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.