REVIEW: Opera Philadelphia’s new production of Rossini’s early masterpiece, Tancredi;
INTERVIEWS: with the production’s stars – mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, soprano Brenda Rae.
“What a wonderful thing – to be able to go to the theater and see something like this, and have it be totally new!” says mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe of Tancredi, the early – and all too rarely revived – 1813 “heroic opera” by Gioachino Rossini, which Blythe currently headlines at Opera Philadelphia.
“This piece is new!”
Certainly, the crisp, glorious sound; the luxe look; and the energized performances of this exquisite new production all speak freshness and vitality. And with the brilliant and dynamic Blythe taking on the (male) title role, opposite the splendid lyricism of soprano Brenda Rae, the production boasts a diva duo of ravishing passions at the center of this singular take on star-crossed love.
“I think audiences are going to find this to be a discovery,” predicts Blythe.
And there’s plenty to discover – and cherish –in Tancredi. Meeting the bold, young Rossini here, in all his musical precocity and dauntless ambition, might be compared to finding a new tributary source of the Nile – a forgotten, high cataract of innovation from which so much of later bel canto might be said to descend.
“I always have to remind myself,” Blythe continues, “that – wait a second! –all the other Rossini hasn’t come yet! This was new – it was very modern!”
Moreover, as salient as Tancredi may be in having cut a channel for the floodtide of bel canto that followed, it is perhaps equally remarkable for the way it seems effortlessly to summarize so much of the best musical drama practice preceding it.
“It was so interesting,” says Brenda Rae of the production team’s analysis work on the Tancredi score. “We found parts that hark back to Monteverdi, and Mozart. Yet it’s its own new thing. You can really see where bel canto gets its roots here. It’s a combination that’s really beautiful.”
The Boy from Syracuse
Deriving its plot from an earlier play by French philosopher Voltaire, the romantic misadventures of Tancredi are embedded within a remarkably complex and dense political milieu and backstory. Set in the Mediterranean island state of Syracusa during the Middle Ages (though this production handsomely and effectively updates the action to a period more closely resembling the era in which Rossini composed it), the context is one of political discord at home (where a longstanding and enervating feud has raged between the island’s two preeminent patriarchs, Argirio and Orbazzano), and the threat of conquest from abroad (from the forces of the Saracen arch-enemy, Solamir).
Against this background, the opera turns on the ill-fated romance between a banished Syracusan nobleman, Tancredi (who, before the opera opens, had been falsely accused of treachery and fled into exile at the court of the Byzantine Empire) and the lovely Amenaide, daughter of Syracusa’s leading magistrate, the aforementioned Argirio. Amenaide and Tancredi appear to have met when the former accompanied her father on a diplomatic mission to the Byzantine emperor; the pair have been locked in a courtly, long-distance, epistolary love affair ever since – and their furtive correspondence will prove fateful.
Still, despite the dire coiling of personal and political that will soon come into play, the opera actually begins, in insouciant Rossini fashion, on a disarming note of amity and optimism, with the signing of a peace accord between Argirio and Orbazzano – a scene staged in this production as an elegant and impressive pantomime of flourishing fountain pens, exchanged documents, raising of champagne toasts, and pomp suggestive of the post-Napoleonic Congress of Vienna.
Tragic clockwork is set in motion, however, when it is revealed that, as part of the truce, Argirio has betrothed his daughter Amenaide to Orbazzano. The wedding is to take place immediately.
Amenaide pleads for and receives a single day’s reprieve before the nuptials.
At just this juncture, Tancredi returns to Syracusa, incognito, by way of a dangerous detour through the Saracen lines. Learning of Amenaide’s betrothal, he assumes himself betrayed by her. Worse, he now learns – along with the rest of the Syracusan nobility – of an intercepted letter, written by Amenaide to an unnamed correspondent but warning cryptically of political hazards, in language laced with endearments. Since it had been confiscated en route toward the Saracen armies, it is taken as shocking proof that Amenaide has attempted to betray her homeland, acting as an agent for – and even offering herself as a paramour to – the Saracen potentate.
What no one suspects – least of all Tancredi, consumed as he is by a jilted lover’s rage – is that the letter was actually intended by Amenaide for Tancredi himself, to warn him of new disinformation against him and to persuade him, against her own heart’s desire, to forbear any attempt to come to her, lest he be captured and put to death.
