Michieletto, Damiano


SigismondoGioachino Rossini - Sigismondo

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2010 | Michele Mariotti, Damiano Michieletto, Daniela Barcellona, Olga Peretyatko, Antonino Siragusa, Andrea Concetti, Manuela Bisceglie, Enea Scala | Arthaus Musik

Updating an opera and setting it in an asylum isn’t a terribly original idea and it does usually have a sense of desperation about it, but there is a tradition of mad scenes in Italian bel canto opera, so it’s not entirely an inappropriate or all that far-out an idea. All the more so since Rossini’s rarely heard 1814 opera Sigismondo actually opens with a mad scene of sorts rather than builds up to one, where Sigismondo, the king of Poland, is still tormented by the loss of his wife Aldimira, who he had executed 15 years ago after accusations of infidelity had been laid against her. The loss and the agonising doubts about the truth of these accusations - or just his inability to accept them - has left the king raving and delirious, his kingdom unprepared for the attack that is being launched against him by Ulderico of Bohemia, Aldimira’s father.

Sigismondo belongs to another traditional opera theme, that of innocent women unjustly accused of infidelity or having their maidenly honour called into question by a jealous admirer who has had his advances rejected. This theme of innocent women whose purity has been impugned would become a popular theme in bel canto and opera semiseria works - Halévy’s Clari, Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, Bellini’s La Sonnambula - for its ability to drive the heroine to madness and consequently to the heights of coloratura vocal abstraction. Starting the way it does however, already wading in the depths of madness, Rossini’s Sigismondo would seem to have other ambitions towards a psychological drama more closely aligned to that of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello - worked into an opera of course not just by Verdi but by Rossini himself soon after Sigismondo - and to the medieval legend of the saintly Genoveva, the subject of Schumann’s only opera.

Directed by Damiano Michieletto for the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro in 2010 and conducted by Michele Marotti, there’s certainly a belief here that Sigismondo - the last of Rossini’s early works written just before the move to Naples that would take his career in a whole new direction - is worthy of more serious consideration and capable of bearing that more rigorous approach. Although there are a lot of familiar Rossini melodies and characteristic touches here (the composer re-using the best elements in later works after the failure of Sigismondo), it isn’t always the case however that the music or Giuseppe Foppa’s libretto are strong enough to bear any real dramatic conviction, but the opera is certainly more experimental in its arrangements than some of Rossini’s earlier work and it does indeed build up to a forceful expression of the situation in an impressive series of arias, duets and ensembles in the distinctly Mozartian Second Act.

As a two-act opera, there’s no great call for scene changes, so the viewer has to bear with the asylum set for the entire First Act, whether they like it or not. Although it doesn’t leave the king not looking terribly regal, rolling around under a blanket in a filthy nightgown with his hair hacked back short, the madhouse setting is not inappropriate considering the rather dark tone that is adopted here, which is more a reflection of the state of Sigismondo’s mind than the reality of the outside world. There are other effective touches that bear this out, such as the three identical Aldimiras who torment both Sigismondo and Ladislao - the scheming First Minister who has betrayed and denounced the former Queen after being rejected by her - and by the other asylum inmates who, since they all carry over into the palatial Stateroom of the Second Act, are clearly intended to be representations of the psychological mindsets of the characters as expressed in the music rather than actual real figures.

The sense of ghostly apparitions haunting the characters also works well within the context of the drama, since (probably no surprise to opera-goers here) Aldimira is not actually dead, but having been rescued from her unjust fate 15 years ago returns in the guise of Egelinda, the daughter of the noble Zenovito. On the one hand this helps restore the king’s sanity when it is suggested that since she looks so like Queen Aldimira she could pretend to be her in order to forestall Ulderico’s attack, but it also reignites the feelings Sigismondo had for his wife, and his guilt over what has happened. It also reawakens the desire and the suspicions of Ladislao, giving the production team the opportunity to restage what amounts to a re-enactment of the attempted rape of the Queen that led to the First Minister’s denunciation of her. If the plot inevitably slips into high melodrama, the staging does however manage to show that there are powerful feelings expressed with considerable skill by Rossini in this near-forgotten work.

It’s tremendous then to have the opportunity to see this work - and many others like it - revived by the Rossini Opera Festival and now being made available on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s particularly interesting to see these works being given the best possible representation in terms of musical performance and staging and being cast with fine singers capable of handling the specific demands of Rossini opera. Such is the case with Sigismondo, which gives the singers the opportunity to really shine if they are up to it and are capable of making these characters even half-way convincing, and fortunately they’re all exceptionally good here. As Sigismondo, mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona (yes, it’s a trouser role) brings a brooding intensity that underplays the potential for raving melodrama, her vocal expression of the king’s torment alone powerfully emotive, particularly - as it should be - in the king’s direct encounters with Egelinda/Aldimira. As Aldimira, Olga Peretyatko’s rich, dark soprano suits the nature of her character’s steely determination to resist the injustice of her fate. It’s not a coloratura role, but there are certainly vocal demands in the role, and she handles them more than capably, working particularly well with Barcellona in the ‘Tomba di morte e amore‘ duet. It’s the tenor role of Ladislao however that has more of the coloratura arias (’Giusto ciel che i mali miei‘), which are sung terrifically well by Antonino Siragusa.

