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It has been the stars above all who have charted the fortunes of Gioacchino Rossini’s legacy at the Metropolitan, sopranos and mezzo-sopranos, and lately tenors as well. The exception has been Il Barbiere di Siviglia, first staged in the company’s inaugural season, 1883-1884, and since then the recipient of six new productions. Il Barbiere has been on the calendar in roughly half of the Met’s by now 130 seasons and ranks thirteenth in the list of works most often performed on 39th Street and then at Lincoln Center.
The quickening of interest in Rossini in particular and in bel canto in general--the operas of Donizetti, Bellini, and, of course, Rossini—was sparked by singers who could flaunt the virtuosity of florid music, Maria Callas in the 1950s, followed soon after by Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, and Montserrat Caballé. Since then, a veritable torrent of belcantists has been enlisted in the annual Rossini Festival held each summer in Pesaro, the composer’s Italian birthplace.
At the Met, the Rossini era was launched in 1974 by Marilyn Horne’s assumption of the role of Isabella in L’Italiana in Algeri. And with Olga Borodina and Jennifer Larmore the title has persisted in the repertoire. In 1975, it was the turn of L’Assedio di Corinto (The Siege of Corinth), a vehicle for the debut of Beverly Sills. Horne, once again, was the spur for the 1990 Semiramide. Cenerentola was mounted for Cecilia Bartoli in 1998; it has been revived five times with Borodina, Elina Garanca, Joyce DiDonato, and twice simulcast live in HD. In 2009-2010, the Met put on Armida for Renée Fleming and the next year Le Conte d’Ory for Juan Diego Flórez, the first male star to lead the Rossini parade. Which brings us to La Donna del Lago. It premiered at the Met on February 16, 2015 and will be simulcast “Live in HD” on March 14.
And the feast will continue beyond this season. William Tell is on the schedule for 2016-2017 when it will be heard, at last, in the original French, in its first revival at the Met since the 1930s. Looking ahead, here is a glimpse of the splendors of this Rossini masterpiece, the transcendent ensemble that constitutes the opera’s finale. Tell, his family, and the Swiss patriots hail the rising sun that smiles on their triumph over the Austrian tyranny. The clip is from a 2003 Paris performance with Thomas Hampson and Marcello Giordani.
Rossini’s operas demand singers with virtuosic command of the bel canto style. This technique is founded on the most rigorous control of the breath, essential to the free and even use of fioritura (embellishment): melismatic trills, turns, appoggiature (grace notes), scales, arpeggios, and other figures of the bel canto rhetoric. Marilyn Horne was master of it all. We were present at a performance of Semiramide with Horne and Sutherland in Boston in the early 1960s that was a spectacular demonstration of the opera’s viability. As the Babylonian general Arsace, a bearded Horne entered and conquered with an exhibition of vocal pyrotechnics. Here she sings her first aria in a 1980 concert in Washington, D.C.
Another of Horne’s warrior roles was the title character of Tancredi. In one of Tancredi’s arias, here is countertenor David Daniels as he poaches on the dramatic mezzo’s turf. In this 1997 New York concert, Daniels traverses the three contrasting sections of the piece brilliantly, the opening dramatic recitative “O Patria,” the sweetly lyric cavatina “Tu che accendi questo core,” and the lilting cabaletta “Di tanti palpiti” whose coiling melody was the rage of Europe in the 1820s.
Watch for our next post on Rossini’s La Donna del lago.