We are thrilled to bring contributions form two members of the American Rossini Society. Charles Jernigan has translated the libretto for Adina into English ( download the .pdf file hereAdinalibretto
and Celia Montgomery has provided an illustration ( after you read the libretto you will see the connection with the opera) Thank you to both!
The Rossini Opera Festival has chosen to present “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” in a production by Pier Luigi Pizzi as its third major offering this August.
Considering that this opera has appeared all over the world in the first half of this year (as reported by Rossini150 social media), it may at first seem a strange choice.
Can there be such a thing as too many Barbieres?
Janet Johnson, best known for her reconstruction of Il Viaggio a Reims, contributed an article about Barbiere to the “Cambridge Companion to Rossini” in which she points out that the marvelous scene where Basilio (who is supposedly ill in bed) interrupts Rosina’s lesson was recognized in its own time as one of the funniest ever written. Johnson writes extensively of the cultural background for this opera and we recommend you read her article, particularly if you think you know all there is to know about Barbiere.
Alberto Zedda, who is responsible for the critical edition of Barbiere ( and whose curiousit, stubborness, and love for Rossini ) helped validate the need for critical editions and inspired much of what the Rossini Opera Festival was to become, has also weighed in on Barbiere.
In his recently translated book “A Life with Rossini” (Charles Jernigan, translator) Zedda boldly proclaims that Barbiere is a “Revolutionary Manifesto”. So many of Rossini’s operas can be viewed as “subversive” even today, but sometimes one needs to look under the surface to fully appreciate this. After all this is a fantastically entertaining work which sweeps you away with its energy.
Zedda calls Barbiere “an eloquent manifesto of the revolution brought by Rossini to the lyric theater”
Zedda calls Barbiere “an eloquent manifesto of the revolution brought by Rossini to the lyric theater”.. continuing with the observation that that Rossini chose a subject where the contrast between the declining aristocratic world and the nascent democratic one would be the chief motif of the story. Zedda goes on ” the actors in the story are clearly divided into contrasting groups: one is motivated by a spirit which is decidedly modern; the other is guided by an obtuse conservatism…”
Figaro, who ended up being the most popular character in this opera was not originally intended to be the “star” Rossini had at his disposal the legendary tenor Manuel Garcia; To his talent wrote the final “Cessa pui di resistere”. But things have a way of getting out of the composer’s hands. Figaro, although the most recognizable character (how often has “Largo al factotum” been used in everything from cartoons to commercials) is actually “one-upped” by his own admission in the enchanting duet with Rosina (dunque io son). He admits it and Rosina gets the better of the situation without losing her purported innocence.
Bartolo is not quite what he seems. Some productions present him as a lecherous old man just trying to get his hands on Rosina. Rossini’s music (nor the libretto) doesn’t imply this, rather, Bartolo clearly would like to get his hands on her dowry. That is why he is so easily bought off when Almaviva doesn’t demand it at the end. Bartolo is the embodiment of respectability and requires recognition of his station in life. Some productions, such as the delightful one by Peter Kazakas in Washington DC picture Bartolo’s study with a huge library (and a wonderful engraving of Pasta in Tancredi) on his wall.
Zedda concludes (as has been stated elsewhere that in Barbiere Rossini employed a mode of storytelling that needs the intelligent involvement of the listener, whose duty it is to reassemble the signals in the imagination. As a result “The outcomes of a message like that which is intentionally open-ended, can change from one hearing to the next.”
Or, to put it another way.
One can never have too many Barbieres!
For an interesting lecture by Philip Gossett, you might enjoy.
There is also a very old film about Rossini where the premiere of Barbiere is featured. It is absolutely delightful if “suspect” historically.
And finally, if you are going to change the lesson scene, you can’t do better than this! Tancredi in Barbiere, indeed!
Those who have seen Lisette Oropesa perform or have read the many laudatory reviews she has garnered, know she is one of the brightest stars of the opera world. It is very exciting to have her performing at the Rossini Opera Festival this August.
At her Royal Opera House debut, Lisette’s performance of Lucia had the Guardian exclaiming, “[T]he Cuban American soprano is sensationally good. She makes the stratospheric vocal fireworks of her mad scene – accompanied by flute this time, not glass harmonica – sound easy; indeed, her every note is part of a convincing portrayal of a complex character.” Her Violetta at Opera Philadelphia had Philadelphia Magazine saying, “The name on everybody’s lips is gonna be Lisette Oropesa … or, at least, she’s the name on everybody’s lips who sat through Friday night’s opening performance of Opera Philadelphia’s La Traviata.” And then the review gets even more glowing.
