DemetrioGioachino Rossini - Demetrio e Polibio

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2010 | Corrado Rovaris, Davide Livermore, María José Moreno, Victoria Zaytseva, Yijie Shi, Mirco Palazzi | Arthaus Musik

There’s a wonderful double-take moment at the start of this 2010 Rossini Opera Festival production of Rossini’s Demetrio e Polibio, which turns out to be a thoughtful way to present the work and at the same time manages to strike the perfect balance between the traditional performance and more modern conceptual. The stage curtain draws back at the opening to reveal a final curtain call of a performer for an unseen audience out the back of the stage. His self-congratulations out of the way, the stage hands having moved the sets to the wings, the scene is set for some ancient ‘ghosts of opera past’ to arise out of the packing cases to re-enact a historic performance of the drama of Rossini’s Demetrio e Polibio.

It’s a clever and effective compromise between traditional and conceptual that works well for this one particular Rossini opera that needs a thoughtful and considered approach. Demetrio e Polibio, a ‘dramma serio‘ in two acts, is Rossini’s first opera, which he started to compose when he was only 14 years old. It was composed piecemeal in individual sections as a commission for the Mombelli family’s quartet of singers - some parts perhaps written by the Mombelli father - customised to meet the requirements of the particular characteristics of the singers, but also written to adhere to standard classical opera drama arrangements of arias and duets, with familiar plot devices that involve mistaken and hidden identities. It’s also one of those Metastasian-style dramas where a significant part of the dramatic action has already to a large extent taken place before the opera starts, leaving the characters in a position to bemoan their fate as they strive to find a resolution over the two acts of the opera.

Before the opera even starts, you need to know that Demetrius, the King of Syria, has entrusted his son to a loyal friend Minteus while he is involved in a terrible struggle over royal succession. Minteus however dies before he can reveal the nature of his royal identity to the boy, Siveno, who is taken in by Polibius, the King of Parthia, as his adopted son. As the opera starts some years later, Polibio plans to marry Siveno to his own daughter Lisinga, but Demetrio, having resolved matters in Syria, has come looking for his son, in disguise (of course) as Eumeno, a Syrian ambassador. Polibius - believing that Siveno is the son of Minteaus - doesn’t accept Eumeno’s claims on the boy, forcing Demetrio to make plans to abduct his own son. By mistake, it’s Lisinga who is abducted, which leads to a stand-off confrontation between Demetrio and Polibio over their respective offspring.

The nature of this ‘dramma serio‘ dictates that Rossini’s first opera leans more towards the model of composition of the 18th century rather than towards the new Italian opera model of the 19th century that Rossini would play such an important part in establishing. The influence of Mozart is also evident in the musical approach in an early La Finta Giardiniera or Apollo et Hyacinthus style, if somewhat less adventurous in arrangements and technique, but it’s surprising just how much of the Rossini sound is evident even at this early stage. The first act is made-up almost entirely of duets, with only the bare minimum of recitative, allowing the bonds to be established between the characters much more effectively than solipsistic arias of emotional turmoil, and it builds up wonderfully towards the quartets that mark the confrontation of Demetrio and Polibio (Siveno and Lisinga are not passive figures in the drama by any means) and the brief ensemble finale. The arrangement may have been tailor-made for the Mombelli family, but it also works to the advantage of the musical drama.

Demetrio e Polibio would still however be little more than an early Rossini curiosity, a pleasant but dull and conventional drama, were it not for the wonderful effort put into every aspect of the work for the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, the first modern production of the work in 150 years. As well as evoking the spirit of the Mombelli family through the period costume ghosts that inhabit a modern opera stage and thereby taking the origin of the work into account, director Davide Livermore also uses the haunted stage element to make the opera something wonderful to watch by employing plenty of Illusionist trickery. There’s relevance in this as well as entertainment, acknowledging the “old-style” theatricality of the work, but also using handheld flames to evoke the sparking of love and anger, while the proliferation of doubles, mirror images and disappearing acts all reflect the shifting identities of the characters. It makes a rather academic work seem much more meaningful and consistently entertaining.

The consideration given towards the presentation of this extremely rare work is also reflected in the delightful performance of the musicians, directed by Corrado Rovaris, and the singing performances. Bearing in mind that the difficulty of the roles as written was determined by the capabilities of the original cast, the singing is good across all the roles. Lisinga has the most challenging singing and María José Moreno takes in all the high notes - sometimes a little effortfully - but with great expressiveness. Demetrio has the most active role in the work as the villain of the piece (or perceived villain) and Yijie Shi demonstrates a fine Rossinian Italian tenor style that suits the role perfectly. The breeches role of Siveno doesn’t have quite so many demands placed on it in terms of singing but mezzo-soprano Victoria Zaytseva is absolutely fine for the part, while Mirco Palazzi’s reliable bass fulfils the requirements for Polibio with characteristic Rossinian verve. In terms of duets and ensemble work, the combination of their voices works beautifully in these lovely little arrangements.

On Blu-ray, this is another lovely package of a Rossini Opera Festival production. The High Definition transfer looks superb, and the stage design and direction is so strong that Tiziano Mancini doesn’t have to resort to video trickery to make it any more interesting. The usual high quality audio tracks in PCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 give a detailed account of the fine music and the singing performance, making this curiosity all the more fascinating to listen to. The subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean. The English subtitles have some curiosities of translation - “No more husband have I, a villain has subtracted him from me” is one example, but they are mostly fine if a little stiff and literal. As well as some words on the production and a full synopsis in the accompanying booklet, there is a fine 14-minute ‘Making Of’ with interviews and behind the scenes footage on the disc itself.