Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, Italy – review

In Pesaro, you can buy Rossini mugs, Rossini figurines, or Rossini baby clothes; you can buy scores or CDs or eat food cooked according to Rossini’s recipes. Swarms of holidaymakers crowd together beneath rented beach umbrellas at one end of town, while clusters of Rossini scholars pore over the latest critical editions at the other.

Whether you want to burn yourself to a crisp on the Adriatic shore or hear the latest batch of fine young Rossini singers, Pesaro is the place. You could even attempt both, though that would require some stamina, since most of the operas weigh in at more than four hours, and take some time to digest. Especially once you add eating and shopping, which are time-consuming but essential pastimes in this part of the world.

In the blighted landscape of Italian opera funding, Pesaro struggles on bravely. Perhaps the sets are not as lavish as they were in the past, and the big names are somewhat smaller, but the same fanatical audience of connoisseurs continues to come for the same obsessive efforts to do the composer justice. And it works: you will still come closer to the real Rossini in Pesaro than you are likely to anywhere else.

Alongside revivals of Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Il Viaggio a Reims, this year’s Rossini Opera Festival airs new productions of two comparative rarities: Armida and Aureliano in Palmira.

One of the charms of the Pesaro audience is that it will boo. Not charming to the booed, no doubt, but interesting in that it shows a public that believes not only that it has a right to the best opera, but also that it is qualified to judge.

In the case of Armida, perhaps bemusingly for non-Italians, it was not Luca Ronconi who was booed for his risibly tacky production, nor Carlo Rizzi for his conducting, which, though energetic and driven, was seldom subtle and often brutal. Instead, it was Spanish soprano Carmen Romeu, who gave a reasonable account of the murderously difficult title role. Romeu looks good and hits most of the notes, even if she has moments of approximate intonation and, in this most limiting production, does not ooze charisma. It is not her fault that Renée Fleming was the last soprano to tackle this role in Pesaro. Nor that Callas made it famous.

Romeu is the only woman in a cast that includes no fewer than six tenor parts, which cannot have been easy, even though Pesaro economised by allocating double roles to two tenors. All the men sang well, with Rinaldo (Antonino Siragusa) sitting particularly firmly in the saddle, striding around his coloratura runs with steely assurance.

Ever faithful to the original score, Pesaro presented all of the work’s ballet music, accompanied by unhelpfully vapid dancing (choreography: Michele Abbondanza). Ballet in opera today, when it no longer serves the function of displaying juicy girls for the enjoyment of rich men in back boxes during the opera’s second half, seems a curiously aimless thing. Nightclubs have stolen the darkroom idea, opera houses have sanitised their back corridors – could that be a reason for supposedly dwindling audiences? – and in any case, to render ballet coherent for the modern opera-goer, a stage director needs to have a few more ideas than Ronconi.

Or, for that matter, than Mario Martone, whose Aureliano in Palmira at the Teatro Rossini looked as if the characters had rifled through the seconds basket at a Bollywood sale, topped it off with nativity play remainders, and collected a few fly screens for the sets. This time there were no boos. Rossini, too, scratched through his own seconds basket in assembling this score, recycling large chunks of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Or so it sounds. In fact it was the other way around, since he wrote Aureliano first. Conductor Will Crutchfield manages with aplomb the tricky challenge of shaping notes we know as comedy into sounds we hear as tragedy, and generally approaches the score with intelligence and delicacy.

But it is Michael Spyres and Jessica Pratt, in the rival roles of Aureliano and Zenobia, who send the audience wild. This is what Italians really come to the opera for – exquisite singing, and to hell with everything else.

As the Syrian queen, Pratt spins a knock-’em-dead coloratura line, bringing the house down with her Queen-of-the-Night-style first-act aria. Still young, and largely unknown outside Italy, the Australian soprano has full, creamy heights, fleet vocal athleticism, musical intelligence, a clear relationship to the text, and a towering stage presence. She is perfectly partnered by Spyres. His conflicted Roman emperor is poised, heroic and relaxed, with an extraordinary range that takes him from rich baritonal depths to full, thrilling top notes.

There are lush duets and ravishing trios in this score, great and less great arias, and, mercifully, no ballet. In a disjunct coda, Martone uses text projected on a transparent screen in the final ensemble to remind us that the conflicts that gave rise to Rossini’s romanticised history are still “written in blood in the Middle Eastern desert”.

Despite this last-minute reference, Pesaro’s 2014 productions remain a long way distant from social relevance. But then, that was never really the aim. In terms of fine singing, stylish playing, faithful restoration of neglected scores, and crowded beaches, Pesaro is in a category of its own.

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