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Siege of Baltimore

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Rossini, L'Assedio di Corinto, Beverly Sills, Marilyn Horne, Teatro La Scala, Thomas Schippers (live performance re-released on February 27, 2001)
Opera fans should thank Baltimore Opera for staging Rossini's little-known L'Assedio di Corinta this month. This tragic opera -- conceived for Naples as Maometto II, revised for a triumphant production in Paris as Le siège de Corinthe, and ultimately retrofitted to Italian for productions in New York and Italy -- is not a particularly great story. However, it has reappeared from time to time because legendary singers have wanted to sing its extraordinary music: Renata Tebaldi in Florence and Rome in the 1950s, and Beverly Sills (replacing Renata Scotto) and Marilyn Horne in the 1960s and 70s, first at La Scala and then at the Met.

I was in Baltimore's Lyric Opera House for opening night on Saturday, and I highly recommend anyone along the eastern seaboard who can make it to one of the remaining performances to plan a trip to Baltimore. There is no telling when an opportunity to see this opera staged will happen again, and the cast for this production is first-rate. Soprano Elizabeth Futral (who had some crucial early-career appearances with Baltimore Opera) and her husband, conductor Steven White, may be ultimately responsible for bringing this rare opera to Baltimore. Futral, perhaps looking for a little of the Sills magic in this role, sang with panache and virtuosity, in both her solo arias and the numerous ensembles. In the edition used here, prepared by White, she gets to sing "Ah! che spiegar non posso," a Rossini aria inserted at the opening of Act II. She impressed with both her sparkling fioriture and shimmering high notes, as well as a gripping emotional presence.

Other Reviews:

Mark J. Estren, 'Corinth,' a Rossini Relic Given a New Polish (Washington Post, October 24)

Tim Smith, Off-target 'Siege' but singers' aim is true (Baltimore Sun, October 16)

Tim Smith, Hitched to Opera, and each other (Baltimore Sun, October 8)
I admire Futral's singing, but I was most interested in hearing her co-star, American mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, in the role of Neocle. I wrote glowingly of Genaux's work on the recent recording of Vivaldi's Bajazet, and she and Futral just shared the stage in the New York City Opera production of Handel's Semele. Although I did not mention it in my review of Bajazet, you can watch Genaux singing on the bonus DVD that comes with that recording. Her vibrato and passagework may or may not be technically connected with the movement of her lips as she sings, what can only be described as flapping. It is distracting to watch, but the result is so beautiful to the ear that I did not even comment on it. It turns out that she does this on the stage, too, and my ears were just as charmed in spite of it. Of course, someone has put that Vivaldi DVD track on YouTube, which you can watch below.

Genaux does not have an overpowering voice, and recording may favor her strengths slightly over live performance on the stage. It did not seem to matter much Saturday night as Genaux delivered a convincing man-like performance of the trouser role of Neocle, the Greek soldier who loves Futral's Pamira, only to be rejected by her in favor of a man she met earlier. The other man turns out to be the leader of the Turks who are attacking Corinth, Maometto II, who happened to be traveling through Greece in disguise when he met Pamira. Genaux's rendition of "Non temer" -- an aria from the Naples version of the opera, inserted into Act III for Neocle and made famous by Marilyn Horne -- was rich and electric.

Rossini wrote some fine music for his singers, particularly the ensembles for Pamira with her two suitors, Neocle and Maometto (like "Mi trema il core" in Act II). The latter role is sung in Baltimore by David Cushing, a bass-baritone whose striking stage presence and resonant voice hold great promise. Tenor Bruce Ford sings in Baltimore for the first time in the role of Cleomene, bringing sure musicality to that heroic role, the governor of Corinth. The supporting cast was all fine, with the possible exception of bass Brendan Cooke as Jero, the guardian of the Corinthian graves, who sang with an odd shift between his lower and upper registers. Conductor Steven White did a good job holding everything together, bringing out nice solos from the oboe, harp, and flute and getting the chorus and some soloists back on track after brief rhythmic disconnections.

Elizabeth Bachman's production, with rather traditional costumes by Howard Tsvi Kaplan, is a little silly but inoffensive. It seems to suit Rossini's opera, ultimately a tragedy but with so many stylistic characteristics in common with his comic operas. The little janissary flourishes in Maometto's music hardly strike terror in one's heart, and in spite of the Turkish army's apparent dominance, Maometto's troops are overpowered at one point by Corinthian women carrying banners. The popularity of the opera in Paris can probably be explained by its topicality in the 1820s, which the libretto makes clear in the final scene. In the face of the Corinthian defeat, the priestly Jero receives a vision of the War of Greek Independence (1821-31), by which Ottoman domination would eventually be undone. French painter Eugène Delacroix was sympathetic with the Greek cause, as was Lord Byron, who gave money and eventually met his own early death on the field of battle at Missolonghi.

Performances of L'Assedio di Corinto are scheduled for Wednesday (October 18, 7:30 pm), Friday (October 20, 8:15 pm), and Sunday (October 22, 3 pm). The house was nowhere near full on Saturday, so there should be tickets available.


Anonymous said...

"Genaux does not have an overpowering voice, and recording may favor her strengths slightly over live performance on the stage."

You can say that again. My first exposure to Genaux was a live performance of Gluck's Orfeo and Eurydice here in LA several years back and I, for the life of me, couldn't figure out what the big deal was. Later, I too was taken with Bajazet and other recordings but seeing her live subsequently was still underwhelming to my ear largely due to her lack of power.

I suppose there are worse things however...

Anonymous said...

The finale of Act II deserves "the Grand" of Grand Opera.

The libretto was beyond silly; could not some imaginative person have done a less banal translation? It was painful to read the surtitles which varied between two ideas: "I want to die" and "My life is miserable". Better to have no words than this drivel.

Gina G

Charles T. Downey said...

Brian, I was sitting in the third row for most of this performance, so I cannot give you a good impression of how much she filled the hall. From where I sat, it was not overpowering but gorgeous.

Gina, I did not even mention the disastrous subtitles on Sat. night. At one point, the tense opening of a big aria was destroyed as a Windows menu appeared on the supertitle screen. It was only one of many supertitle gaffes that night. As for translating the libretto, there is probably little that could be done to make it sound any better.

Anonymous said...

This video is not of music by Vivaldi; it's by Broschi, the brother of the famous castrato Farinelli. This is one of Farinelli's famous "Battle Arias."

Charles T. Downey said...

Well, let me clarify. The aria was originally by Riccardo Broschi, but it was adapted by Vivaldi in his pasticcio "Bajazet." The video comes from the DVD for "Bajazet," right?