Rossini’s first masterpiece and one of his two best serious operas (the other being Semiramide – both his first and last commission for Venice’s La Fenice) had never been previously heard in the Deutsche Oper before this run of performances conducted by the world’s leading Rossini specialist Alberto Zedda in Pier Luigi Pizzi’s 1999 Pesaro production. It would not be proper to say that the house’s rather Wagnerian orchestra had limited experience with Rossini, since his comic works are regularly performed there – but one couldn’t help noticing a “German” richer and fuller sound coming from the pit. The experienced maestro wisely did not try to Italianize his musicians by force, but rather surrendered to the Beethovenian surroundings: this score sounded at its noble and warmer, with beautifully blending of strings and wind instruments. Comparisons with Zedda’s top-recommendation recording for Naxos (with Collegium Instrumentale Brugense) shows what was missing this evening: buoyancy. While the Deutsche Oper performance operated on dignified, warm sounds and Mozartian poise, the CD recording springs into life in its bright Italian-style orchestral sound, clearly articulated phrasing and energetic rhythms. I praise the conductor for finding some sense in what the circumstances presented him and I, for myself, deemed the experience as interesting as listening to Elisabeth Grümmer sing Verdi – it might not be what it was supposed to be, but it still has something to say. The Deutsche Oper Chorus, though, basically struggled with the Italian language.
Patrizia Ciofi was not an immaculate Amenaide – some top notes flapped, the low register is unsettled and sometimes you could feel that this role is a hard piece of singing – but her performance had such musical intelligence, sense of style, gracious phrasing, dramatic awareness and sensitivity that one would need a heart of stone to resist her. Moreover, she was in very healthy voice – her usually watercoloristic tonal quality had this evening such radiance that it just flowed effortlessly in the auditorium. The conductor helped her in every tricky passage and she found a virtue in the less brisk tempi to sculpt her fioriture with expressive Mozartian quality. When it comes to the role of Tancredi, one really missed the sensational Ewa Podles in Zedda’s CDs. I have never previously heard or seen Haidar Halévy and cannot say if she was in a bad-voice day, but her performance failed to please me except in the passages in which she could sing softly, what she does adeptly (as in the closing scene – here the Ferrara “sad” ending). When she sang above piano, I couldn’t overlook the the backward placement, the lack of focus, the bleached-out sound over the passaggio and the unclear phrasing. To make things more difficult, her figure and her whole attitude do not really work for breeches-roles. When promising contralto Clémentine Margaine sang Isaura’s aria with firm, clearly produced and deliciously dark tonal quality, I really wished she had been invited for the title role. My first impression of Alexey Dolgov’s Argirio was that he was in an off-evening*, but he would eventually settle into a very brave performance of this difficult role. If his tenor fortunately has nothing of the usual nasality and brittleness of tenorini in it, it also lacks true comfort in this repertoire (especially in the higher end of the tessitura). I wonder if he should not sing Mozart more often for a while and develop a little bit more warmth and sense of expressive phrasing instead of opting so soon for a second-choice bel canto tenor career. Orbazzano is not really a big role, but it is an important one – Krysztof Szumanski could not make much of it, the voice does not really bloom and the whole performance turned around a bad-guy impersonation.
Do I need to write something about Pier Luigi Pizzi’s production? Well, if one of my eleven or twelve readers have never seen one of his stagings, I owe him or her a brief description – take one architectural background in a painting by de Chirico, costumes from Xanadu (yes, the movie with Olivia Newton-John) and the Personenregie of a Mexican telenovela and you’ll get the picture.
* Here again Zedda has a brilliant piece of casting in the sadly too-soon-retired Stanford Olsen, one of my favorite examples of Rossinian singing from a tenor.