26 November 2021

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini — MAOMETTO SECONDO (A. Sewailam, L. Crocetto, E. DeShong, B. Sledge, M. Hill; Washington Concert Opera, 21 November 2021)

IN REVIEW: (front left to right) bass-baritone ASHRAF SEWAILAM as Maometto II, soprano LEAH CROCETTO as Anna, tenor BRUCE SLEDGE as Erisso, and mezzo-soprano ELIZABETH DESHONG as Calbo in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's MAOMETTO SECONDO, 21 November 2021 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Maometto secondo [1820 Naples version] – Ashraf Sewailam (Maometto II), Leah Crocetto (Anna Erisso), Elizabeth DeShong (Calbo), Bruce Sledge (Paolo Erisso), Matthew Hill (Condulmiero); Washington Concert Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Antony Walker, conductor [Washington Concert Opera, Lisner Auditorium, The George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA; Sunday, 21 November 2021]

Some of opera’s most beloved scores are products of protracted, sometimes painful processes of revision and reworking; processes that in some instances failed to produce a single authoritative edition of a piece. Twenty-First-Century audiences are less likely than their counterparts in previous generations to encounter bowdlerized versions that subjected works to atrocities like transposing rôles for vocal registers different from those for which they were composed, reordering music, and simplifying passages of particular difficulty for modern singers, but anomalies remain. Considerable sleuthing may be required to determine which incarnation of Verdi’s Don Carlos a listener is hearing, for instance, and audiences familiar only with the opera’s Paris version may be puzzled when Venus fails to appear in the final scene of performances of the earlier Dresden version of Wagner’s Tannhäuser.

In the course of a career spanning two decades, Gioachino Rossini’s creative impulses were sometimes upended by a panoply of forces ranging from singers’ whims and managerial meddling to censorial objections and legal entanglements. Changes of casting frequently necessitated musical modifications, and changes of venue could alter the basic structure of a piece. The composer’s surviving correspondence indicates that, when commissioned in May 1820 by Teatro di San Carlo to write his seventh opera for the Naples theater, Rossini dedicated himself to devising an unconventional work that would rival the boldest innovations wrought in earlier generations by Lully, Händel, Rameau, Gluck, and Mozart.

Allied with a grippingly theatrical libretto by Cesare della Valle, the ingenuity that made the Naples version of Maometto secondo one of Rossini’s most compelling scores failed to captivate the Neapolitan audience. Its powerful ensembles prefiguring Bellini’s Norma, Ponchielli’s La gioconda, and several of Verdi’s finest operas, Maometto secondo in its original form offered the discerning Neapolitans few of the dazzling arias of the sort heard in Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, Otello, Armida, La donna del lago, Ricciardo e Zoraide, and Ermione. Disappointed by the reception that Maometto secondo received at the San Carlo, Rossini substantially revised the piece for a December 1822 production at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice, reworking Act Two to replace the opera’s tragic dénouement with the lieto fine, adapted from music borrowed from the final scene of La donna del lago, expected by the Venetians. Faring better in Venice than in Naples, Maometto secondo later traveled northward, arriving in Paris in October 1826 as Le siège de Corinthe.

North America’​s acquaintance with Maometto secondo was dominated in the Twentieth Century by Beverly Sills, who débuted at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1975 in the United States première of Thomas Schippers’s edition of L’assedio di Corinto, a retooling of an Italian translation of Le siège de Corinthe prepared for a 1969 La Scala production headlined by Sills and Marilyn Horne. Fortuitously, Washington Concert Opera chose to eschew Rossini’s and others’ modifications, presenting Maometto secondo largely as it was heard in Naples in 1820. To bel canto aficionados in the Capital region, the wait for WCO’s performance of Maometto secondo may have seemed as prolonged as the Fifteenth-Century conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice that serves as the opera’s dramatic backdrop, but the audience’s patience was rewarded with an evening in which Rossini’s genius, too often dismissed as proficient but vapid craftsmanship, electrified the atmosphere in Lisner Auditorium.

