Rossini was not yet twenty years old and in need of money to help support his parents when, with characteristic virtuosity and confidence, he wrote two operas at the same time: Tancredi, his first great opera seria, and L’italiana in Algeri, one of his funniest buffo operas. Both were premiered in Venice in 1813, Tancredi at the Teatro La Fenice on February 6 and L’italiana in Algeri at the Teatro San Benedetto on May 22, and both were resounding successes. Rossini’s international career was launched, and so was the era of bel canto.
There was bel canto in abbondanza at Opera Boston’s production of Rossini’s Tancredi at the Cutler Majestic Theater on Friday night, October 23. Every member of the cast boasted a gorgeous voice, and knew how to use it. Amanda Forsythe as Amenaide set the bar high from the outset with a lovely soprano and an impressive control of the highest pianissimos. Ewa Podles was overwhelming as Tancredi; her contralto voice is still rich, strong and agile, and the power of her low notes would make some tenors and baritones jealous. Yeghishe Manucharyan (Argirio) used his beautiful tenor to great dramatic effect, bass Dong Won Kim’s commanding vocal and physical presence was ideal for his portrayal of Orbazzano, and mezzo-sopranos Glorivy Arroyo and Victoria Avetisyan sang the supporting parts of Roggiero and Isaura with authority and sonority. The chorus, which occupies an important role in this opera, was superb. Their sound was rich (and in tune!), and the ensemble was just about perfect, except for one moment in the second act when their enthusiasm got the best of them and they began to enter a different time zone than that of the orchestra. Conductor Gil Rose had no problem in quickly putting things back in order, and he led the entire opera with skill, a thorough understanding of the score, and a sensitive hand. His orchestra responded with beautiful playing.
But Opera is not only about great singing; it should also be great drama. Unfortunately, what we saw did not match the level of what we heard. Carol Bailey’s sets and costumes, which placed the opera in the mid-1930s, were effective and neither detracted nor added much to the action. Kristine McIntyre’s staging, however, was too static. Most of the time a singer would basically stand in place and face the audience when he or she had an aria to sing, or what is cynically called in the business the “park and bark” approach. There was certainly no barking in this production, but a bit too much parking. This resulted in a limited range of action or reaction, and prevented the characters from establishing deep emotional connections between each other, or with the audience. The tempos also tended to be on the slow side, and the dynamic range was often not wide enough. What was missing was that wonderful sense of energy, excitement and constant motion that is a Rossini opera.
A group of noblemen used to get together in 16th-century Florence, probably over a good bottle of Tuscan wine, and complain about the current state of music. They decided to do something about it by inventing an entirely new genre: “opera.” They didn’t call it that at first; they dubbed it “a drama set to music,” and that is still what opera has to be.
Mark Kroll, a harpsichordist and fortepianist well known to Boston music audiences, has toured extensively as performer, lecturer, and leader of master classes in Europe, South America, the Balkans, and the Middle East. His most recent book is Johann Nepomuk Hummel: A Musician and His World. His website is www.markkroll.com
Dong Won Kim (both photos by Clive Grainger)