*Editor’s note: This review of Maometto II appeared in the National Post but was removed after complaints by the Canadian Opera Company. While we are sensitive to concerns over unwarranted prejudice, we feel this review is balanced and have published it the spirit of open and fair criticism.
Not so long ago, The Barber of Seville was the only opera by Rossini in the regular rotation. Now we have access to such rarities as Maometto II. The three-hour-and-20-minute show at the Four Seasons Centre can be recommended heartily to bel canto enthusiasts and cautiously to general opera lovers who are endowed with the appropriate mix of curiosity and patience.
Minted in 2012 by the Santa Fe Opera, this production is entirely congruent with postmodern Canadian Opera Company aesthetics. The off-white set (by Jon Morrell) is adorned with decaying architectural elements. Lighting is harsh and shadows abound.
Director David Alden has updated the 15th-century action, although to what era is not altogether clear. Are the Turks supposed to be ninjas or ISIS fighters? An array of hanging body bags and the relatively graphic downstage execution of a prisoner argue in favour of the latter. As for the Venetians, they are outfitted with what looks like Union Army gear, including firearms with bayonets.
Whatever. The Friday opening was more an evening of dynamic vocalism than plausible theatre. Tenor Bruce Sledge and soprano Leah Crocetto, veterans of Santa Fe, were well suited to the roles of Erisso, the head of the Venetian forces, and his daughter Anna, who is inconveniently smitten by the Ottoman conqueror threatening to lay waste to their outpost. Pacing herself in the lengthy first act, Crocetto came on strong in the second, giving full value to Rossini’s alternating lyrical and dramatic impulses and unleashing some memorable high notes.
Even more impressive was the Elizabeth DeShong as Calbo, a bellicose Venetian general with a human side. Barring a return to the stage by Marilyn Horne, there could be no better demonstration of the viability of a woman in a heroic male role. Vibrant tone, pyrotechnic technique, intense stage presence, spot-on diction: This American mezzo-soprano has it all.
There were fine supporting contributions from tenors Charles Sy and Aaron Sheppard, both members of the COC Ensemble. Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, another Santa Fe original, stalked around the stage impressively but produced neither the authoritative sound nor the ornamental fury required by the title role. Possibly his entrance – by kicking his way through a wall – created unreasonable expectations.
This was not Alden’s only theatrical inspiration. Erisso and Calbo are kept at the end of ropes rather than in chains, a situation that led to some curious games of tug-of-war. Anna enters in Act 2 blindfolded – this being the conceptual inversion of the full-dress burkas in which Maometto’s concubines are clad. When she removes this encumbrance she is treated to a striptease by a nearby ballerina. I wish I could tell you why. Obviously an attack by Muslims on a Christian stronghold creates an opportunity for point-making that few contemporary directors would be inclined to forgo. But those points must be coherently made.
Not that this opera of 1820 is exactly a masterpiece on its own merits. “What do I hear?” and “Am I dreaming?” are among the many stock phrases we see in the surtitles. Even by operatic standards the characters are strangely persistent in expressing a preference for death over whatever indignity they suppose themselves to be suffering.
This is where a critic is supposed to declare that the score renders all such difficulties moot. There are undoubtedly places where Rossini’s genius burns through his addiction to convention. The tomb of Anna’s mother inspires music of unusual pathos, with clarinet touches worthy of Mozart. A brief recitative in Act 2, set to a tremolo in the strings, puts Maometto within hailing distance of The Flying Dutchman. But what shall we make of warlike declarations set to harmless tunes better suited to a farce?
Possibly conscious of the paradox, conductor Harry Bicket led the COC Orchestra through a forceful accompaniment. The women of the COC chorus were suitably prayerful in Act 1.
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