If the Santa Fe Opera's production of Rossini's Maometto II was the first opera you ever attended, it was everything you feared: lots of standing and fervent singing with not much else going on. Tosca would have been a much better choice; sex, betrayal, murder, suicide. However, in a different way, Maometto II also offered all these same elements, just less obvious.
This opera was revolutionary in its time; a link between the old "numbers" opera and the modern day through-composed musical drama, such as Tosca for example. By "numbers" opera, we mean one that has identifiable arias, ensembles and choruses that have a definite start and ending. "Through-composed" means an opera, or musical theater piece for that matter, that never stops until the end of the act—no separate "numbers," as it were. Rossini's Maometto II is the operatic fish that breathes air and propels us to the next stage of opera's evolution.
The original 1820 version was a flop—it was so far ahead of its time that no one knew quite what to make of it. Rossini rewrote it a couple of times and even once renamed it Le Siège de Corinthe, but to no avail. The Santa Fe production comes from a new critical edition meticulously prepared by Hans Schellevis that returns to Rossini's original score and, as such, it shines in all its glory.
You would think that the production would follow the lead of Schellevis' scholarship and set the production in the era the composer intended. This would have allowed us to see Rossini's opera in his original stage intent as well as hear it, but such is not the case. For some reason, directors feel that they have to move eras and locations.
Jon Morrell's set is reminiscent of the timeless semi-circular gray walls in the Santa Fe production of Arabella. He adds a Corinthian column to give a hat tip to the setting but the drab grays remain bland and inconsequential. In a real coup de theatre, a life-sized Remington-styled bronze of three horses and a chariot that a golden Maometto rides into war is ruined by the lack of a blackout. Unfortunately, we see the sculpture being drawn back into its clever hidey-hole in the back wall by stagehands. But Morrell succeeds more than he fails. One striking image is the red diagonal that signifies Maometto's tent when it is lined by his harem—a line of the heads of black-garbed and veiled women perched like birds on a power line.
Costume designer Jon Morrell also mixex eras while staying in Rossini's—not his opera's—timeframe. He combines sort-of Civil War uniforms for the heroes, the Venetian forces of Negroponte (a Grecian colony) with a vaguely Islamic, or Ninja-esque garb, for the forces of Maometto II, a Turkish sultan bent of conquest. The woman's chorus, in deep-colored Empire gowns, looks like a sorority event and moves as a flock. The flashiest costume is the golden armor designed for our antihero, Maometto. A belly dancer appears for no apparent reason, but her movements look more like bumps and grinds than exotic sexuality as she sheds a few veils.
All this is fine, but it is to be regretted that for this modern world premiere, just this one time, the composer's wishes for setting and era had been respected.
The plot is complicated, and hardly worth recounting here, but really is more of a skeleton on which Rossini was able to hang some highly emotional music. Because most of the action consists of internal conflict and confrontations, there is little physical action in the opera. As such, director David Alden wisely creates a series of tableaux vivants, posing the chorus in lines or frozen action "snapshots" against which the principal characters could emote.
Anna, our selfless heroine, is in a simple black dress. But, there was nothing either simple or black about Leah Crocetto's performance in the role. She is absolutely glorious and every note is perfectly produced and paints the emotion of every word of Cesare della Valle's libretto. While the English subtitles help, you only needed to hear the characterization in her delivery to know exactly what is going on. Her suicide, to avoid Maometto's unwelcome attentions, even though she unknowingly fell in love with him earlier in her life (before the opera starts) when he pretended to be someone else, is the highlight of the evening. It is easy to understand why there is so much buzz about her in the opera world.
Also creating buzz these days is bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni who magnificently sang and characterized the title role. Dallas Symphony audiences heard him sing an impressive Beethoven Symphony No. 9 last May and he was outstanding as Caliban in the Met's production of the Baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island (seen locally in the HD broadcast.) As Maometto II, he is simply astounding as he flashes through Rossini's virtuoso requirements—complex work usually reserved for a coloratura soprano. He allows the emotion to get away from him occasionally and oversings in the big moments. This is not so dangerous now, but may not bode well for the future of his voice. Singers should always keep 10 percent in the bank.
Anna's father, Erisso, is the leader of the Venetians in Negroponte. Tenor Bruce Sledge sings the role with ringing sound that puts the piddly brass in the orchestra to shame. He also negotiates the coloratura hurdles Rossini constantly places in his way with easy and dramatic flair.
The Venetian general Calbo, a pants role passionately by mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardonis, is in love with Anna. The role requires an astounding range and vocal flexibility. Although her top notes are sung too open for this writer's taste, she is amazing in the role. Her character gets to marry Anna in the end, even if it is just for a few moments before Anna commits suicide to deny the prize of her hand to the evil Maometto.
Another star of the evening is Frédéric Chaslin, the company's chief conductor. Anyone who has tried to conduct an opera filled with orchestral accompanied recitatives knows what a magnificent achievement Chaslin did in conducting this score. He is always on top of the text and never lets the musical flow lag for an instant. He may have pushed some tempi to the limit of his singer's ability on Thursday, but he kept this longish opera moving and vital throughout. The riveted attention of the audience implied that this pacing mesmerized even those opera neophytes who were expecting more action. Professional conductors in the audience doffed their hats to a technical master.
There was an unintended laugh when the women's chorus warned Anna to flee from the impending storm just as thunder cracked and lightening struck and patrons on the windward side of the open-air theater were drenched. But such is the unique joy of opera at Santa Fe in the summer.
◊ Review of Santa Fe Opera's Tosca
◊ Review of Santa Fe Opera's The Pearl Fishers
◊ Review of Santa Fe Opera's Arabella
◊ Review of Santa Fe Opera's King Roger