismondo this is not a case of nepotism. He has been working his way up through the houses of Europe and this was his first, but I can only hope not his last, appearance at the ROF.
I will not say the same for stage director Damiano Michieletto - this is the second production I've seen by the Venetian director and I am hoping the last. Last year's La Scala di Seta was amusing and had its charms but it was one of Rossini's farsi and could take his "concept" with little harm being done to either the music or the singers. Not so a work like Sigismondo - an opera very seria.
Let's get the concept out of the way first: according to the very complicated story Sigismondo has fits of madness and hallucinations of the wife he thinks he has had murdered for adultery. Well bright director idea! Why not set the whole thing in an early 20th century insane asylum? What a great idea! Bit of a social message too - show the mistreatment of the mentally disturbed and the people who come to gawk at them; well that's more 18th century but you have to work the chorus in somehow.
Though a fine piece of stage design, Paolo Fantin's setting of an 1900s asylum was peopled by twitching, contorting, jabbering extras whose only purpose seemed to be to distract us as much as possible from the singers.
Now to the execution: fine detailed setting of a period asylum by Paolo Fantin with lots of windows and piles of furniture for extras to push around in the second act. Sort of period costumes by Carla Teti with colour coding because it is an opera audience and they're a little slow - white for the heroine, black and bald for the villain, deep purple for his sister And just so the audience won't have to pay attention to those pesky singers lets have six or seven patients twitching, contorting, clutching at the air, falling all over the place and screaming occasionally - why should the singers be the only ones doing that? And if that doesn't distract them enough how about three ghosts of the supposedly dead wife popping out from under the King's bed? Let's add a fourth for the second act, you can't have the mime playing the nurse in the first act sitting the second out in her dressing room. And that confrontation between the villain and the heroine - nothing like a bit of a struggle while trying to sing roulades and runs so lets turn it into an attempted rape. The King? Make him a paranoid schizophrenic - sort of a frightened rabbit - forget the noble and touching music it only distracts from the concept! And at the end the villain can be dragged into the asylum along with his sister - okay the only bad thing she's really done was to mess up the cadenza in her aria but it looks great with her hair all disheveled and her clawing at the window. And so the evening went!
If nothing else Michieletto's approach engendered a lot of talk during the intermission as well as a fair number of defections. It was also was the hot topic in the breakfast room at the hotel the next morning. Unfortunately little of the talk was about the music or the great performances given by Barcellona, Peretyatko and Mariotti. And that is the real shame in this all. A "concept" completely overshadowed the labour involved in mounting a new critical edition of an unknown piece and the incredible work done by all of the musicians involved.
Oh the madness of it all!
All photos except the curtain call are by Studio Amati Bacciardi for the ROF.
22 agosto - Santa Maria Regina