Lisette will be performing at the ROF as the title role in Adina on August 12th, 15th, 18th, and the 21st. Her concert at the Teatro Rossini on August 14th is also not to be missed.
Lisette was gracious enough to grant an interview with Rossini America when she was performing in Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan Opera this past winter. Like the music of Rossini and Donizetti, talking with Lisette is a delight – quick, rapidfire, thrilling, brilliant, dancing, thoughtful, and with a wonderful sense of humor.
With Lucia a singer might have ten or more recordings for inspiration or different approaches, for Rossini’s Adina you don’t have that. Does that make it more difficult to learn? Or can that make it more liberating because you don’t have the overhead of other people’s interpretations?
I don’t actually use a lot of recordings as a crutch. I’m very much a book learner. I research the opera after I’ve started looking at the score. In other words, I begin from the music and then I go from there. Unless it’s a role that’s like Violetta, or even Lucia, because the roles are based on major literary works. And so in the case of Traviata I really did read the book. And I went head-first into the novel but then the problem was I couldn’t look at the music for months because I was depressed. Because the music is so beautiful – and the novel was so sad and depressing. I couldn’t even do my work to learn my music. I kind of learned my lesson from that.
So I try to go music first – especially with a piece by Rossini where it’s all in the score, it’s all there for you. I read it with a piano or whatever. I clunk out my notes. I read through the libretto. I read through the text. I start there. If there are recordings that are kind of the big major recordings, of course, I enjoy them but it’s not how I learn my music.
So I try to go music first – especially with a piece by Rossini where it’s all in the score, it’s all there for you. I read it with a piano or whatever. I clunk out my notes. I read through the libretto. I read through the text. I start there. If there are recordings that are kind of the big major recordings, of course, I enjoy them but it’s not how I learn my music.
So yes, it’s actually kind of nice there aren’t 80,000 recordings out there and somebody going, “Well you know, you should do this cadenza that Sutherland did. ” “And oh but the other Cadenza that Sills did is so much better” and “Oh you should do what Callas does here!” You know what I’m saying? That is out of the picture and that’s nice.
Is this the first time you’ve sung a Rossini opera professionally?
No. I have sung Il Turco in Italia professionally. I studied Barbiere in college and sung Rosina in college. That’s the only other Rossini I’ve done. I’ve never done any of his oratorios either. So this is kind of relatively fresh territory. But I do study a lot of bel canto in general. They always lump together the three bel canto composers. Although I think they’re all ridiculously different and you can tell them all apart when you listen to them.
Rossini has specific things that are unique to him. It feels fresh. It’s fresh territory for me.
What strikes you as the difference between Donizetti and Rossini?
Well Donizetti sounds like….. 9 times out of 10 when you listen to a Verdi opera, especially a bel canto style Verdi opera, you go “That sounds like Donizetti”! So Donizetti came first. Donizetti was the master that pushed towards what Verdi then developed on musically. The structure of the line, the vocal line. The vocal line tends to be very long. The characters have an arc to them. That kind of thing.
Rossini is much more of the coloratura and fioratura which take the most, I think, dramatic importance. More than the legato line. Of course this isn’t true for every Rossini opera but it seems to me, that the more Rossini operas the more you listen to, it’s just more notes. It’s simply more notes. More cadenzas. More high-flying type of coloratura that is extremely difficult. And so that’s why you have a lot more specialized singers singing Rossini.
Then Bellini is kind of the opposite where I feel like Bellini has… the full lyricism, the super-long lines, and much less coloratura. There is coloratura in Bellini but its much less, it’s more in the long line.
Donizetti is kind of in the middle. Rossini wrote many notes. Bellini wrote fewer notes. And Donizetti’s just in the middle of the two. It’s like the story of goldilocks.
Are there any Rossini singers from the past that you admire?
I certainly admire Rossini singers even of today, more than anything. I feel like Rossini today has become… there’s a lot more respect for Rossini and how it should be performed.
And people treat Rossini with great care. I think that’s wonderful. I think that for years people have been doing that with Mozart, people have been doing that with Handel. There are conductors and singers that really specialize in Rossini. For example, Joyce DiDonato – who I just heard sing a fabulous Semiramide at the Royal Opera House. And I listen to Joyce over the years, how she’s honed her technique and made Rossini very, very special.
