Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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Rossini’s Tancredi Sweeps into Albuquerque

October 26, 2016

In 1813 Rossini was twenty years old.  He had already written nine operas, including several successful ones, but 1813 was a breakout year for young Gioachino because in the space of three months he produced the two operas which would take his name beyond the borders of Italy and make him a “brand” known all over Europe and across the sea.  On the 6th of February that year the melodramma eroico Tancredi premiered at Venice’s La Fenice and three months later, on May 22nd, the dramma giacosa L’Italiana in Algeri premiered at the same city’s Teatro San Benedetto.  Translated, that means that with the space of 90 days Rossini wrote two operas, one tragic and one comic, which cemented his reputation in both fields, and in 2016, 203 years later, it is possible to see both of those operas in the United States in the month of October.  Opera Southwest in Albuquerque offered the New Mexico premiere of Tancredi on October 23 (it will also be performed in Philadelphia in February).  In New York, the Metropolitan is currently staging its classic production of L’Italiana in Algeri (and that opera will enjoy a new production in Sarasota in the US, and of course will have several other productions in other countries this year—Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France, Russia and Oman.  That’s right, at the Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman!!  Even Stendhal, who wrote a laudatory biography of Rossini, exulting that his fame knew no bounds, would be amazed.

Tancredi was enormously popular in Europe for about twenty years after its premiere, but then it was produced less and less until it was considered to be too old fashioned for staging, although its hit tune, “Di tanti palpiti,” was so ubiquitous that Wagner parodied it in Meistersinger, expecting the audience at his opera’s 1868 premiere to get the joke.  Tancredi lay quiescent until 1952 when the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino revived it for the first time in the twentieth century, but it did not return in any real way until the 1970’s when Marilyn Horne took up the title role.  What particularly attracted Ms. Horne was the discovery of a new ending for the work, long thought to be lost; it was one of the great musicological coups of modern times.

Tancredi was a serious opera with tragic action.  The libretto, by Gaetano Rossi, an old pro who lived in Venice, was directly  based on a tragedy by Voltaire, and distantly on characters in Tasso’s epic poem Jerusalem Delivered.  The story is replete with misunderstandings and lack of communication centered around the love of the warrior Tancredi (a mezzo pants role) and Amenaide (a soprano) against the background of a moslem army besieging Syracuse, Sicily, around 1000 AD.  The story seems to be pointing to tragedy, as Tancredi—misunderstanding a letter—believes that his beloved is unfaithful to him and guilty of treachery with the Saracens.  But in 1813, it was very unusual for even a tragic opera to end tragically.  There had to be a rescue ending so that the piece could end happily, reaffirming enlightenment values in this age which was just on the cusp of Romanticism.  So, for the original performances in Venice, Rossini wrote a happy ending, a lieto fine.  Tancredi defeats the Saracens, the misunderstandings are cleared up, and the happy couple unites at the end.

A month after the Venetian premiere, Rossini was invited by Adelaide Malanotte,  the mezzo who had premiered the role of Tancredi, to join her and her long time companion-lover Count Luigi Lechi at his villa on an island in Lake Garda.  Lechi was a learned man of letters, and he convinced Rossini to revise the ending and follow the tragic thrust of the work, in fidelity to Voltaire’s play, for the opera’s second production in Ferrara.  Rossini agreed, and wrote an amazingly modern, subdued tragic ending in which Tancredi, victorious, but wounded in battle with the Saracens, expires in Amenaide’s arms.  The now-tragic Tancredi was premiered in Ferrara a month after the Venetian premiere, without much success; perhaps the idea of a tragic ending was too shocking for audiences at the time.  In December, when the work had its Milan premiere, Rossini restored the lieto fine and made other changes and additions to the score to accommodate new singers.  The tragic ending lapsed and was forgotten.  Scholars knew that there had been one, but the music was thought to be lost—until 1976.  That year the descendants of Luigi Lechi were sifting through family papers when they came across music which Rossini had attested as his own.  They sent copies of the manuscripts to Alberto Zedda, conductor and Rossini scholar, and he immediately recognized the long-lost tragic ending.  He turned the papers over to American Rossini scholar Phillip Gossett, who was then preparing a critical edition of the opera.  The tragic ending had been found at last, and Marilyn Horne premiered it in our time in 1977 at the Houston Grand Opera.  Since then, most productions have used the tragic ending, but conductors and directors today have to choose which to use, as well as choose between several arias and alternatives that Rossini himself added or cut for productions with new singers in new cities.

