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SEEN AND HEARD
INTERNATIONAL OPERA REVIEW
Rossini Opera Festival (ROF) Pesaro (3) - Demetrio e Polibio: Conductor, Corrado Rovaris; Director, Davide Livermore; Sets and Costumes, Accademia di Belle Arti di Urbino; Lighting, Nicolas Bovey. Orchestra Sinfonica G Rossini; Prague Chamber Choir. Teatro Rossini 16.8.2010 (JB) With an afterword on Il Viaggio a Reims (Accademia Rossiniana) Conductor, Andrea Battistoni Teatro Rossini 17. 8.2010 (JB)
Cast Lisinga –Maria José Moreno; Demetrio-Siveno –Victoria Zaytseva; Demetrio-Eumene –Yijie Shi; Polibio –Mirco Palazzi.
Production Picture - Courtesy of the Rossini Opera Festival
A Syrian friend, over the last ten years, has built up a knowledge and understanding of European music, superior to most Europeans. Absorbing someone else’s culture has always impressed me and I have been more than a willing part-time tutor in this present adventure. Last year I asked him if he would like my second ticket for a concert performance of Parsifal. I thought it only fair to warn him that this would be an unfamiliar musical language which lasted six hours.
But I haven’t got six hours to listen to an opera! he exclaimed, Was this composer by any chance a fanatic? We have a few of those in the Middle East. I said that I thought fanatic would be a good description of the composer. He reflected over dinner and afterwards agreed he would like to risk the Wagner experience, adding, After all, Guillaume Tell didn’t feel anything like the five hours that both you and my watch told me it would take.
Then I had to forewarn him that I could guarantee that Parsifal indeed would feel like six hours: it required a different kind of listeners’ musical commitment, not least because Wagner studiedly required this commitment. Fanatics: we have a few of those in Europe too.
So what is the difference between Rossini and Wagner? Obviously, with one you don’t need to sign a contract, but with the other, it would probably be advisable to consider doing so.
And with Rossini there is a quality which I shall call geniality. But wait, you may protest, isn’t geniality something with which a listener responds rather than something which an author hands out? Well not exactly. Rossini’s very lack of demands on his listeners makes geniality his trademark. There is a spirit of generosity in his music, a geniality which can only be responded to with geniality. And that is as far away from Wagner as you can get. Put another way, Rossini is well-mannered while Wagner can be something of a boor.
The plot of Demetrio e Polibio is a mish-mash of absurd mistaken and assumed identities worthy of the extremes of the parodies of Aristophanes. But this is no opera buffa. It is a dramma serio in due atti. Not a joke in sight! Moreover, when the opera made its first appearance in May 1812 at Rome’s Teatro Valle, the composer was busily putting finishing touches to five other operas that would be born that year. And he was twenty!
Demetrio e Polibio had its genesis with the immensely popular tenor, Domenico Mombelli, who, after a false start, became a friendly collaborator with Rossini. Mombelli was also the manager of his own family’s theatrical troupe –somewhat along the lines of a Victorian Concert Party, except that you could book the Mombelli troupe for an entire opera. Mombelli was also a composer (and here is where the plot thickens) and at least would adjust the embellishments in music presented for his family’s performance, if not rewrite completely an aria. He would regularly hand to Rossini words for arias or duets, often written by his second wife, Vincenzina Viganò Mombelli. It was she who finally gathered together these piecemeal numbers into a nearly coherent opera libretto.
In fact, it has come to light that Demetrio e Polibio was put together from Rossini’s youthful scribblings, set aside from earlier years. That it doesn’t hang together well as a dramma serio should not surprise us. Nor is it surprising that no autograph edition of the score has been found. Which pieces are undisputedly by Rossini and which from other hands, will keep musicologists happily hunting, well into the future. What is surprising in the circumstances is that the hallmark geniality is unmistakably in place. The authentic Rossini touch: sit back folks and just be entertained! Two and a half hours will never pass more quickly. The Mombelli troupe knew their business too. Both of Domenico’s famous daughters –Ester and Anna- took part in the opening, he himself was the tenor and the bass, Ludovico Olivieri, completed the quartet.
In today’s Pesaro, Davide Livermore’s direction piled meaninglessness onto meaninglessness. Like me, he obviously doesn’t believe this is opera seria at all. The students from the Accademia di Belle Arti of Urbino looked as though they were having fun, hoisting racks of clothes up and down the stage (which served to expand or diminish the acting area) and even a grand piano got the same hoisting treatment with singers lying or standing on it. For goodness sake don’t try to read any meaning into any of this: meaninglessness is clearly the order of the day. And why not? Another rather overused toy was the easy-flame torches, which came in handy for the fire which occurs in the story at the end of act one, though it has to be said that here they were not convincing. Intentionally? This is not so much theatre within theatre as theatre without theatre. And it very nearly worked.
