If you’ve ever wondered about the word “grand” in grand opera, look no further than the compelling production of Rossini’s tragic opera, Maometto II, now on view at the Santa Fe Opera. Every element of this show shouts grandeur—the singing, the staging, the unadulterated forza of the thing.
From its beginning, the SFO’s reputation has generally rested on finely executed ensemble operas, not on those heaven-storming grandiose monsters by the likes of late Rossini and Meyerbeer. The company’s best work traditionally stressed the humanity of smaller-scaled protagonists and situations; think Mozart, Strauss and Britten. Grand opera, with its larger-than-life characters and violent libretti—a world for a stage—hadn’t found a home here.
Well, that’s history. Rossini’s late, great, notoriously difficult Maometto II is one of the SFO’s finest achievements to date. Item: bel canto singing on a very high level. Item: a conductor who has a powerful way with this repertory. Item: stage direction that informs every nuance of this operatic masterpiece, till now dismissed as a historic curiosity.
Maometto II failed at its 1820 Neapolitan debut; revised, it had no more luck in an 1823 Venetian production. Despite Rossini’s extensive re-reworking of the piece for Paris in 1826, the original, dangerously innovative score had gone unheard. Until now, that is, with the revisionary barnacles scraped off in a critical edition by the Dutch musicologist Hans Schellevis, premiering here with the assistance of Philip Gossett, the distinguished Rossini scholar.
What we hear is a revolutionary work, filled with convention-shattering ensembles and striking orchestral effects. In broad outline, the plot is simplicity itself: The heroine, Anna Erisso, is torn between her honorable love for family and country and an unsanctioned love for the Muslim tyrant, Maometto, charismatic enemy of Venetian religious and cultural values. The winner? Not Maometto.
This remarkable opera loves the human voice and, specifically, bel canto technique, that once-lost art of long-breathed legato lines, florid passagework and vocal production that captures us with the sheer beauty of singing. In the towering title role, Luca Pisaroni excels. Magnificent and terrifying, he makes much of the role’s rich coloratura challenges.
Leah Crocetto makes her SFO debut as Anna. A relative novice to the operatic stage, she conquers the strenuous role—part dramatic soprano, part nightingale—with precisely articulated passagework and vivid, big-voiced authority. Crocetto, no question, is a major contender in the high-velocity romantic repertory. As Calbo, her would-be lover, Patricia Bardon sings with spirit and engagement; her hyper-florid aria, “Non temer,” stops the show. Bruce Sledge is Anna’s tormented father, an energetic role he dispatches with finesse. In the pit, SFO’s chief conductor, Frédéric Chaslin, leads with distinction, making late Rossini sound almost like early Verdi. The demanding choruses are well-schooled by Susanne Sheston.
Stage director David Alden, assisted by Jon Morrell’s set and costume designs and Duane Schuler’s livid lighting, offers thought-provoking imagery throughout. The action, reliant on broad melodramatic gesture, rarely flags in this lengthy opera. Maometto glitters with dark malice while his acrobatic minions, ninja warriors brandishing quarterstaves, leap about with frightening energy.
The monumental, monochromatic set bears a pro-patria inscription from Petrarch, heightening Alden’s, and Rossini’s, nationalistic focus on Christian vs. Muslim values, with Anna trapped between love and honor. Her suicide becomes a paradoxical love-death, in Maometto’s horrified embrace. The audience responded with a full-throated, passionate ovation, the likes of which I’ve seldom witnessed in Santa Fe.