ROSSINI Maometto II (Fogliani)
Maometto II is one of Rossini’s grandest operas, a tale of love and war inspired by Mehmet II’s destruction of the Venetian enclave of Negroponte (Chalkida in modern Greece) in 1570. Nor is this some historically inspired period piece. Political unrest in southern Europe in 1820, the year Rossini wrote the opera for Naples’ Teatro San Carlo, anticipated Greece’s imminent war of independence with the Ottoman Turks.
Rossini twice revised the opera. First, for Venice in 1823, simplified and given a showpiece happy ending. Then, as Le siège de Corinthe, for Paris in 1826, by which time the Greek war had become Europe’s most fashionable cause. Equipped with an even more politically pertinent French text, this faster-moving version, spectacularly staged by the Opéra, exploited the public mood in a way the 1820 Neapolitan prequel hadn’t been placed to do.
The first complete recording of Maometto II was made by Philips in London in 1983. Indifferently conducted by Claudio Scimone, whose performing edition this was, it hasn’t worn especially well, musically or technically, despite boasting what, on paper at least, was a first rate cast headed by Samuel Ramey and June Anderson.
The work’s epic reach, and the sense of a world on fire, is conveyed with greater cogency and power in the superbly conducted and finely engineered live recording which Avie made of the UK premiere of Maometto II, staged by Garsington Opera in summer 2013. I remember Rodney Milnes, that exemplary Rossinian, worrying that the CDs might simply be a pleasing souvenir of a performance that had excited in the moment. Not a bit of it, he concluded in Opera. ‘This is an astounding account of the work tout court.’ And so, indeed, it is.
The enterprising Rossini in Wildbad Festival has already given us a serviceable account of the Venice version of Maometto II (8 660149/51) and a more than serviceable account of Le siège de Corinthe (8 660329/30). Sadly, this final panel in their Maometto triptych is less recommendable.
It is at its best in the opera’s dying fall of an end, where the heroine Anna Erisso prepares to take her own life in the catacombs of the besieged citadel. This is beautifully handled by Elisa Balbo. Earlier in the piece Garsington’s Siân Davies is to be preferred, though not in this final scene.
Wildbad also has a fine Calbo, the Venetian general (a travesti role) who is promised in marriage to Anna. But, then, few singers of quality disappoint in Calbo’s stand-alone Act 2 aria. The new set’s larger problem lies with the often sketchy coloratura of the male antagonists. The Turkish tenor Mert Süngü is no match for Garsington’s Paul Nilon, in the form of his life as the Venetian commander Paolo Erisso. And Mirco Palazzi, a plausible Assur in the recent Opera Rara recording of Semiramide (A/18), lacks the means to cope with the virtuoso demands of the role of Maometto as originally written.
Garsington’s Maometto, Darren Jeffery, acts powerfully and – thanks to David Parry’s command of the music, both as a bel canto accompanist and as a shaper and driver of the larger drama – is better placed to husband his vocal resources. The Garsington choral work is also in a different league from that of Wildbad’s often poorly disciplined Polish singers.
Both sets use Hans Schellevis’s Critical Edition, with the Garsington performance tightening the slow-moving denouement with several well-judged small cuts. Handsomely cased, the Garsington set is the more expensive. But, then, it has a full text and English translation: important in an opera where Rossini takes accompanied recitative to new levels of expressive power.