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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Contemporary classical music

Discovering forgotten things at the Rossini Opera Festival
7 October, 2008 - 00:00

The strangely limited repertoire of Ukrainian opera houses makes it impossible for our opera goers to realize what drives the operatic world today and why public interest in this art remains unabated. Meanwhile, in the past couple of decades important changes have taken place in the world of opera. Dozens of scores, whose once-famous composers were mentioned until recently only in specialized literature and research, have been discovered in archives and libraries and restored to the stage.

Whereas the bold reformer Richard Wagner critically assessed operatic history and championed the music of the future, today the most important discoveries have been made by returning to the past. The first great opera composer, Claudio Monteverdi, created his masterpieces 150 years before Mozart’s birth. Thus, the richest continent on the operatic map — the Baroque period — has been discovered.

Today, utterly erroneous notions concerning a number of composers have been refuted. For example, Handel was once appreciated as a composer of monumental oratorios, yet his operas were regarded as being hopelessly obsolete, with no chance of sparking the interest of a public accustomed to Verdi’s La Traviata, Gounod’s Faust, and works by Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Puccini.

Today, Handel’s operas are staged in numerous opera houses and are received as brilliant new works. As for Gioachino Rossini, whom Pushkin called “Europe’s favorite”, he was once viewed as the happy-go-lucky composer of The Barber of Seville, whereas his considerably less popular William Tell, which is mentioned in all the textbooks, was staged only occasionally.

Those who were fortunate enough to attend the annual Rossini Opera Festival in the composer’s home town of Pesaro saw Handel’s unique personality in an entirely new light. Pushkin’s favorable reference to him no longer seems a whim on the part of the young poet who was fond of the theater and familiarized himself with Rossini’s creations in “dusty Odesa,” where he was serving his term of exile.


Rossini lived during an especially trying period of Italian history. Divided and denied national independence, Italy was ruled by the powerful Austrian empire. Censorship was harsh, and the growing national liberation movement was suppressed by the authorities. The composer of The Barber of Seville died shortly before this years-long struggle ended in victory.

There is a magnificent statue of the hero of the Italian liberation struggle, Giuseppe Garibaldi, near the Rossini Theater in Pesaro. Rossini was an ardent Italian patriot, and his creativity was never distanced from the moods prevalent in society. The patriotic plots of his serious operas, such as Mose in Egitto and Maometto II reflected the confrontation between two hostile forces, and the Italian characters were prepared to sacrifice their lives for the Italian people in the struggle to rid them of their slave’s shackles.

Maometto II was produced by a group of highly talented individuals, including stage director Michael Hampe, set designer Alberto Andreis, and costume designer Chiara Donato. This team produced a classic opera marked by innate, monumental simplicity, expressive plasticity, and wonderful sets. The dynamic crowd scenes, in which the chorus is an active performer, are combined with the sculptural precision of the mise-en-scenes.

This opera is about the confrontation between the Christian and Muslim worlds. Negroponte, a city in the Venetian Republic, is besieged by hordes of fanatical Muslim troops under the command of their formidable warrior, Sultan Maometto II (Mo­ham­med II). The defenders of the fortress, Pablo Erisso, the leader of the Venetians in Negroponte (Francesco Meli), and the dedicated young General Calbo (Daniela Barcellona), refuse to surrender to the powerful enemy, urging their supporters to fight to the last man.

The opera starts with a military council held in the official assembly hall of the palace. Erisso, who is worried about the fate of his daughter Anna, wants her to marry Calbo. In a room with a huge window, a king-sized bed in the center, and a small altar, an alarmed Anna tells her father that she has fallen in love with a young man who calls himself Uberto. Her alarm and anxiety increase as she learns that the real Uberto and his father are on board a ship bound for Venice.

Their conversation is interrupted by the approaching enemy. Against the backdrop of a bare landscape with a tall cross near the entrance to a church, Anna and the other women, predicting the capture of the fortress, are tearfully praying for their loved ones. Contrasted to the sorrowful women and the lyrical overtones of their prayers, is the militancy of the Muslim camp. Here the restrained colors are immediately replaced by the bright ones of the Muslim warriors’ costumes. The scene portraying the entrance of the victorious invaders is rendered with almost balletic picturesqueness.