And people like Larry Brownlee who are also extraordinary Rossini singers. I mean you know Juan Diego. I could list a bunch of people. They make it respectable and it’s not just about showcasing the voice. Of course it’s always about the showcasing the voice. They make it also about showcasing the genius of the composition. It’s not so easy to compose so many notes. I mean i feel that way when I read through Bach. There’s a million notes in Bach. How the hell did you come up with all these melodies and harmonic ideas with so many notes and they all make sense? I find that unbelievable. It has that kind of style that there’s lot of notes but there’s a core to that. It should be treated with care and it takes great expertise to sing really well.
In a lot of ways I’m kind of nervous to sing in Pesaro because I know they expect a very high level of specialization in that repertoire. I’m a lyric coloratura. I sing coloratura rep. I don’t consider myself a “Rossinian”. I’m going to do my best to bring what I with bel canto to the role.
I feel that Rossini takes years and years to really master.
You have a recital at the Teatro Rossini. What’s your approach about deciding what to perform?
My problem is – I’m very… I’m a libra. I’m balanced. I try to find balance. I would never do an entire concert of just bel canto. Or just Mozart. It’s very hard to get me to do that. I’m a buffet singer. I sample a little of this and sample a little of that. Because I feel there’s a lot of things my voice does well and I’d like to explore them in one evening. And I love all the different languages and everything.
So I’m going to have to narrow down from all the stuff that I like, to what would be the most enjoyable over the course of an evening.
Rossini in school was called “The Little German” because he spent so much time studying Mozart and Haydn. When you sing Rossini’s music do you notice the Mozart and Haydn influence?
Yes! Because I feel like there’s a period where Mozart wrote too many notes and got in trouble for that. We’re so lucky as coloratura singers that we get to do this. And not all the singers have the chance to play with so much coloratura. When you’re a coloratura singer and you sing all these different composers who really like to write a lot of notes, it’s not just a mastery of getting all the notes in, because you have to get them all in there. It’s finding a reason for them to exist. Other than there’s 16 notes on the page and this is what you have to do.
Find an expressive reason to sing them and to sing them beautifully and find how to color them. Not only is is it a technical thing but it means something. When I study Mozart and I study Handel or I study bel canto or any kind of coloratura repertoire, I always come with the exact same training which is, “Find the reason behind the note.” The composer wrote it for a reason. It wasn’t just because it was stylistically cool do to this. I mean, sure it was stylistically cool to do it but there’s always more behind it because you’re playing a character. Coloratura means it comes from the heart, it comes from the guts, it comes from whatever, and so that’s one thing nice when you’re a coloratura singer, you get to figure that out and play with that.
“Find the reason behind the note.” The composer wrote it for a reason. It wasn’t just because it was stylistically cool do to this. I mean, sure it was stylistically cool to do it but there’s always more behind it because you’re playing a character. Coloratura means it comes from the heart, it comes from the guts, it comes from whatever, and so that’s one nice thing when you’re a coloratura singer, you get to figure that out and play with that.
Have you been to Pesaro before and if you haven’t, what do you think Pesaro is like?
I think Pesaro is by the sea. Italians love to tell me, “Oh you get to see the sea!” They love the sea. They love the sunshine. Every Italian friend that has been there told me how great Pesaro is.
I assume it’s going to be the most glorious place on earth.
To find out more about Lisette, the Classic Talk duo of Bing and Dennis have an extended interview where Lisette talks about her background, what it’s like to sing opera, and other topics that may be of interest to opera fans.
Future performances for Lisette include:
Violetta in La Traviata at La Fenice, August 25, 28 and September 5, 8, 13, 16
Adina in L’elisir d’amore at Opéra national de Paris, Oct 25, 30 and Nov 1, 4, 7, 10, 13, 16
For more information, visit https://lisetteoropesa.com/
Rossini comes to Washington DC with an answer to the doctor vacancy, thoughts about a Constitutional Amendment, and of course, the topic of MONEY.
These are all current issues in the capital city of the United States and Rossini might have found it ironic ( or not) that his Il barbiere di Siviglia touches on these issues, each in their own way.
1. A doctor comes to town. Doctor Bartolo is often relegated to the ranks of a secondary character ( after Figaro, Rosina, and Almaviva) but this role affords ample opportunity to present complexity. It will surely happen in this production!
2. How many Americans know the 3rd Amendment to the US Constitution? Very few, most likely. And when they discover that it is ”No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.” the reaction is most likely “what?” This issue was a big deal in the world at the time it was written ( 1789) so it is not a surprise that it figures in the plot of Barbiere,
3. And then there is money! “The secret protagonist of the opera: they all talk about it, they are all looking for it.” In the words of Alberto Zedda.
