Maometto secondo, Garsington Opera at Wormsley, UK – review

In its first 25 years Garsington Opera has notched up a tally of no fewer than 12 Rossini operas – an indication of the taste of its founder, the late Leonard Ingrams, but also a sign of how many Rossini operas remain worth performing today. Judging by this UK stage premiere, Maometto secondo should be high on anyone’s list: you wonder why it has taken so long to cross the Channel.

While Garsington makes it seem one of Rossini’s best operas, in his own time it was one of the least successful. There is no vocal display for the sake of it, at least until the very end. The opera’s long-sustained musical structures, capable of embracing diverse dramatic situations, were too advanced for Neapolitan audiences of the 1820s. Rossini was a commercial composer: he never repeated Maometto secondo’s epic design.

This is one of those shows where you can’t really single out one component as crucial to the evening’s success. The conductor David Parry lays the groundwork, generating sounds from the pit that underline not only how brilliantly orchestrated the piece is, but also how dramatically powerful Rossini can be when kept on a tight rein. The director Edward Dick impresses with his balance of musicality and stagecraft. With simple but engaging designs by Robert Innes Hopkins, the production profiles a 1930s clash of west and east (shades of Lawrence of Arabia), in a framework that enables everyone to understand what is going on without explanation. Dick is a director worth nurturing.

Maometto secondo is not easy to cast, but Garsington pulls off another trick with its discovery of American soprano Siân Davies, making her European debut in the role written for Isabella Colbran. Davies has temperament, presence, a ringing top and evenness throughout the range: she has a great career ahead.

In the title role Darren Jeffery makes a likeable, stage-filling barbarian, using his warm bass to winning effect. Caitlin Hulcup, in the trouser role of Calbo, brings the house down with her prison aria, and Paul Nilon turns in another of his plucky, non-specialist performances as Erisso. A chorus of young, vigorous and well-trained voices sets the seal on an all-round triumph.

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