ROSSINI Maometto Secondo
Mehmet II was the Ottoman sultan who captured Byzantine Constantinople in 1453. The portrait attributed to Gentile Bellini, on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, shows the man in pensive mood: bearded, turbaned, modestly dressed. There’s no sign of his ambition, his power or his cruelty. This is the Mehmet of Rossini’s opera, where he is a warrior, certainly, but also a lover.
Sad to say, the romantic side to the plot is pure fiction. Maometto is besieging the Venetian colony of Negroponte (the present-day Greek island of Euboea). Erisso, the governor, wishes his daughter Anna to marry Calbo, one of his generals. Anna, however, is in love with ‘Uberto’, whom she had met in Corinth. He turns out to be none other than Maometto. When the city falls, Anna fiercely rejects the sultan. Maometto leaves to continue fighting; Anna begs her father to marry her to Calbo. On Maometto’s return, she stabs herself by the tomb of her mother.
Rossini composed the opera in 1820, towards the end of his seven-year stint in Naples. The part of Anna was one of the many written for Isabella Colbran, the mistress who was to become his first wife. Lasting nearly three hours, Maometto secondo is laid out on a spacious scale. The first of the two acts has as its heart a terzettone (a ‘big trio’), which incorporates a change of scene and a women’s chorus. And Act 2 includes a fine terzettino – not all that little – as Calbo, Anna and Erisso bid one another farewell. In fact, the music throughout is quite excellent, and beautifully scored. It’s extraordinary to find that last year’s staging by Garsington Opera was the first in Britain; it has been well caught, live, in the company’s first venture into commercial recording. There is some stage noise and applause but nothing too intrusive.
Siân Davies and Caitlin Hulcup are outstanding, and Paul Nilon brings a welcome touch of steel to Erisso. Darren Jeffery doesn’t quite have the solidity and agility of Samuel Ramey on the Philips recording but he makes a Maometto to be reckoned with. David Parry keeps his forces well under control. A few passages are cut. The documentation includes the libretto and translation and an introduction by Richard Osborne. Now let’s have a production at Covent Garden or Glyndebourne.