Il barbiere di Siviglia plays at Washington National Opera through May 19th.
The intimate Rossini,
The canard that Rossini quit composing after he wrote William Tell should be put to rest, yet again. Indeed, he no longer wrote for the stage, but the output of his “golden age” contains treasures that deserve to be better known.
In fact, Rossini wrote a good deal of non-operatic music, some actually pre-date Tell. Although the pieces on this Naxos recording do not have the scope and grandeur of his operas, listening to them is like savoring an excellent limoncello after a 29 course meal. Rossini’s dynamic rhythms, easily accessible (and sometimes unforgettable) melodies, and most of all his sophisticated wit are present in many of these offerings. We simply need to listen.
Although this is Volume 8 of the Naxos series of Complete piano music of Gioachino Rossini, it is an excellent introduction to these gems. Much of this music has not been recorded before.
The artist who brings all these diverse works together (and who has made it a labor of love to bring about this series) is pianist Alessandro Marangoni. In addition to being a real advocate for Rossini’s piano music, playing these works with elegance and genuine Rossini style, Marangoni has contributed to the volume ”I Péchés de Vieillesse di Gioachino Rossini” (a cura di Massimo Farnoli, Guida editori), which unfortunately has not appeared in English (yet). RossiniAmerica has an interview with Marangoni elsewhere on this site.
What is a good way to approach this music?
First of all, listen and enjoy! Some of the selections may seem a bit “tame”, “thin”, or indeed brief! This is to be expected as the collection is encyclopedic.
While listening ,we can start to appreciate the fact that perhaps the opera stage was no longer the ideal setting for Rossini’s artistry. If you have ever been fortunate enough to hear chamber music in a private home, you will understand that many of these gems sparkle in an intimate setting; even a small theater is perhaps too big for some of them to work their magic. This recording is a rare example of one that does not make you wish “Oh, if only I was hearing this in a concert hall or an opera house.” Listening at home is a perfect setting.
Marangoni has been most fortunate in his choice of colleagues. Rossini clearly had first rate instrumentalists at his disposal. Listening to these pieces (and the solo instrumental passages in his operas) makes it clear that Rossini’s time offered formidable instrumentalists as well as legendary singers.
Next, after a first listen, be sure to read the program notes by the eminent Rossini scholar, Reto Muller who is as familiar with these pieces as the artists themselves. As a supplement to the program notes we bring a few observations contributed by members of the American Rossini Society: Sean Kelly, Head of music at Omaha, Opera, Patricia B. Brauner, scholar and editor ( Fondazione Rossini and Barenreiter), and Dana Pentia, of the RossiniAmerica editorial board.
1. A breathtaking Prelude, theme and variations for horn and piano written for Eugene Vivier, the most pre-eminent horn player of his day. Muller reminds us that Rossini’s father was also a horn player, and perhaps that helped inspire him to create this piece .
In the words of Sean Kelley ( who was the force behind last year’s much praised Otello for LoftOpera)
“This piece is just wonderful! We all know Rossini’s affinity for the horn, and the many featured moments he give it in his operas ( the solo in Otello is fiendishly difficult). The Prelude, theme and variations are just as whimsical and full of joy as Non piu mesta. It begins with a lovely plaintive melody, perfectly complementing the horn’s tone. The variations are so much fun to play, and the elasticty in the phrases give the artist a moment to relax and regroup before conquering the next mountain of articulated repeated notes, arpeggi and scales. What a delightful piece!”
2. Un mot à Paganini for violin and piano. This is of interest, particularly for those with more than a cursory familiarity with the great violinist’s works. It is very “Paganini-ish”, yet clearly a tribute to, rather than by, this magician of the violin. Reading the notes, one can only wish that Rossini had taken up Paganini’s suggestion to write a sonata based on the Romance from Otello.
3. Rossini has some incredible cello passages in his operas. In this collection there are works for cello and piano written for “the Paganini of the cello”, François Servais, a Belgian. This disk includes two works written for Servais. Concerning one of these, Patricia B. Brauner writes:
“In January of 2017, Reto Mueller sent me a copy of the autograph score of Un mot pour Basse et Piano (track 4), asking if I would verify that Rossini himself wrote the eight measures of music to be inserted after m. 8 of the original twenty-six measure composition. American readers will be interested to know that Servais’s cello, a large Stradivarius bassetto from 1701, is in the collection of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society http://smithsonianchambermusic.org/collection/stradivarius-cello-1701-servais. I was happy to assure Mueller that he was correct about the handwriting.”
