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A dramatic discovery

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
04/29/2016 -  & May 1*, 3, 5, 7, 11, 14, 2016
Gioacchino Rossini: Maometto secondo
Luca Pisaroni (Maometto II), Leah Crocetto (Anna), Elizabeth DeShong (Calbo), Bruce Sledge (Paolo Erisso), Charles Sy (Condulmiero), Aaron Sheppard (Selimo)
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (chorus master), The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Harry Bicket (conductor)
David Alden (director), Jon Morrell (set and costume designer), David Laera (choreographer), Duane Schuler (lighting designer)

L. Pisaroni (© Michael Cooper)

Some operas are more utterly operatic than others, and Rossini’s Maometto secondo is definitely in the highest percentile for both intensity and exuberance, especially with the marvelous cast assembled for this production, first seen in Santa Fe in 2012.

The grandeur of the music makes the work a forerunner for full-fledged Grand Opera, the five-act spectacles devised for the Paris Opera just a few years after this work presented in 1820, toward the end of the long list of works Rossini devised for Naples. The plot borrows elements from opera seria in that it takes a historical event, the conquest of a place in Greece (then known as Negroponte, under the rule of Venice) by the forces of the Ottoman sultan. The history (inaccurate as usual) provides a dramatic background for a romance between two people who really have no business knowing one another.

The central conflicted figure (after whom the opera might well have been titled) is Anna, daughter of Paolo Erisso, leader of the Venetian forces. She has been wooed by one Uberto who her father claims must be an imposter as Uberto has been with him in Venice. It turns out that “Uberto” is none other than the sultan himself. The situation gives rise to scenes of revelation and confrontation from which Rossini and his librettist, a literary duke, have devised lengthy multi-section scenes that provide a large-scale structure to each of the two 90-minute acts. As in so many operas a tormented heroine faces a love-versus-duty predicament and of course there is a complicating factor in that Anna has a fiancé, Calbo, a Venetian noble officer.

As Anna, Leah Crocetto produces a tireless stream of vocal declamation in a tour-de-force role which is pretty much on par with that of Bellini’s Norma. (The 19-year-old Bellini was studying in Naples at the time; his Norma appeared 11 years later.)

Crocetto is one of the three leads who sang in the Santa Fe production. Luca Pisaroni gives a thoroughly convincing portrayal of the conquering sultan, and Bruce Sledge injects lots of masculinity along with the distinctive Rossinian coloratura.

The fourth lead role is that of Calbo. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong portrays him as a pint-sized spitfire and she comes close to stealing the show. The delighted audience gave everyone a great ovation but she probably garnered most applause of all.

Rossini composed demanding lines even for the comprimario role of Condulmiero, a Venetian noble. COC Ensemble Studio member Charles Sy made the most of his brief appearance.

David Alden’s last venture in Toronto (Lucia di Lammermoor in 2013) misfired dramatically in many ways, but this work comes together superbly with a convincing mix of historicist design elements handled with an expressionist edge. Alden’s direction and David Laera’s choreography gave us vivid, aggressive images of the invading army. Jon Morrell’s grey set seemed dull at first but then started shifting and opening in unexpected ways that served the drama wonderfully. Adding to the overall effect was Duane Schuler’s lighting, giving the effect of moody, old-fashioned gas lighting.

With Harry Bicket in the pit and the COC orchestra and chorus in their usual terrific form, this is truly a production to remember. As far as I can tell, this Toronto presentation is just the third for the critical edition of Maometto secondo devised by Hans Schellevis (the others being at Santa Fe and England’s Garsington Opera). It fully deserves a place in the repertoire.

Michael Johnson



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