The invaders start by toppling the Christian cross, which Maometto triumphantly tramples. The dramatic tension mounts as Anna recognizes Maometto as Uberto, the man with whom she has fallen in love. From this point, the emphasis is on the central female character.

The role of Anna was successfully played by the Riga native Marina Rebeka, a graduate of the Latvian vocal school. After completing her studies in Riga, she studied at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and the Mozarteum University in Salzburg, and polished her skills at the Rossini Academy of Music in Pesaro under the able guidance of Alberto Zedda, the artistic director of the Rossini Opera Festival.

She succeeded in creating a moving image of her young character, who, despite her lack of experience and physical strength, proves fearless in saving her family and refusing the Muslim ruler’s enticing gifts. Anna’s inner torment is revealed in her duet with Maometto (Italian bass Michele Pertusi). This scene is strongly reminiscent of the final one in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

Although Anna still loves the sultan, she does not waver in her resolve to do her patriotic duty. In order to allow her father and Calbo, whom she introduced to Maometto as her brother, to gather their forces to rebuff the aggressor, she takes advantage of the sultan’s love and receives from him a signet ring that secures her passage through the enemy camp. Then she bends to her father’s will, marries the general, and begins awaiting the enemy’s arrival. When she encounters the enemy, she tells Maometto that she has just married another man and then takes her own life. After stabbing herself with a dagger, Anna runs to her beloved Uberto and dies in his arms.

Compared to the central female character, the psychological portrait of Maometto is less expressive. His lyrical statements do not correspond naturally to his traits of a formidable tyrant and ruthless aggressor, and they are also quite stereotypical. Calbo, who performs an effective aria in the scene with Erisso, stands out among the male characters.

In hiding from persecution, the Venetian ruler condemns his daughter, believing that she will accept the sultan’s marriage proposal. In contrast, the general, who is in love with Anna, is convinced that the girl will remain chaste. He puts his heart into convincing Erisso that Anna cannot turn traitor. This extremely sophisticated vocal duet consists of several contrasting parts and characterizes Calbo as a true hero with a big heart and temperament.

Rossini wrote Calbo’s part for a coloratura mezzo-soprano, a special vocal range that would not be performed for a long time after the composer’s death, until its revival in our times. The veteran Italian singer Daniela Barcellona, who has performed at the Rossini Festival for the past decade, coped brilliantly with the difficult dramatic and vocal components of her role. In addition to the seven leading operatic parts she has performed in the past 10 years, she frequently appears in concert. This year, besides Calbo, she performed the mezzo-soprano part in Stabat Mater.

The excellent Austrian conductor Gustav Kuhn deserves special mention. He succeeded in placing the orchestra, choir, and soloist under the control of his will and explosive temperament, revealing the richness of the rhythms, and the generosity of the melodious inventiveness germane to Rossini, while vividly stressing the contrasts, the sophisticated orchestral effects, and the avalanche-like sound of Rossini’s famous crescendos.


Rossini’s fame grew at an incredible rate, as did the affection of the Italian public. This, however, doomed the composer to the greatest of triumphs and no less spectacular fiascos. He predicted one failure even before the Neapolitan premiere of his opera Ermione, which he wrote when he was 27, at the peak of his career. Rossini realized that his score set forth daringly innovative tasks and would not be digested by the pasta-eaters, as he called his fellow countrymen good-naturedly. The opera would not be revived during the composer’s lifetime and for decades after his death.

Ermione owes its rebirth to the outstanding talent of Montserrat Caballe. After the opera was first heard in Siena, it began returning to operatic stages, provided there was a gifted singer capable of handling the leading female part with its singular vocal and psychological difficulties.

The opera is based closely on the tragedy Andromaque by the French playwright Jean Racine (libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola). The plot deals with ancient history — the fall of Troy — the city that was captured and burned down by Pirro, the king of Epire. Andromaca, the widow of the Trojan hero Hector, and her little son Astyanax, are taken prisoner.