In connection with a work for baritone and piano Brauner continues:
“A few days later he sent me ‘a piece almost unknown to Rossini scholars’: L’ultimo pensiero (track 15), published in a 1994 edition by Wolfram Steude (Hendrik Meyer Musikverlag, Dresden) with a photographic facsimile of the three-page autograph. There were some problems with that edition, including misreading the date Rossini wrote beneath his signature and some mistakes in transcribing the music. Since Mueller had told me that Alessandro Marangoni wanted to record this piece, I decided to make my own edition based on the autograph and following Philip Gossett’s guidelines for Works of Gioachino Rossini. Then I learned that Daniela Macchione, who succeeded me as Managing Editor of WGR, had already made an edition for the forthcoming volume of vocal music. We shared and compared our two editions; even in this short and carefully notated piece, there were editorial decisions to be made, such as interpretion of dynamic signs and even matters of which pitch Rossini intended, when the placement of the note is ambiguous. Philip Gossett reviewed our ultimate version. And in the meantime, Reto Mueller had succeeded in locating Cerruti’s heir, who now owns and treasures this precious manuscript, testimony to the relationship between the two men.”
4. An artist that some may remember from her appearances in Il Viaggio a Reims at the 2012 Rossini Opera Festival, is mezzo-soprano, Lilly Jørsted. Here she performs Giovanna d’Arco, a piece which perhaps Rossini’s second wife Olympe Pélissier might have sung in a concert in 1832. Müller refers to this hypothesis in the program notes.
Here are some reflections on this rarely performed piece by Dana Pentia, of RossiniAmerica’s editorial staff.
“The Giovanna D’Arco cantata, written shortly after Rossini stopped composing operas, seems rooted in the heroic operas of Handel with branches pointing up to the future tone poems of R. Strauss. It starts with the vocal line used primarily to narrate the Giovanna’s immediate thoughts, while the piano accompaniment goes deeper into depicting the multilayered complexity of the psychology of the character. A gradual transition from piano “speaking” the intricate realities of that time and space to the voice slowly integrating those conditions happens as the cantata progresses, with the most virtuosic coloratura displayed in second aria “Ah, la fiamma”.
In this cantata Rossini masterfully depicts in less than 20 minutes the complexities of a full length opera, with the character evolving from pensive to engaged, active, willing participant, while the accompaniment provides all the necessary portrayal of internal and external states of being.”
Alessandro Marangoni accompanies all of these soloists, and it would be giving the disc short shrift not to mention his solo contributions to this collection as well. We will explore these when we have a look at the other CDs in this Naxos collection.
Marangoni should be commended for his dedication to this rather neglected body of work and Naxos is to be applauded for bringing us this series of CDs .
We are pleased to present this account of the Memorial Service for Professor Philip Gossett held in Chicago this past February. Special thanks to Beth Parker for sharing this with the American Rossini Society and RossiniAmerica.
NB To read the whole tribute be sure to click on the arrow at the bottom of each page!PGossettMemorialService
When it was announced that Will Crutchfield was launching Teatro Nuovo as a place for all things Bel Canto in the US, people who were familiar with his work at Caramoor were delighted. Some who have not been to Caramoor are familiar with his work in, among other places, the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, as well as his many contributions as a music critic for the New York Times.
We were delighted that Maestro Crutchfield agreed to take the time to answer a few questions.
Pictured below is Crutchfield seated between Philip Gossett and Andrew Porter. For more about Teatro Nuovo please be sure to visit the website: teatronuovo.org.
Q. You speak of how old recordings help throw light on singing in the past. Does the type of vocal writing give useful insight into what singers were able to do? Is there a difference between say the vocal writing of Haydn, for example, and Rossini that lets us know about how voices developed?
WC: Yes – in every way but the sound itself, which is sometimes the most important thing. Vocal writing tells us about what singers were able to do in basically three ways: the pitch-range covered, the differences (if any) in the way different portions of the range were treated, and the figures and phrases the voice could be called upon to execute.
One thing to remember, though. Arias were usually written with a particular singer in mind, and then adjusted – within the prevailing musical language, but often with quite radical changes of range and figuration – if another singer took them over. So really when we study vocal writing we are studying what one singer could do. If we know enough different pieces, we can build a picture of what characteristics were more common and what more rare. So to take your example of Haydn and Rossini – we can look at their music and see that tenors using the highest head-register notes had become more prominent. They existed before – Haydn wrote a diary entry comparing two tenors going far beyond high C, and observing how one handled the head-chest transition well and the other badly – but he didn’t compose a lot for tenors comfortable in that zone, whereas Rossini did.