Despite the faith the Pesaro team have in it, I don’t think Sigismondo is a 5-star Rossini opera by any means, but this is certainly a 5-star production of an interesting work preceding and prefiguring Rossini’s Neapolitan period that merits the effort and the commitment put into its revival here. It’s well filmed and recorded, looking and sounding very good in High Definition on the Blu-ray release. It’s mostly filmed ’straight’, but the director does use split-screen effects a few times, although only for a few occasions of ensemble singing where it’s actually good to be able to see all the performers. Discreet radio mics are also used by the cast, but the sound and mixing sounds natural in both the PCM stereo and the upfront DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks. The Blu-ray is all-region compatible and contains subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese and Korean.

GazzaLadraGioachino Rossini - La Gazza Ladra

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro 2007 | Lü Jia, Damiano Michieletto, Mariola Cantarero, Dmitry Korchak, Alex Exposito, Michele Pertusi, Paolo Bordogna, Kleopatra Papatheologou, Manuela Custer, Stefan Cifolelli, Cosmo Panozzo, Vittorio Prato, Matteo Ferrara | Dynamic

There’s an air of familiarity to Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie), and it’s not just the famous overture (reputedly dashed off the evening before the first performance) that is second in popularity only to the composer’s overture to William Tell, nor in this case is it anything to do with the composer’s habit of reusing his music for other compositions. What is familiar to the point of predictability in La Gazza Ladra (written in 1817 between La Cenerentola and Armida) is the manner in which its opera semiseria melodrama plotline plays out.

The plot of the opera is not dissimilar to other later and perhaps more obscure examples of that style – Halévy’s Clari, Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, even Bellini’s La Sonnambula isn’t far off either – featuring and a couple of young lovers from differing classes in an Alpine/provincial setting whose hopes are thwarted by the one set of parents, who wish for a more suitable marriage for their son than to the peasant daughter of humble tenant farmers. Usually the purity and innocence of young woman in question is also unjustly maligned (‘mad scene’ optional at this point), only for the stain on her character resolved and tragedy averted in time for a happy ending. All this is the cause of much romantic reflection, lamenting and rejoicing in high-flown arias employing extravagant coloratura and stratospheric high notes.

La Gazza Ladra adheres closely to this model, but what differentiates it from other lesser examples of the opera semiseria is the fact that – obviously – it’s by Rossini, and being Rossini, the music is always melodically thrilling and inventive. The hook in this particular opera is of course that thieving magpie theme that flits through the opera musically, as well as the recognition of it as a playful dramatic theme, a deus ex machina element that pops in now and again to move the plot along and prevent it from getting bogged down in melodramatic excess. It helps if a production recognises this fact and never takes itself too seriously, but it also helps if you have singers who are capable of meeting the vocal demands and. Fortunately this production of La Gazza Ladra from the 2007 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro mostly lives up to the invigorating tone of the work on both fronts.

GazzaLadra

A period staging won’t cut it in a modern context when the plot can be as stodgy and old-fashioned as this, even with Rossini’s music to enliven it. At the same time, it’s a mistake to get too clever, since the singers have enough on their plates with the extreme technical demands on their singing without being encumbered with elaborate acting and movements. Directed by Damiano Michieletto, this production – like most for this style of opera nowadays – goes for stylised colourful, minimalist, picture-book style imagery with no attempt at realism of locations, and theatrical costumes of no fixed period or style. There’s no grand concept either, though it does have a theme and some unusual touches – a grouping of all-purpose pipes that can be adapted to represent trees, pillars, cannons, prison bars, in the manner of Lepage’s Machine for the Met Ring – and there’s an acrobat dancer to play the part of the magpie, a playful touch that works quite well.

The singing is hit and miss, but by and large it’s a decent account of the opera. Mariola Cantarero is a fine Ninetta, with a lovely tone of voice that is more than capable of reaching all the notes and making them count. Dmitry Korchak has a nice tone of voice, but there’s little character in it and the demands of the Giannetto tenor role are a little beyond him. Alex Exposito is an excellent Fernando, his baritone not quite as strong as the role calls for, but he has a wonderful voice, sings well and, just as importantly, puts a great deal of character and feeling into the role of Ninetta’s conflicted father. Michele Pertusi plays Gottardo, the sleazy magistrate with the hots for the heroine – another convention of the genre and one that Pertusi, as a villainous bass, is well used to playing, and he plays up to the role reasonably well. The orchestra is conducted by Lü Jia give an excellent, lively and sympathetic account of the score, even if the detail of their work isn’t all that clear on this release.

For their first foray into High Definition, Dynamic’s upgrade of this 2007 production isn’t the greatest. Previously available on DVD, the Blu-ray is scarcely an improvement on the Standard Definition version in either video quality or sound. The quality itself isn’t bad, the image remaining colourful, but it’s soft and lacking in fine detail and there is mild movement blurring. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was an up-conversion of the same master used for the SD release. The audio, available in PCM 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS HD Master-Audio 5.1 is rather thin for the orchestration, but the singing is clear throughout. It should be noted however that all the singers are wearing microphones. The BD is also one of those that ‘loads’ and takes over your player, but I didn’t notice it causing any problems. Menus, pop-ups and subtitle selection all work fine. Region free, BD50, 1080i, subtitles in Italian, English, French, German and Spanish.