This opera was performed in one of the two halls of the large, multifunctional Adriatic Arena in Pesaro. Set designer Graziano Gregori’s is a trained architect with many accomplishments under his belt. This helped him create the striking set consisting of a marble palace with its cold bare walls, heavy grates lifted by chains, symmetrical gratings, and the basements underneath them. The instability of the massive structure is emphasized by the slanted planes of the floor and the constant transformation of its levels. The heavy, square revolving doors of the back entrance open briefly to reveal the uncomfortable cold interior that seems to conceal many crimes and bloody acts.

The opera starts with a dramatic scene featuring a chorus of captured Trojans. The chorus is already heard during the unusual overture. The captives, among them Andromaca, are locked in four sections of the basement, an oppressive symbol of power and despotism. The scene with Andromaca and her son, a slender boy lying in a fetal position on the stone floor, is permeated with sorrow and tenderness. The military uniforms worn by the male members of the chorus hint at the military confrontations of the 20th century rather than the distant era of the Trojan war, torture chambers, humiliated dignity, fear, and persecutions of the defeated — all these motifs connect the distant past with the present.

However, another theme is revealed through the main characters and their confrontations. This is the irrational idea of fatal passions that govern human destinies. Passion cannot be subordinated to intellect and will. Such is Pirro’s love for Andromaca, Ermione’s love for him, and Oreste’s frantic and hopeless love for Ermione, which makes Oreste commit an act that is totally alien to his moral principles.

The four leading parts — two tenors and two mezzo-sopranos — are marked by complex virtuosity, a broad vocal range including a cantilena embellished by fioriture, and tense declamations. We are witness to the confrontation between various strong personalities. The passions that rule Ermione, Pirro, and Oreste are explained by their unrequited love, and each of these characters acts responds to this predicament in his or her own way.

The role of Pirro was played by the American singer Gregory Kunde, who is no stranger to this character. He succeeded in creating a multifaceted image of a merciless ruler and a man who is passionately in love. Through his stage presence and dramatic talents, he showed undeniable vocal mastery, although it was clear to everyone that sometimes he had a hard time with the cantilenas.

The Italian singer Antonino Siragusa did an excellent job in the role of Oreste, with its sophisticated tessitura and emotional tension. Director Daniele Abbado made this character look like a battle-hardened veteran with a shaved head, who is totally immersed in his own emotions and knows little about the complexities of feminine psychology.

Marianna Pizzolato as Andromaca emphasized her character’s feminine charms, immersion in sad memories, and lyrically arresting maternal feelings. However, in the rivalry between the two women the composer undoubtedly gave preference to Ermione, whose emotional character was brilliantly conveyed by prima donna Sonia Ganassi.

The opera ends with two dramatically complex scenes with Ermione. After learning about Pirro and Andromaca’s marriage, she prods Oreste to commit murder, as though confirming that love can change to hate in a split second. Hiding in a cellar, she experiences a wave of stormy feelings that have suddenly overwhelmed her, but these are not feelings of hatred but her once passionate feelings for the man who has injured her.

Her passion reveals itself with even greater strength when Oreste appears with the dagger coated with Pirro’s blood (the murder is committed backstage). In this second finale Rossini miraculously foresaw the aesthetic of expressionism in music with its extreme emotions.

Conductor Roberto Abbado, who made his debut at this year’s Rossini Opera Festival, maintained the overall sound balance, skillfully applying chiaroscuro effects and helping the soloists with their difficult duets and solo scenes for which this opera is famous.

The beautifully illustrated and designed brochure (like all the other festival brochures) for Maometto II contains a review by the music critic Giovanni Carli Ballola, in which the author refers to this opera as Rossini’s Heroic Symphony, an allusion to Beethoven’s famous Third Symphony.

The Beethovian spirit and dramatic sentiments are even more obviously present in Er­mione. Both operas are worthy of being included in modern opera repertoires, on a par with such celebrated creations as Gluck’s Iphigenie en Aulide, Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Verdi’s Nabucco, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex.

By Maryna CHERKASHYNA, special to The Day.Photos courtesy of the Rossini Opera Festival’s press service