And then if we study enough adapted pieces, we can build a sense of how much each singer’s characteristics mattered. One thing I’d say we do too much nowadays is try to stretch individual voices to encompass notes that might be achievable, but might not have the most beautiful sound. Or to sustain a tessitura that might become manageable with enough effort, but only at the cost of sounding like hard work. It’s clear that in Rossini’s time – and before, and for a long while after – they cared more about a note being good than about it being high or low. Rewriting was constant. Transposition was constant. I think we are still too reluctant to use those tools. It takes some study to use them well, but all the info we need is available.
Here’s another Rossini example, if you have room for it. Thanks to the critical edition, we have the adjustments Rossini made to his own music for the first Arsace in Semiramide.Now, Arsace is a low part and almost 100% of current singers add high notes to it – because they’ve mastered those high notes for use elsewhere, and maybe developed their voices with more strength towards the top and less in the middle. Nothing wrong with that if it sounds good. But what did Rossini do? All the way through, he made the part lower. He obviously felt his singer sounded better, or performed with greater comfort, in the area of Eb, E, F at the top of the staff than in the area F#, G, G#, and so that’s how he retouched it. There’s something to learn from that.
Q. You make an enthusiastic argument about the “collective decision” that this tradition is valuable. What can be done to guide the public to a true appreciation of the tradition?
WC: The broad tradition I think we’ve made a “collective decision” about is Italian opera itself. We’ve decided by falling in love with it, buying tickets, studying, donating to opera companies, writing and reading books about it, etc. etc. There are enough people doing those things every day to put it beyond debate that this stuff has societal worth and should be fostered. But then when you get to particulars of “style and technique,” you can have plenty of arguments among people who are already united in loving opera, but disagree about what serves it best. And that’s not unhealthy.
Q. One argument one often hears from young singers is that it is not worth it to pursue bel canto (particularly Rossini) because the chances for getting work are so limited. This seems to be even more acute in the US than in Europe. Teatro Nuovo is certainly giving opportunities; how do we make more?
WC: Let me divide this into two questions – first, US vs. Europe – we all have to recognize that opera is more at home in Europe than in the Americas. Yes, many of us here have European ancestors – but they are the people who moved away from their roots. When we are drawn to opera, we’re being drawn to something that is not exactly ours culturally – and as the opportunity spreads, Asian nations are being drawn to it too, even though they have very few European-descended citizens. That’s because it has universal appeal. But we can’t get upset if it has still more appeal in the part of the world where it grew. Tastes and repertory in the US are always going to be a little more limited than those in Europe. It’s not a disaster. It’s just something you work to improve over time. And it is improving. Last season, Donizetti was the second-most-performed composer in the Met season – ahead of Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner. If somebody had offered odds on that twenty years ago they would have been 99 to 1 and a Donizetti optimist could have made a fortune. Serious bel canto operas are popping up at Glimmerglass, Santa Fe, Chicago, Houston – and not just the top five or six titles. Again, unthinkable a generation ago. So there’s every reason to keep this ball rolling.
But second – bel canto vs. opera in general – here there is a lot of misunderstanding. There is no reason for a singer expert in bel canto to find fewer chances of getting work, because bel canto – properly understood – improves the quality of singing in every kind of opera, Wagner and Janacek included. If singers find that working on Rossini makes their Puccini sound less good, then something is wrong with the way they’re understanding bel canto. Rossini needs all the good qualities Puccini needs, plus runs and trills. And we’d get better Puccini too, if our Puccini singers had better control of attack and dynamics, which Rossini just might help them get.
Q. You are responsible for the critical edition of Aureliano in Palmyra which had some lovely performances at the Rossini Opera Festival. It must have been quite a challenge fitting the puzzle pieces together to produce this score! How, then, do you make your peace with “deconstructing” Tancredi into what you are calling Tancredi rifatto?? It is wonderful to get the chance to hear the alternate arias, but what are the arguments for mounting a performance of the opera with them rather than presenting a concert of just the alternate arias?
WC: Those alternate arias were written to be heard as part of an opera, as part of the through-line of a character’s life. Presenting them in concert can be fun too, but it is much more “deconstructive” than presenting them in context. Here’s a detail that we’re leaving out of the general publicity, because it gets too complicated, but for a Rossinian audience it will be interesting: Almost nobody has heard the original Tancredi – maybe nobody, I’m not completely sure – because almost all performances already use the later alternate aria for Tancredi in Act Two. The one we know, “Perché turbar la calma” with the cabaletta “Non sa comprendere,” is from the Ferrara revisions. The original score has a completely different scene, an aria with horn obbligato, and it’s great too, but almost completely unknown. So we are going to do the complete original Tancredi as premiered in Venice, with the un-familiar Gran Scena, and then in Tancredi rifatto we will do the Ferrara aria (and the death scene that follows it) – along with all the other alternative pieces written for various occasions.
