Garsington Gives Rossini’s Maometto II its British Premiere

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Rossini, Maometto II: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra  of Garsington Opera / David Parry (conductor). Wormsley. (RJF) 

Maometto II: Darren Jeffrey
Paolo Erisso: Paul Nilon
Anna: Siân Davies
Calbo: Caitlin Hulcup
Condulmiero: Christopher Diffey
Selimo: Richard Dowling

Director: Edward Dick
Director of Movement: Jane Gibson
Designer: Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher

Sian Daviesas Anna; credit: Mike Hoban
Sian Daviesas Anna; credit: Mike Hoban

This was yet another British premiere of a Rossini opera seria by Garsington, a melodramma eroico in two acts, the other most recent being Armida in 2010 (see review). Rossini’s original version of Maometto II was premiered at the San Carlo Opera in Naples on December 3rd 1820. It was the composer’s 31st opera and the eighth, and arguably the most radical, of the nine reform operas that he wrote for performance in the city. After the successes of Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri in 1813 Rossini was widely recognised as pre-eminent among Italian opera composers. The formidable impresario Domenico Barbaja summoned him to Naples and offered him the Musical Directorship of the Royal Theatres, the San Carlo and Fondo. At Naples he had the benefit of an outstanding full time orchestra and chorus as well as an unequalled roster of star singers. This enabled him to distance himself from the populist clamour of Rome and Venice for crescendos and simplistic orchestral forms as well as static arias and stage scenes. Barbaja had also assembled some of the greatest bel canto singers of the time and for whom Rossini would be required to accommodate in his compositions.

Despite critical approval the audience received Maometto only modestly. Two years after the Naples premiere Rossini reprised the work for Venice, complete with the happy ending required in northern Italy. This Garsington performance was given in that seen at Naples and in the latest critical edition edited by Hans Schellevis. It was a formidable achievement to assemble a cast to meet the vocal demands of Rossini’s music. The two male leads in this production have a common lineage as alumni of Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music, albeit with nearly twenty years between them. I first heard Paul Nilon as Almaviva in a college production in Il Barbiere in 1984 when the role was shared with another coloratura tenor, Barry Banks, who sang one of the coloratura tenor roles in Armida at the American premiere at the Met a couple of months before the Garsington staging. The second alumnus featured in this production is Darren Jeffrey in the eponymous role. He was showcased as Falstaff around 2001. Nearly unbelievable for a young man, his singing and acting brought rave reviews and led to his early promotion to Covent Garden as part of the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme – a flying start to his career dare I say!

First things first. David Parry kept his orchestra forces alert to Rossini’s melodies and dramatic music with well-paced tempi allowing his singers every opportunity for phrasing and vocal display. Paul Nilon, as Erisso, Governor of threatened Venice, was at the forefront of the vocal demands of the fist scenes. Portrayed as a man nearly broken and having to partake of a regular tipple, his flexible, strong, slightly baritonal coloratura tenor was well up to the demands of the writing Rossini had provided for Andrea Nozzari one hundred and ninety seven years ago. In updated costumes, his vibrant chorus of supposed defenders were each suited, waistcoated and complete with trilby. No wonder they didn’t manage to fight off the invading troops of Maometto, who were more appropriately costumed and armed with scimitars as well as rifles and really looked the part – as did their leader when he appeared. In the role Jeffrey, a big man, towered physically over the entire cast except Anna, Erisso’s daughter. He sang with good flexible, and strong tone. His acted and vocal characterisation was outstanding, although a little more bass bite to the voice would not have come amiss as Maometto threatened death and destruction at various stages.

The Venetian women were portrayed as twentieth century nurses. This did not suit Siân Davies’ physique. This become a problem as she is taller than Nillon and significantly so over the Calbo of Caitlin Hulcup. Calbo is supposed to be the Venetian General who has to oppose the invading forces. En travesti, Miss Hulcup is more a Cherubino. Here she was dressed modern with a pair of rimless specs making her look more like a six form nerd that a Venetian general, and when it came to Anna’s preference for a husband between Calbo and Maometto, well I guess this Calbo would have been eaten alive! Where Miss Hulcup could not be faulted was in her sung portrayal. From her gleaming top to the bottom of her mezzo range her vocal prowess would, I suggest, have more than satisfied the composer himself. Caitlin Hulcup’s rending of the act two aria Non temer; d’un basso affetto (do not fear the heart was never capable of base emotion) and the stretta, Der periglio, was as formidable singing as any heard that evening, or indeed, the night before in the Mozart. The audience recognised her quality and achievement enthusiastically. Siân Davies never seemed to overcome the physical side of her interpretation. She seemed not entirely comfortable throughout her wide vocal range but managed to evoke sympathy for Anna’s sacrifice at the end of her long aria as Anna stabs herself to enable her father and Calbo to escape, leaving plenty of blood indicating a direct shot on the aorta!

For those wanting to pursue this opera further there is a DVD of the Venice version available on the Dynamic label (see review). Also recently issued is a bargain priced CD set of Le Siege de Corinthe, the radical revision of the score Rossini presented at the Paris Opera in 1827, more in the French musical style rather than Italian bel canto.

Garsington Opera Season continues with
Die Entführung aus dem Serail: 15, 19, 22*, 25 June, 1, 6 July  6.20pm
Maometto secondo: 16, 20, 26, 28 June, 2, 4, 10 July 5.45pm
Hänsel und Gretel: 23, 27, 29 June, 5, 7*, 9, 11 July 6.35pm
Community Opera Road Rage: 19 July 7.30pm; 20 July 2.30pm & 7.30pm


Robert J Farr