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Sweeping oriental grandeur

Adriatic Arena
08/11/2018 -  & August 14, 17, 20, 2018
Gioacchino Rossini: Ricciardo e Zoraide
Sergey Romanovsky (Agorante), Pretty Yende (Zoraide), Juan Diego Flórez (Ricciardo), Nicola Ulivieri (Ircano), Victoria Yarovaya (Zomira), Xabier Anduaga (Ernesto), Sofia Mchedlishvili (Fatima), Martiniana Antonie (Elmira), Ruzil Gatin (Zamorre)
Coro del Teatro Ventidio Basso, Giovanni Farina (Chorus Master), Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, Giacomo Sagripanti (Conductor)
Marshall Pynkoski (Director), Gerard Gauci (Settings), Michael Gianfrancesco (Costumes), Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg (Choreographer), Michelle Ramsay (Lighting designer)

P. Yende, J. D. Flórez (© Amati Bacciardi)

There is a hum of expectation in the air around Pesaro for the opening of this 39th edition of the Rossini Opera Festival (ROF). Whether it is caused by the glistening of the water at the string of sandy beaches, the hotter than usual European summer, the impending Ferragosto holiday, or the first night of the Festival, there is a real excitement around the city. The festooned city streets and the much anticipated return of one of the festival’s favourite sons Juan Diego Flórez add to the festival atmosphere.

Ricciardo e Zoraide is a rarely performed opera which premiered at Teatro San Carlo Naples in 1818. Its scant performance history at least in modern times, may be attributable to the convoluted plot which requires total suspension of belief, or to Francesco Berio’s static libretto which seems to avoid any real action despite its Crusades setting, or to the requirement of four tenors in addition to an extensive solo cast. So it is with relish that we look to a festival production such as this one to breathe life into an otherwise forgotten gem.

From the first bars of the Sinfonia, young maestro Giacomo Sagripanti draws a fascinating palette of colours from the orchestra. Rossini made great use of the fact that the Teatro San Carlo, had a highly professional orchestra of great strength and size. Many solos are included in the writing, particularly for brass and wind, and frequent use is made of an off-stage band which is seamlessly integrated into the whole. This is reflected in the off-stage chorus of the Second Act. Throughout, the orchestration is complex; highly detailed with a variety of moods created by Maestro Sagripanti, it flows with ease, pace and without restraint.

Rossini was clearly captivated by the duet form as this repeats on multiple occasions in both acts. The first act combinations of two women then two men, both flowing into trios and expanding into the gloriously vibrant Finale are beyond superb. The voices are so perfectly matched that this dream casting brings gasps and voluminous appreciation at regular intervals, culminating in wild foot-stamping at the curtain calls. The singing parts are as intricately constructed as the orchestral score. Elaborate patterns are woven, repeated, varied and incorporated into following numbers. Add to this, the symmetrical nature of the score wherein the entries for the soloists are identical in numbers such as the first finale, makes up for the largely actionless nature of the plot. It is as if Rossini is trying to flesh out the characters through his orchestration to compensate for Berio’s succession of tableaux with little activity.

Movement and activity are introduced through a ballet corps which appears almost as an auxiliary chorus, adding colour and comment to the exchange between the principal singers. They are a clever device, distracting from the inevitable and predictable parade of chorus onto the set and augmenting the many orchestral interludes in the score. So in spite of the lack of action, there seems always to be colour and movement on the stage. The production design references the cartoon-like architectural backdrops of early productions pictured in the printed programme. A voluminous Crusader tent, billowing seascapes created by the ballet and floating silk streamers, ornate Arabic interiors, and a gorgeous effect with the two lovers in duet against a massive full moon. All maintain the “picture book” effect while allowing swift movement between the many scenes.

The singing is beyond exquisite for this grand opening night of the Festival. The cast is uniformly strong and the combinations in duet, trio and larger work superbly well. There can be no doubt that many of the audience are here to hear Mr. Flórez and he is as charismatic and strong as ever. His effortless upper register is as powerful as it is delicate and his precision of diction, tone and colour are clear marks of his flawless technique and immense experience.

Pretty Yende is as much a draw card to this show as her male lead. Her recent triumphs point towards a stellar career in early blossom. Her voice is crystalline and brilliantly luminous. There is the constant suggestion that her upper register is almost without limit as she hints at hidden high notes among the dazzlingly complex pieces she sings.

As Agorante, Sergey Romanovsky is spell-binding. His richly complex tenor plunges easily and powerfully into the baritonal range and pairs perfectly with the other tenors when rising to the heights. His stage presence is virile and dominant and it is with good reason he attracted such enormous audience response at the end of the performance.

Mezzo Victoria Yarovaya gives a wily and conniving Zomira. She is a powerful presence on stage with a rich and darkly shaded voice. In duet, she excelled, particularly in the exquisite “Invan tu fingi, ingrata” with Zoraide in Act One. Rapturously received, Xabier Anduaga and Nicola Ulivieri rounded out the male cast. Both have commanding presence and both delivered brilliantly sung performances.

Like the set designs by Gerard Gauci, costumes by Michael Gianfrancesco reference billowing dresses, Oriental swashbucklers, pirates and exotic silken sashes seen in pictures of early productions, especially that from La Scala in 1823. There is much to be admired in the look of this show: it acknowledges the “mock-heroic” nature of Rossini’s source material, it uses colour and movement to dazzling effect and it brings to “comic book” life an otherwise cumbersome and sedate opera which could so easily flounder due to its lack of action.

Far from a staid antiquity rolled out for festivals, this production makes it clear that with a brilliant cast, highly capable creative team and exemplary orchestra Riccardo e Zoraide overcomes the limitations of its dated libretto. As ever, it is the genius of Maestro Rossini which compels audience attention and we can only thank the ROF for reviving this glorious work.

Gregory Pritchard



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