Q. Finally, a question about style. There is a tradition in classical ballet going back to the Danish choreographer, August Bournonville ( who was actually invited by Rossini to becomes a singer when they were in Paris!) The tradition has endured to this day although dancers’ bodies have changed and the original ballets were not danced “on point.” Given that singers are trained and expected to sing differently than they did in the past, is part of the challenge of preserving/respecting tradition taking this into account?
WC: This is a complicated question and a rich field. What is “tradition” anyway? It’s not a way of keeping things unchanged – it’s a way of keeping them connected while they change. You master what your teachers’ generation was doing, then you add your own innovations, then you teach your own pupils both what you’ve preserved and what you’ve added, then they in turn make their innovations, and so on.
But in all the arts, the forward move sometimes involves going back over history and seeing whether you find something that fell by the wayside – something that seems useful for revival and re-integration. The particular parts of the tradition I’m interested in reviving are basically three. One is the musical creativity of the soloist as a kind of co-composer of the solo line. That’s the whole tradition of ornamentation, but it went a good deal farther than what we call ornamentation. I think we need that because later traditions have subordinated the singer too much to the other elements of opera, and singers’ artistic personalities don’t get the fullest range of development I think they might. The second is that we need to pause in the midst of our amplified, miked age and look again at what it was like for singers who had never heard amplification and couldn’t imagine any such thing. The easiest example to explain: nowadays we have a tendency to sing as though we have a mike when we want to sing softly, and then wherever that doesn’t work, we just go ahead and sing loud. An acoustically viable soft note is something very different, and we’d gain a lot by getting it back. And that’s just one item in a long list.
The third is where Teatro Nuovo is going to get quite radical. Over time, music developed fantastic complexity of orchestration, and fantastic techniques of modern conducting to coordinate it. This can lead to some astonishing music-making – but it can also be abused. One abuse in opera is this: bring in the orchestra for a few rushed rehearsals, and count on the skill of the conductor to put it together whether or not the players really know what is going on. It’s not satisfying for the orchestra, and it puts a lid on the expressive potential of the individual players. In Rossini’s and Mayr’s time, Italian theaters didn’t have stand-up conductors. They did have leaders, sure – a concertmaster and a keyboard player – but leading and controlling are two different things. Under the older system, both singers and players had to listen to each other and grasp each other’s parts. I’m convinced there’s a level of orchestral energy and expression to be unleashed here in the operas written for that system. And I think it’s good for the singers too – they will have to step up and lead their arias. There is no more reason “Di tanti palpiti” should be conducted than a string quartet or “Die Forelle” should be conducted.
Thanks to Will Crutchfield for taking the time to explore these questions. We look forward to a successful season ahead for Teatro Nuovo with many more to come!
We are fortunate that Charles Jernigan who was at the concert agreed to write this short account of a moving tribute held in Antwerp in January.
The picture below is of the curtain call; The flowers with the letters were provided by one of Alberto’s greatest fans, Peter Vandamme. Alberto’s family was in the audience and surely must have felt the love and appreciation of all.
The Rossini Gala, sponsored by Opera Vlaanderen (Flemish Opera) was in honor of the great Rossini conductor, musicologist, teacher and festival director Alberto Zedda, who died last March at age 89. Had he lived, the plan had been for him to conduct this Jan. 6 concert himself; it would have been his birthday present to himself and to his admirers (his 90th birthday would have been on Jan. 2), with many stars associated with him and the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, all singing extensive arias and scenes from Il barbiere di Siviglia, Tancredi, Il viaggio a Reims, Guillaume Tell and ending with the “Agnus dei” from the Petite Messe Solennelle.
Even though there were some cancellations and replacements among the nine announced singers, we still had Nicola Alaimo, Teresa Iervolino, Salome Jicia, Carlo Lepore, Maxim Mironov, Cecilia Molinari, Michele Pertusi, Carmen Romeu and Enea Scala. All had close ties to Maestro Zedda and all are stalwarts at the Rossini Festival. The concert included the orchestra and chorus of Opera Vlaanderen under the inspired baton of Donato Renzetti. Most of the singing was A+ spectacular, but, for me, the stand-out pieces were Lepore’s rendition of Don Profondo’s aria from Il viaggio, Alaimo’s recount of Tell’s “Sois immobile” and Scala’s account of “Asile héréditaire” from the same opera. And of course all the ensembles, including the entire transcendent finale from Guillaume Tell. When the sold-out audience would not let the singers go, they repeated the finale. Heaven, indeed.
