Saturday, May 7, 2016

Maometto II at the COC

We went to see the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Giacomo Rossini’s Maometto II last night (Thurs. May 6, 2016) at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto. If you haven’t seen this show and aren’t planning to, I’d encourage you to reconsider. 

Luca Pisaroni as Maometto II

While his comedies (Il Barbiere, Italiana in Algieri, etc.) are the music by which most of us know Rossini, Maometto II shows just how effective a dramatic operatic composer he could be.

The composer uses the same formal musical devices and harmonic and melodic vocabulary in this piece that he does in the comedies. This is hardly surprising. He wrote 38 operas in the space of 18 years. He must have developed numerous formulas to have been so prolific. 

In some ways, this is a good thing for contemporary audience members. Anyone with more than a passing experience of the composer’s operatic music will have no difficulty with the idiom. It does result in some very long scenes which take a great deal of time to get over very little text and draw out dramatic moments to quarter hours.

This piece is not filled with memorable music and is certainly not a great opera on that account. What makes it worth seeing is the drama and, in this production, some extraordinary singing. 

Tenor Bruce Sledge, in his COC debut, sang wonderfully as Anna’s father Erisso. He has a much more substantial voice than one typically associates with Rossini tenors. He impressed me with his opening recitative and I wondered how he could manage the coloratura and high notes with such a sound. I needn’t have been concerned. It was a very impressive performance.

Bruce Sledge
Mezzo Elizabeth DeShong was marvellous. This woman is in the Marilyn Horne mold. She has a beautiful contralto-ish voice with strong low notes, ringing high notes and impeccable runs and flourishes.

Elisabeth DeShong

Soprano Leah Crocetto, singing Anna, should have a spectacular career in Verdian dramatic roles (she will soon sing Aida). Hers is a lovely voice over which she exerts excellent control through the runs and vocal embroidery.

Leah Crocetto

Bass-Baritone Luca Pisaroni was well matched with this stellar cast. In addition to handling the vocal demands of this role he is a fine actor, for example, showing believable surprise when he first recognizes Anna in the first act finale. He seemed to be pushing his voice a bit for dramatic effect which must be a temptation in portraying such a dominating personality.

Luca Pisaroni

I was disappointed that tenor Charles Sy, singing Condulmiero, had only a couple of phrases in the first act because he sounded so good.

There are some odd features of the production. The Turkish army appear to be Ninjas, for example. There is a female dancer with a skull who moves through Maometto’s first scene. Why? She returns later, dancing and taunting Anna, dressed as a belly dancer. The Venetian soldiers have carbines with fixed bayonets in the opening while the Turks, who are about to defeat them, are armed with spears. It’s the only obvious anachronism in the opera.

I wasn’t overly impressed with the staging which is full of operatic clichés. For example, early on in the opera Erisso sings while the male chorus listen from the other side of the stage. During the interlude between the first and second verses they change positions, the entire chorus trooping across the stage and taking up an opposite symmetrical position, for no apparent reason. Later, three different characters go, one after another, to about the same place against the wall downstage right, turn away from the audience, put their hands on the wall and emote silently.

Crocetto has some difficulty moving elegantly on stage, rising from a kneeling position, for example. Perhaps the director should have been more sensitive to this in the staging.

The orchestra and chorus, conducted by Harry Bicket, were excellent as we have come to expect from the COC. 

There are three more performances of this show which closes on May 14. None of us is likely to have another opportunity to see Maometto II without traveling abroad. And there is some of the best singing I’ve ever heard live.

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