04 August 2012

Santa Fe Opera 2012: Rossini’s ‘Maometto II’

Damn the tornadoes! Full speed ahead!
Leah Crocetto: Lightning obeys her command.
This and all photos by Ken Howard, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

It’s hard to imagine how my first experience of Santa Fe Opera could be improved on: a few monkeys might have helped, but really that’s debatable. The splendid auditorium is open on the sides (and sometimes the stage is open at the back), treating audiences to desert skyscapes more beautiful than any scenic backdrop. Sometimes the sky is an active participant in the drama, and that was the case on Thursday night, when a sudden storm blew up in the middle of Rossini’s Maometto II.

When soprano Leah Crocetto asked God to send down lightning bolts to defend His children, He obliged. When the ladies of the chorus implored the heroine to “flee the coming storm” of Maometto’s wrath, a sizable number of the audience were at that very moment hopping up and seeking shelter from the rain that was pelting us from house left. Many of us laughed, but Crocetto kept a straight face, displaying a damn-the-tornadoes attitude that recalled Montserrat Caballé’s legendary Norma during a windstorm at the Chorégies d’Orange in the 1970s. Meanwhile ten stagehands braced the set that wobbled in the wind, and the sky never stopped putting on its own son-et-lumière spectacle.

Yeah, I’d always heard that nature played a role in the opera at Santa Fe, and now I saw the proof of it. The company’s reputation for unusual repertory was confirmed, too, as were its sterling musical standards. Not only because of the weather was Maometto a memorable performance.

Resistance is futile: Luca Pisaroni as Maometto II.

The plot concerns Mehmed II, a historical figure who in the 15th century expanded the Ottoman Empire deep into Eastern Europe. Rossini and his librettist, Cesare della Valle, ask us to believe that, prior to his successful campaign, Maometto infiltrated Byzantium on a reconnaissance mission, under an assumed name. He meets Anna, the daughter of the Venetian governor of Negroponte. They fall in love. Flash forward to Maometto’s conquest of Negroponte, and wow, are Anna (and her father and her fiancé) surprised to find out who her secret lover really is.

The plot sounds familiar, and so does much of the music, since Rossini later reworked Maometto for Paris, under the title Le Siège de Corinth. In 1969, Thomas Schippers & Co. reworked the piece yet again, for La Scala, where it served as the vehicle for Beverly Sills’ debut — as it did for her Metropolitan debut, in 1975. Regular readers of this blog will recall that it was Sills’ performance of this opera, on tour with the Met in Dallas in 1975, that made me an opera fan.

For the present production, Santa Fe used a new edition by Hans Schellevis. It’s infinitely less vocally ornate than the Schippers edition, though more demanding of an audience’s patience, since there’s only one intermission in two hours and 45 minutes of music. Somehow Schippers managed to include two additional characters and yet polish off his Act I in less than one hour; Schellevis’ Act I requires 90 minutes.

While Calbo (Patricia Bardon), Anna (Crocetto), and Paolo Erisso (Bruce Sledge) emote, the city of Negroponte falls to the invaders. This is not good military strategy, but it makes for a dazzling trio.

The length of Act I in this edition is necessitated partly by the late arrival of the titular protagonist: Maometto begins with two scenes of the besieged populace of Negroponte, and only once they’ve expressed themselves at length does their conqueror show up. When Maometto is sung as persuasively as the bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni sang the role here, frankly I think producers can confidently take the gamble and break up this show into three acts with two intermissions.

Pisaroni impressed me mightily this season at the Met, first as Leporello and then, in The Enchanted Island, as the most compelling Caliban I’ve ever encountered. As that brief résumé suggests, he’s got training and experience in fairly florid singing: Maometto finds him butting up against the limits of his comfort, and I frankly missed the darker hues that Justino Díaz brought to this music in The Siege of Corinth, but Pisaroni swept away any misgivings, much as Maometto might mow down his opponents.

One might describe Crocetto’s lower register, where quite a lot of this score lies, as gorgeous — until one hears her refulgent upper register and understands what more she’s capable of. Under the stage direction of David Alden, she didn’t dig very deeply into the character, mostly just standing and posing, but her singing — warm, agile, and brilliant — clearly conveyed her character’s conflicting emotions. In her bravura aria in the final act, “Si, ferite,” she held nothing back, making me wonder how she could possibly deliver the tender follow-up (called “Dal soggiorno” in Siege of Corinth) that arrives with nary a break after “Si, ferite.” Somehow, her vocalism proved melting, exquisite — and of course, she wasn’t finished yet, since the opera wasn’t over.

Hail the conquering hero! But Maometto won’t enjoy victory for long.