Instead, Amenaide refuses to reveal the truth – even to Tancredi – and is condemned to death herself. Tancredi proves stubbornly incapable of intuiting his beloved’s innocence, yet strives to figure out a way to save her – even as he now despises her. And, to add to the operatic stakes, it is Amenaide’s own father, Argirio, who must sign his daughter’s death warrant.
The opera’s great challenge – and Rossini’s astonishing achievement – is to sustain all this tragic misunderstanding for the remainder of the opera, persuasively and engagingly reeling out both the political byplay among the parties in power and – most resourcefully – making plausible and even heart-rending the romantic angst and alienation between the two lovers.
“As a plot point, it’s a very interesting dilemma,” observes Blythe. “My husband very rightly said to me –’ why didn’t she just tell you it was your letter?’“
Rae explains from Amenaide’s perspective: “I think she [Amenaide] feels very hurt that Tancredi doesn’t actually have faith in her. ‘How can you believe this about me?’”
And, as for Tancredi, Blythe explains that “their relationship has probably been conducted completely with letters. So I’m incredibly hurt that she would write this letter ostensibly for someone else – and not just for someone else, but for an enemy!”
Still, the psychology of such romantic loggerheads might seem nearly impossible to justify in cold prose. All the more wondrous, then, are the ways in which, musically, Rossini makes it all fully human – by turns fiercely assertive and meltingly poignant.
“Those duets are gorgeous!” says Blythe. “Gorgeous! And the thing that’s fascinating to me is that, musically, Amenaide and Tancredi are constantly separated by [the diatonic interval of]a third. We’re constantly singing in thirds – which is one of the most beautiful ways to sing a duet. There’s always this very quiet moment in thirds, and then it kind of explodes into something else. It is this constant back-and-forth of ‘I’m furious at you, I’m incredibly jealous, but I can’t help but want to be with you – and so I’m going to be with you in thirds!’”
“This is some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard,” concludes Blythe. “And it doesn’t let up.”
Blythe and Rae bring not only supernal musicianship to all their throbbing solos and soaring duets, but also a rich behavioral and psychological commitment that defies any challenge to the logic of their predicament. The characters they create are two well-matched souls – both equally passionate, equally egotistical, equally defiant of fate, and each equally captivated by the other. Two fools for love, with pride going before the fall.
Writing the Playbook
It may have been a fair bet that the revered Gallic egghead Voltaire could engage the cerebral, neoclassical tastes of his French philosophe audiences with the intricacies of his 1760 drama, Tancrède.
Less certain – and a far stiffer gamble – might have been the prospect that, more than 50 years later, a young 19th-century Rossini could make the same material the basis for success on the Italian popular musical stage (the opera’s 1813 premiere was in Venice at the famed Teatro La Fenice).
Nonetheless, succeed he did, and so conspicuously as to warrant speculating whether Tancredi (though less well-known today than many of Rossini’s comic works), may more or less have laid down a template for structuring a whole school of vigorous, cantilena-rich musical melodramas stretching into the then foreseeable future. In contrast to previous preoccupations with themes ancient or mythological, rendered with a certain pageant-like formality, Rossini demonstrated how dazzle and variety could be brought to bear on this kind of heady gallimaufry of patriotism, despotism, suspense, and tear-jerking.
Indeed, with Tancredi – plus his ensuing and prolific string of other muscular, political melodramas like Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra (1815), Adelaide di Borgogna (1817) and even Guillaume Tell (1829) – Rossini might be said to have drafted the technical manual for works like Donizetti’s Anna Bolena (1830), Maria Stuarda (1835) and Roberto Devereaux (1837); Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda (1833); or even Verdi’s later studies of the intersections between romantic tragedy and the forces of history, such as Simon Boccanegra (1857) and Don Carlo (1867).
All the performers in Opera Philadelphia’s Tancredi – beginning with the chorus (ably marshaled by chorus master Elizabeth Braden) and through the principals – are marvelously compelling.
Mezzo-soprano Anastasiia Sidorova, as Tancredi’s attaché Roggiero, makes a terrific impression, especially in a spirited and youthful Act II solo voicing the character’s misguided romantic optimism. Mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita, as the heroine’s plucky and fiery confidante and supporter, Isaura, evinces luscious vocal suavity as well as a robust physical command in her heroic exertions on Amenaide’s behalf.
Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs as the heavy, Orbazzano, is vocally rich and serves up just the right brew of virile yet sinister allure; while his counterpart, Amenaide’s noble father, Argirio, is rendered by accomplished Rossini tenor Michel Angelini with sleek vocal floridity and a certain epicene delicacy that drolly underlines the character’s fecklessness.