Editor’s note: the following link will enable you to enjoy the concert. The link will be active for the near future.
Most who heard him will agree that Sam Ramey made Assur “his own”. We asked him to share some memories of his journey with Assur. Pay special attention to the ending if you expect to take on the role and follow in his foot-steps ( check the heels on your boots) as you go on stage.
Many thanks to Sam for taking the time to do this! Viva Assur ( even though he’s a bad guy)
Q. Your historic performances of “Semiramide” at the Met were not your first outing with this role. Many remember your Carnegie Hall performance with Horne and Anderson. Apparently those were based on the not-yet-complete edition which had its debut at the Met. Were there major changes in your role as a result of this?
A. My first performances of “Semiramide” was the very famous (in Europe anyway) Pier Luigi Pizzi production which was first done at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 1980 and remounted by the Paris Opera at the Theatre des Champs-Elysee a year later. My role in this production was not complete—mainly because there were no orchestra parts for the missing sections of music.
I remember when I was offered this role at the time, I knew Marilyn (Horne) had already agreed to do it so I asked her about the role of Assur. I remember her saying, “Oh Sam! That role is all black notes!” I soon discovered that to be the case. When we did the performance at Carnegie Hall the missing orchestra parts were found (or re-constructed) so my role was complete. The only difference in my role was the repeat of the cabaletta–the orchestra parts for that were there for Carnegie and later for the Met production. My role was at last complete.
Q. In an interview with “The Opera Quarterly” in 1993 you responded to a question about staged vs. concert versions by saying “In general, I would say that one should try to keep the staging of Rossini’s operas at a visual minimum , so the people can put all of their attention on the highly ornamented music. The audience should be focused mostly on the singing.” This same thought ( or versions of it) have been expressed by other great singers. Do you still feel it is true this many years later?
A. I know that productions of an opera like “Semiramide” can look a bit like a concert performance in costume and make-up. The reason for this (in my opinion) is that these operas are so difficult to sing that there is little the singer can do on stage that won’t have an adverse effect on his,or her, vocal performance. I think I would still feel that way today.
Q. “Semirmaide” is not really Assur’s story ( one could even say it is really Arsaace’s) but the opera certainly depends on a strong Assur. Is there something specific in Rossini’s music that demonstrates to you Assur’s importance ( to the story).
A. I think just the fact that Assur has major scenes with Semiramide and with Arsace and a very important “mad scene” towards the end of the opera demostrates the importance of Assur’s character.
Q. How did who you sang with affect your performances. Were you a different Assur for Anderson than for Cuberli?
A. I sang performances with several great Semiramides–Caballe, Anderson, Cuberli, and Gruberova. I don’t think having a different soprano had any effect on my performance. I was always concentrating on all those black notes.
Q Were you to be taking up the role of Assur today would you have a different spin on it?
A. I don’t think I would take on the role today but if I did I’m sure I would see the role in the same way.
Q. Who has the better mad scene? Assur or Attila?
A. Assur or Attila? That is a difficult question. They are both great mad scenes. Maybe I would lean toward Assur’s simply because it comes toward the end of the opera–makes a greater impact on the audience.
Q. Does Assur have any redeeming qualities?
A. I don’t know if Assur has any redeeming qualities. In the cavatina of the mad scene he seems to be asking for forgiveness but then changes his mind.
Q. Finally, do you have some specific memories of the preparation and the debut of this production at the Met in 1990?
A. I remember it being great fun putting this production together. I had worked a lot with all the other singers and with Maestros Conlon and Copley, so we were like a musical family. I do have one memory from a performance. At the beginning of the mad scene I made my entrance walking down a staircase. I was wearing boot with very high heels. About half way down the stairs one of the heels caught on a step and came off the boot. So I was forced to hobble around the stage without the heel for the rest of the scene. Not fun–what with all those black notes!!
RossiniAmerica would like to thank Sam Ramey for sharing these memories. Sam Ramey is a member of the American Rossini Society and a member of the honorary board of the Friends of the Rossini Opera Festival.
The new bel canto festival at Purchase College, New York, will run from July 28th through August 5. Tickets are already on sale. Yes, you can go to Wildbad, Purchase, AND Pesaro! Read more here.