The students had sewn some pretty costumes with each singer wearing something which suited their person. Renaissance touches were the order of the day, which made a welcome invasion into the meaninglessness.
Corrado Rovaris paced the opera rather well. It is all important to have a conductor who knows how to keep things moving and Rovaris does. In less intelligent hands, the piece risks falling apart. The Prague Chamber Choir (men only) were superlative in their clearly-marked rhythms and enunciation of the text, as well as perfectly controlled movements. The Orchestra Sinfonica G Rossini has been put together for the Festival and played well too.
Of Pesaro’s quartet of singers, only one arrived at what must have been the virtuoso accomplishments of the Mombellis. This, appropriately, was the tenor, the Shangai born, Yijie Shi: the greater the vocal challenge, the more he sounds to be enjoying delivering it. And that is geniality with a capital G. He is slender and blithe in movement. I have expressed reservations in the past about Mr Shi’s actual voice, which can be thin and reedy, but when you encounter a technique as supreme and secure as his, all other considerations should be overridden.
Mirco Palazzi was convincing as Polibio, even though some bars of music proved to be beyond his reach. Victoria Zaytseva sang well in the trousered role of Siveno, though the coloratura demands he composer makes did sometimes trip her up, Maria José Moreno as Lisinga (prima donna assoluta) disappointed most, but that is because Rossini requires her to be vocally super-human. Ester Vignanò Mombelli, who had created the role, would meet up again with Rossini in Paris at the end of his career, where she would also create the role of Madame Cortese in Il Viaggio a Reims.
It is this last opera which Alberto Zedda has chosen for the Accademia Rossiniana’s annual course for young singers. Nothing better, not even in Rossini, if it is vocal accomplishment you want to display. Both MusicWeb International and I have an avowed policy of bringing exceptional young talent to the attention of readers. There were two performances of Il Viaggio with two different casts, at eleven in the morning on 14 and 17 August. I attended the second. It is a great disappointment to report that vocally, I have nothing to tell you. All the usual vocal faults were much in evidence: intonation problems, incorrect breathing, insecure rhythms, forced sound and attempts to cover up defects with amateurish dramatizing.
However, Il Viaggio a Reims brought forth the most amazing talent of the entire 2010 Rossini Opera Festival. Abbado aside, there is no other Rossini conductor to stand alongside Andrea Battistoni on today’s scene. And he is twenty three! Does this young conductor ever know his way through the Rossini jungle. He is a lion. He even looks like a lion –slight of build with a small waist and a big head crowned with an immense mane of untidy black hair. What impresses is the lion heart, the lion decisiveness, the lion assurance, the lion dignity. And this king of the jungle picks his way through the complex musical paths like no other guide you have ever heard.
His gestures are many and vigorous –something which I normally do not like. But every one of these gestures is meaningful. Is this the same orchestra I heard last night? It doesn’t sound like it. This time their playing has a vitality which they are dutifully getting from the point of Battistoni’s baton. And who would dare to fail to follow such a powerful communicator? Attention, ladies and gentleman of the orchestra: there is a lion in charge. I am only sorry that I missed rehearsals to see how he drilled the orchestra into this extraordinary playing.
Given half a bar of unaccompanied music, some of the singers tried to slow the tempo, but at the next bar line they were roughly brought back by the lion’s paw. Let that be a warning to you! Next time you will get left behind ! I would normally see this as being inconsiderate towards the singers, but in Battistoni’s case, it is not. And it is not because of a perfection which he holds in the very fibre of his being. That perfection, which cannot and should not permit of any compromise, is called pulse.
Pulse is the living structure which holds rhythm in place; there can be no rhythm without it; it dictates shape and sense to rhythm. Tempo (the speed at which the music is played) is also dependent on pulse. Vary the pulse and you will kill off the music. Your rhythm may be immaculate, your choice of tempo perfect, but without the right pulse there will be no musical sense. I apologise for beginning to sound like St Paul: rhythm, tempo and pulse, but the greatest of these is pulse. Battistoni communicates this gospel like no other.
Having understood that there was no singer I should be telling you about, by the time he was bringing his baton down on the second act, my right foot was on the accelerator –Battistoni pulses throbbing through my being (yes-it’s infectious) on the viaggio a Roma, where I live.