And don’t forget that she did all this in a lightning storm. I calculated that Sills was 46 years old when she sang these arias at the Met, and Caballé likewise thoroughly experienced when she sang that Norma in Orange. Crocetto is much younger by far, at the start of her career. I heard absolutely no indication of strain as she sang: if she really has the technique to sustain this kind of singing, then I’ll be proud to say I witnessed an early triumph on the road to stardom. (Maybe even a career that will last as long as Caballé’s.)

As her father, tenor Bruce Sledge, a Rossini specialist, really outdid himself, with a gleaming sound that carried with it righteous intensity and anguish. Irish mezzo Patricia Bardon, whom I’ve admired extravagantly on previous occasions, seemed comparatively subdued in the pants role of the fiancé, and she didn’t find in her music the opportunities to blaze as I’d hoped she would.

Alden’s stage direction was notably lacking in psychological insight, but he did underline the religious conflict at work here, and he achieved some memorable stage pictures, particularly Maometto’s emergence atop an equestrian statue that came bursting through an upstage wall. That statue is one indication that Jon Morrell’s scenic design may only have seemed simple: as the evening went on, walls moved back and forth (and burst open), stairs rose out of nowhere, and a tent emerged from the floor. His costumes were less successful, decking out the Venetians in dress that suggested the era when Rossini wrote the score, while the invading Turks were closer to Renaissance period and nevertheless looked an awful lot like action-movie Ninjas.

I’d heard but never seen Maometto II before Thursday, but Siege of Corinth was, as I say, familiar ground. My godparents took me to see Beverly Sills in that long-ago performance, and for many years they avidly attended the Santa Fe Opera, too. I felt as if my opera-going rounded out a circle as I stepped into the auditorium on Thursday, and for these reasons, too, you couldn’t have picked a better opera to start me off with this company. I can’t guarantee that your luck will be equally good, the first time you come here, but I can urge you to give it a try.

Prisoner of love: Crocetto as Anna, held hostage in Maometto’s tent.


JEM said...

I am in Santa Fe about to,see this opera, which is highly unfamiliar. I did a Google search for critical information and was thrilled to see that my own relative has written the freshest review. Can't wait. Saw Arabella last night amd will see Tosca tomorrow. Cheers!

William V. Madison said...

Thanks! Sorry that our paths didn't cross in Santa Fe, but I hope you have a great time there.

Jason Victor Serinus said...

I'm thrilled to read your report of Leah's singing. I fell in love with this woman and her singing the first time I heard her, at a Merola Opera Grand Finale where she almost blew the roof off the War Memorial Opera House. What was most wonderful, when I subsequently heard her and David Lomeli sing at a press season preview, is that she could be as subtle and meltingly beautiful as she could do powerhouse soprano.

If you think Leah was fabulous in Rossini, my dear former editor, wait until you hear her sing jazz standards. Before she entered Merola, Leah did a stint on restaurant row in NYC. I've only heard Pat Racette do cabaret once, in SF on a night when she was very, very tired. But if what I heard that night was truly representative of Pat's cabaret style, you ain't heard nuthin' yet. The world will soon discover that we have a new, major Verdi - Rossini - Puccini soprano who can give Eileen Farrell a run for a money singing the Great American Songbook.

Damn, I wish I could have been there. But I'm preparing for Bayreuth, Salzburg, and Verona, all of which I'll review for sfcv.org, and that's enough of a drain on savings.

Thank you for this wonderful report.

jason victor serinus

William V. Madison said...

Jason, as is (I hope) apparent from what I wrote here, I was knocked out by Leah Crocetto in Maometto -- and I was lucky enough to hear her sing “All the Things You Are” at the Susan Graham concert two nights later. Spectacular! I can hardly wait to hear her again, in any music she cares to sing.

JEM said...

Maometto wha indeed a triumph, as both your review amd the other press reviews attest. Beautifully staged, and full of so many unexpected surprises. Of course, it must have seemed surreal at some level with the storms.

We saw Tosca there last night. For all of the grousing about it not being a "traditional" Tosca, I thought it was spectacular. I personally loved the staging, despite ignorant, sarcastic comments from those who apparently want to see the same productions over and again.

Amanda Eschalaz was phenomenal in the lead role, having taken the same role at the last minute at Convemt Gardens and preparing to,appear as Tosca at the Met this coming season. She is a rising superstar, no doubt.

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, JEM! I often share your frustration with audiences who demand "the same productions over and over again," and yet there's a flip side: the last non-traditional Tosca I saw was Luc Bondy's misguided production at the Met. I've got no objection to a sensible approach, whether traditional or not; Bondy's was just ugly and poorly thought-out, as grandiose in its way as the Zeffirelli production it replaced but far more restrictive of the singers' ability to perform effectively.

I'm glad to know that Amanda Echalaz has the kind of star power to rise above even Bondy's production (or what's left of it) when she gets to the Met. I'll keep an eye out for her.