As Amenaide, Brenda Rae gives a superb, indeed spectacular performance of one of the most altitudinous and flamboyantly ornamented soprano roles in the Rossini canon. Her spellbinding performance of the twinned arias “Di mia vita infelice” and “No, che il morir non è,” are done with staggering technical proficiency and uncompromising emotional honesty.
“I love singing bel canto opera,” says Rae, “[though]I won’t have a chance to sing much Rossini opera, I think, because his soprano roles tended to be a little lower. This one was written for a soprano with a higher voice and it’s a joy to be able to sing – Rossini was obviously a genius.”
Finally, the preternaturally powerful and legendarily versatile mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, in the title role, is a Rossini revelation. Not a scintilla of irony shadows the credibility and fullness of her portrayal of this complexly haughty, romantic, heroic, wounded, obstinate, self-sacrificing soldier of fortune. Blythe’s vocal range and agility in the role, from her high trumpeting of martial determination to her cavernous moans of grief and despair, are Rossini for the ages. Moreover, no mediation of space or distance seems to figure in Blythe’s vocal production – no matter where one is seated in the exquisite Philadelphia Academy of Music, when Blythe creates sound, it’s as though it’s being manufactured as intimately as at the auditor’s own elbow.
That Rossini Touch
Always, in Rossini’s tide of irrepressible melody, there is the paradox of joy shadowed by menace, despair buoyed by a manic prospect of salvation. It’s a knack for lively musical ambiguity that compels a distinctive if ineffable performance style – a reality pitched always just sufficiently askance of the prosaic or the somber to be slightly self-spoofing; improbable yet fully human; virtuosic yet humane.
Director Emilio Sagi (who originally developed this Tancredi in Europe with Opéra de Lausanna and Teatro Municipal del Santiago) seems fully alive to this subtle yet crucial stylistic imperative. His production begins in splendidly elegant neoclassicism; moves with assurance into abstraction and expressionism (in such later sequences as Amenaide’s de profundis prison sequence, and Tancredi’s parallel episode of nocturnal despair amidst a mist-bound and blighted battlefield); and ends (warning – the following contains spoilers!) with a brash reversion to a kind of rococo presentationalism wholly appropriate to the bald audacity of Tancredi’s remarkable tragic conclusion. (Sagi’s production restores what has come to be known as the “Ferrara” ending, once thought lost and only rediscovered in the 1970s, which Rossini wrote – and preferred – for the opera’s second production in the town of Ferrara, while the Venice premiere had featured a more upbeat and rather too pat ending to satisfy production-house demands.)
This is an ending of such moving and affecting simplicity and heartbreak as to have no correlatives elsewhere in Rossini, if indeed anywhere else in bel canto opera.
“How many operas full-stop end in a whisper?” asks Blythe. “Especially a Rossini opera! The ending of this piece is really miraculous.” It’s an ending that elicited audible gasps of emotion throughout the audience at the conclusion of the February 10 Opera Philadelphia premiere.
Opera Philadelphia’s Tancredi’s orchestra is led with consummate insight and attention to detail by the company’s masterful music director, Corrado Rovaris, who unerringly coaxes all of Rossini’s latent magic into full audible life.
“I wish that everyone in the audience could see his face when he’s conducting this piece,” says Blythe of conductor Rovaris. “He is in heaven! He has such a love of this work, such a love of bel canto, and such an adoration for singers and for the orchestra. There’s no one I’d rather sing with, to be perfectly honest. He’s absolutely remarkable!”
Ready, Set, Tancredi!
The production’s tasteful and versatile neoclassic set by Daniel Bianco is lovely in its own right, and serves as an optimal palette for the lighting design of Eduardo Bravo in all its subtle and painterly artistry. The stylized period costumes by Pepa Ojanguren are ideal.
Rossini’s Tancredi was first performed in another February some 204 years ago. Offered again now, like a delicious, bittersweet Rossini valentine from across the centuries, it’s a treat that opera-philes – and lovers of all stripes – should savor while they may, this February, compliments of Opera Philadelphia.
Tancredi runs through February 19th only, presented by Opera Philadelphia at the landmark Philadelphia Academy of Music. Beyond the February 10 premiere performance (8 p.m.), viewed here, the performance schedule is Sunday, February 12 at 2:30 p.m., Wednesday, February 15 at 7:30 p.m., Friday, February 17 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, February 19 2:30 p.m. Additional information is available here. (And next up for this Opera Philadelphia season is a new production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, running April 28 through May 7, 2017.)