Rossini scholar Zedda feels that Rossini’s serious operas are all based on an inability to share feelings and misunderstandings or misperceptions between couples in love (and sometimes others).  Unlike later Romantic or verismo (Puccini) heroes and heroines, Rossini’s characters seldom wear their emotions on their sleeves.  Stendhal, the great French novelist, thought that the characters in Tancredi had a candeur, an innocence, that Rossini never recaptured.  The musical lines are simple and possessed of a clarity and beauty that in some ways are the opposite of the thick orchestration of Wagner or Puccini.  But of course this is Rossini bel canto, and there is a lot of ornamentation, coloratura.  In fact, according to Zedda, Rossini’s usually short melodic lines rely on ornamentation to bring out feeling and create character, and that means relying to an unusual degree on the intelligent collaboration of the singers and the conductors to make a success of the work.

tancredi1The great thing is that Opera Southwest’s production had that great spirit of collaboration and talent  among its singers and in its young conductor that made the opera live, almost in a way I have never seen it before.  My first production of Tancredi was in Rome with Ms. Horne in 1977.  I saw it with her again in Los Angeles in the 1980’s, and I have seen it several times in Pesaro, at the Rossini Opera Festival.  Opera Southwest’s production stands up to that comparison test, and in some ways was better than many of those earlier productions.  Horne was always great, but in the 1970’s and ’80’s almost no one else in the productions I saw knew how to sing Rossini.  They were fine singers, but they were used to Puccini and Verdi, who demand a far different style.  But now we are fortunate to have young singers who have trained in the bel canto style and can produce elaborate ornamentation without sounding as if they are in the throes of terminal pain.

Opera Southwest had young singers like that, especially in the two main roles of Tancredi and Amenaide.  Heather Johnson, who bears a striking resemblance to the young Horne, sang the eponymous hero.   The mezzo from Minnesota has a deep, rich voice which can pull off some of the coloratura tricks that Horne made famous while investing the role with the deep melancholy it requires.  I was particularly struck by Lindsay Ohse’s crystalline, pure soprano as Amenaide.  She is a striking, tall woman who commands the stage, and her voice blended beautifully with Ms. Johnson’s Tancredi in their melting duets.  Both of these ladies were world-class in the opera’s New Mexico premiere.  Tenor Heath Hubert, from South Dakota, sang the daunting role of Argirio, Amenaide’s father.  (In Rossini, fathers are often tenors; only later in the history of opera will we type cast older men as baritones or basses.)  His second act aria “Ah! segnar invano io tento” (‘Ah, in vain I try to sign’) is so high-lying and difficult that Rossini cut it out of the second production in Ferrara, presumably because the tenor could not sing it, but  Mr. Hubert sang it, and sang it excitingly.  Orbazzano, the bass, gets the short end of the stick in this opera (no aria of his own), but Matthew Curran was a commanding presence.  Even the minor roles of Isaura, Amenaide’s friend, and Roggiero, Tancredi’s squire were very well sung by Apprentice Artists Madelyn Wanner and Chelsea Duval-Major respectively.  Maestro Barrese included the arias, often cut, that Rossini wrote for those characters because he had singers who could do them proud.

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Barrese himself is a conductor to the manner born for Rossini.  He led an exciting, driven performance.  He prefers brisk tempos, but he knows how to build a crescendo and manage the rhythm that is so important in Rossini so that the Act I finale becomes inevitable and overwhelmingly exciting.  At the end of Act II, when the dying Tancredi breathes out his last, Barrese and his orchestra diminished to a few strings and chords in that rediscovered tragic finale that seems 100 years ahead of its time (how many operas can you think of that end in silence rather than crashing chords and a riff on the bass drum?)  Ms. Johnson movingly portrayed the dying Tancredi too.

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But wait!  You wanted to hear the tuneful happy ending?  You wanted to leave the theater feeling upbeat?  Well you got that too, appropriately, after the first curtain calls, when everybody is all smiles and the audience is on its collective feet applauding.  Barrese stopped the applause from the orchestra pit, and announced that the opera originally ended happily.  And then he turned and the music started again, and we got the lieto fine.

The production itself was simple, effective and followed the dictates of the libretto.  A few platforms doubled as stairs before a palace or the entrance to a rocky cave or the floor of a dungeon.  The rest was done with effective projections and sliding panels (Production Designer, Dahl Delu; Lighting and Projections by Daniel Chapman).  The dominating projection was of the great Byzantine mosaics of the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora in San Vitale in Ravenna.  I suppose that was vaguely accurate in establishing an era or the feeling of an era.  The rich and handsome period costumes were borrowed from Santa Fe Opera (Maometto II?)  Ms. Johnson even sported a small beard and five o’clock shadow, and it worked.  Maybe she was getting ready for the role of Baba the Turk in Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress, which she will sing in Boston in March.  Stage action was well handled by David Bartholomew, using both beautiful tableaux and apposite action.  It was compelling, but it also often gave precedence to the singing, which after all is what Rossini is first and foremost about.  The male chorus (under Kristin Ditlow) and Opera Southwest Orchestra were fine too—better than fine.

Projects like this Tancredi make Opera Southwest a mecca for Rossini lovers, and the quality of the singing and productions make it all worthwhile.  While many casual opera-goers have probably never heard of Tancredi, with these performances they are in for an incredible treat.  More than one left the theater whistling “Di tanti palpiti.”

Photographs courtesy of Todos Juntos Photography

Charles Jernigan

Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network