Tancredi in Philadelphia, Review

Thanks to Dana Pentia for this first-hand account!

We live in times of abundance. These days you don’t have to travel far (though a trip to Pesaro during the ROF festival is still unequaled) to experience highest quality Rossini opera. Abundance of riches came over the past two weeks to Philadelphia where Opera Philadelphia presented a staged production of Tancredi in its Ferrara ending (more about the ending(s) later). The production of stage director Emilio Sagi, set designer Daniel Bianco, and costume designer Pepa Ojahguren was seen previously at Opera de Lausanne and Teatro Municipal de Santiago. I attended the last performance of the run, in the afternoon of Sunday, February 19th 2017.
Tancredi was the first commissioned opera seria composed by Rossini when he was only 21 years old. Up to that point he composed 9 other operas. These were some of the most fertile years of Rossini’s creative life, in some years composing up to 5 operas per year. Teatro la Fenice requested specifically an opera seria for the carnival celebrations of 1813. Rules of opera seria had to be followed: unity of time and place, arias and duets interspaced by secco recitatives that move the action forward, each aria expresses one emotion, and liberal use of ornamentations in arias and duets. The librettist Gaetano Rossi chose a happy ending to Voltaire’s tragic play Tancrède for the Venice premiere. After the success of the opera in Venice, the opera with its original cast traveled to Ferrara. The aristocracy of Ferrara however could not accept a happy ending to the tragic story previously told by Voltaire, and a new tragic finale had to be written. The eminent Rossini scholar Philip Gossett recounts in his book Divas and Scholars how he found the Ferrara ending in the family library of the descendants of the poet that re-wrote the final scene of the libretto for Ferrara.
While still a very young composer, Rossini’s distinctive ingenious style, which will make him so highly acclaimed later, is evident. Sprinkled within the score are musical motives that will find their way later in operas like L’Italiana in Algeri, Cenerentola, or Armida. Even his last opera Guillaume Tell reverberates with some echoes from Tancredi. The interplay of strings and winds, the intricate leads of the flutes, the very elaborate role of the timpani, all show the genius of the young composer which captivates us to these days. It is a well-known fact that Rossini resorted frequently to borrowing from his own previous compositions, thinking that many were never to be heard again. Such is the case with Tancredi. The overture is entirely taken from the previous opera La Pietra del Paragone. While the arias and duets and recitatives and choruses are all on par with other Rossini best compositions, the Ferrara finale has a completely different structure from all the other opera finales, and from the conventions of the time. It is actually so unusual that it proved to be too revolutionary for the time and it was poorly received. Rossini was very much ahead of his time in composing this ending which is more or less a declamatory cavatina of the dying Tancredi accompanied only by strings. There is no grandiose full force full orchestra ending, the music just dies with the title character.
The opera describes a political situation in Syracuse, Sicily in the year 1005. Internal conflicts between rivaling families of Argirio and Orbazzano had to be resolved in order to confront the external threat of invading army of Solamir, the Saracens from the east. In order to seal the peace, Argirio offers his daughter Amenaide as bride to Orbazzano. However Amenaide is in love with the exiled Syracusan soldier Tancredi. A slew of misunderstanding, malevolence, and missed opportunities lead to Amenaide being mistrusted by pretty much everybody. Villain Orbazzano intercepted a love letter of Amenaide to Tancredi. Smart woman as she was, she left out his name to protect him. Orbazzano believes that the letter is addressed to Saracen Solamir, practically inviting him to conquer the city of Syracuse. Tancredi, who returned incognito to Syracuse, buys into the intrigue that Amenaide has been unfaithful to him and fell in love with Solamir. Her father, Argirio, in a move of extreme weakness, also believes her treacherous and poor Amenaide is condemned by the senate to execution. Tancredi however, still feeling love to Amenaide, challenges Orbazzano to a duel to save Amenaide’s life. He triumphs over Orbazzano and Amenaide’s life is saved, but he still believes she betrayed him. Being the new hero in town, Tancredi next leads Syracusan army in battle with Saracens. He defeats the invaders but emerges mortally wounded. As he is dying, he learns that Amenaide has been faithful and the letter was actually addressed to him. Tancredi’s dying wish is for Argirio to marry him to Amenaide, which he dutifully does, and he dies in her arms as her husband.

Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
This staging of Emilio Sagi is minimal but very elegant; minimal activity happens, true to the opera seria rules. The sets and directions beautifully enhance this opera presentation. The timing is moved from 1005 AD to the time of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. The set consists of marble and granite walls, floors, and columns, with occasional mirror walls appearing. The set looks indeed like an approximate replica of the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles where the Treaty was signed. The walls slide forth creating closer spaces, and also revealing a stained glass back wall is painted in a characteristic art nouveau style. The costumes are also elegant beginning of 20th century style: men wear colorful military uniforms, while women have beautiful belle epoch gowns.
I believe the lighting design was conceived to highlight the action, and would’ve enhanced the beautiful sets. What I can only assume to be bad maneuvering of the lights left some action and main characters in the shade. Also direction of the singers was minimal, limited to basic blocking. It felt that the singers were left to their own devices to develop their respective characters. Some did it more successful than others. But these are small quibbles in an otherwise gorgeous production.
Stephanie Blythe is a veteran professional and her years of stage experience are evident. We should be grateful that she wanted to do this role, as it is not easy to find a mezzo/contralto capable of singing the long and difficult music Rossini wrote. She knows how to own the stage and the music. She delivers the type of performance where you know that everything will go right and you don’t have to worry about anything. She possesses a sizable instrument with impressive low notes. Tancredi is written for a contralto with high extensions. It felt that the role was a bit too high for Stephanie Blythe. The tone turned too bright and glassy in the upper middle and high registers. Her type of voice, at this stage of her career doesn’t seem to be the perfect match for bel canto, while she was following the dynamics of the music, the voice simply wasn’t coloring the phrases in the right way. She did warm up more in the second act, however her tone was still too harsh and shrill to make a truly moving performance. While in the first duet her voice and Brenda Rae’s soprano blended decently, in the duet at the end of the second act, the blending was severely lacking, Blythe harshly covering Rae, and simply displaying a voice of a different nature. At the end of the opera it seemed that Brenda Rae was also getting tired, and her voice lost a bit of the aplomb that characterized her singing up to that point. Blythe’s stage presence was also quite mechanical. She just gave the impression of going through the motions without really engaging with the music, or the text, or the drama. For example: the provocation to duel of Orbazzano, one of the climaxes of the story, should not elicit laughs from the audience, which it did on Sunday afternoon due to the insincerity of it. Even the last scene, the heart-wrenching expiration of Tancredi was lacking the necessary underlying meaning and emotions.
Soprano Brenda Rae was a complete revelation. Her voice is powerful with beautiful coloration, easy and brilliant top and good coloratura. She threw herself at Rossini’s difficult music with assurance, and one could tell she was enjoying singing this music. Soon her voice will probably move in the direction of a full lyric soprano, as the shades of fuller, darker registers are present. Her stage presence was regal and imposing. The way she portrayed Amenaide was not as a powerless victim, but as a woman that knew her worth, that would not submit to the whims of powerful men or to political plays without a fight.

Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
Michele Angelini was probably the most Rossinian of the singers in this production. Rightfully so, as he is an alumni of the Accademia Rossiniana of Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, and the base of his repertory consists of Rossini tenor roles sang throughout the world. The understanding of the style was immediately obvious, the coloratura was spectacular, and he tossed high Cs and high D with ease. The voice is on a smaller size, but he remains true to his voice and the style, doesn’t push, and delivers the music with great beauty and elegance.
Daniel Mobbs’ voice is anything but small. His baritone was at ease in the role of Orbazzano, and he seemed to enjoy playing the villain. He even seemed delighted to get a handful of boos at the curtain call, the obligatory show of engagement of the audience nowadays for the malevolent characters. The audience though loved him, and cheers erupted wholeheartedly.
Allegra De Vita acquitted herself honorable in the role of Amenaida’s confidant Isolda. Her voice is sizable and dark, and it is not hard to imagine her as Tancredi in a few years. Anastasiia Sidorova delivered a lovely and tender Roggiero – Tancredi’s squire. She sang her aria beautifully. It was unfortunate that her costume and make-up made her look more like an awkward teenager, more like a Cherubino without the hormonal angst in hand me down military uniform, than a squire to a brave soldier.
In any Rossini opera, orchestra plays an important part. The music director of Opera Philadelphia Corrado Rovaris led expertly the orchestra. What was a delight to the ears was also a delight to the eyes, as I was watching the musicians of the orchestra play and respond to conducting. Several of them were bouncing and dancing in their chairs, clearly enjoying the music they were playing. This is a sign of a great conductor, one that can not only deliver truthful and beautiful music, but one that can also infuse joy in the process of executing this music. The chorus also sang exquisitely the music that Rossini wrote for them.
Overall it was a very pleasant afternoon at the opera, showing that great opera can happen in less prestigious places very successfully.