IN REVIEW: soprano LEAH CROCETTO as Anna (left) and bass-baritone ASHRAF SEWAILAM as Maometto II (right) in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's MAOMETTO SECONDO, 21 November 2021 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]Amanti sfortunati: soprano Leah Crocetto as Anna (left) and bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam as Maometto II (right) in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Maometto secondo, 21 November 2021
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

Artistic Director Antony Walker’s conducting of Semiramide and Zelmira in recent WCO seasons demonstrated an affinity for shaping performances of the composer’s music that marked Walker as a peer of Alberto Zedda as a Rossini interpreter. The best qualities of Walker’s pacing of Semiramide and Zelmira, namely rousing but rarely rushed tempi and deft handling of Rossini’s characteristic crescendi, were elevated to new heights of expressivity in Maometto secondo, the plot’s emotional transitions guided with immersive comprehension of the part writing.

Meeting the composer’s and the conductor’s demands, the first of which are amongst Rossini’s most formidable, the playing of the Washington Concert Opera Orchestra was reliably polished throughout the performance, a few instances of imprecise string balances and intonation in the opera’s Maestoso Introduzione resolving quickly. There were moments in the ensembles that engender Maometto secondo’s singular theatrical potency in which the drive of Walker’s conducting undermined the singers’ concentration, but these incidents, too, were brief. Walker’s WCO performances invariably exhibit respect for the music at hand: on this evening, his esteem for Maometto secondo yielded a performance in which the full emotive potential of Rossini’s music was realized.

Few musical endeavors have been as adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as choral singing. Despite the difficulties posed by rehearsing and performing safely, assistant conductor and chorus master David Hanlon and the Washington Concert Opera Chorus achieved a laudable standard of preparedness. In the opening scene of Act One, the chorus voiced ‘Al tuo cenno, Erisso, accolti’ vibrantly, evoking an aura of alarm, and the ladies sang ‘Misera! or dove... ahimè!’ with palpable anxiety. The choristers’ traversal of the dramatic arc of Act One culminated in an account of the act’s final scene in which the massed voices formed an engaging aural tableau from which the principals’ voices emerged with startling immediacy.

Like the first act, Act Two begins with an elaborate choral Introduzione, in which WCO’s chorus sang ‘È follia sul fior degli anni’ with dulcet grace, fostering an atmosphere of tranquility in which the opera’s subsequent events seemed all the more harrowing. Punctuating Maometto’s aria, the choristers’ interjection of ‘A che più tardi ancor?’ bolstered the Ottoman ruler’s faltering resolve, and their rapturous singing of the beautiful preghiera, ‘Nume, cui ’l sole è trono,’ gorgeously accompanied by harpist Eric Sabatino, provided an interlude of serenity before the final scene’s horrors. The ladies voiced desperate fear starkly in Anna’s rondò, and the full chorus heightened the tragic grandeur of the opera’s finale with explosive but eloquent singing. Never inhibited by the masks necessitated by safety protocols, WCO’s choristers vanquished doubts about performing during a pandemic by achieving uncompromised musicality in some of Rossini’s most ambitious choral writing.

Washington Concert Opera performances often provide District audiences with opportunities to hear young singers whose work identifies them as emerging artists of tremendous promise. Appearing only in the opera’s first quarter of an hour, the rôle of the Venetian nobleman Condulmiero was entrusted in WCO’s Maometto secondo to tenor Matthew Hill, who uttered each of the character’s few lines with a bright, focused timbre and certain intonation. Regrettably, the music for the Ottoman official Selimo, which Hill might also have sung, was omitted. Nevertheless, the impact of Hill’s singing was markedly greater than the duration of his time on stage.

IN REVIEW: tenor BRUCE SLEDGE as Paolo Erisso in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's MAOMETTO SECONDO, 21 November 2021 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]Padre in conflitto: tenor Bruce Sledge as Paolo Erisso in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Maometto secondo, 21 November 2021
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

One of Maometto secondo’s novelties is its principal tenor rôle, written for Andrea Nozzari, whose career encompassed the creation of parts in works by composers including Rossini, Mayr, Mercadante, and Donizetti, being the father of the opera’s heroine rather than a romantic lead. Washington Concert Opera’s Erissi, padre e figlia, returned to rôles that they sang in the 2012 Santa Fe Opera production of Maometto secondo, the first staging of Hans Schellevis’s critical edition of the opera’s 1820 San Carlo version. Experience in the rôle of Paolo Erisso, the Venetian general charged with repulsing the Ottoman invasion who is appalled to discover that his daughter Anna, whose hand he intends for the young hero Calbo, has been secretly seduced by the enemy Maometto, was apparent in tenor Bruce Sledge’s performance, even in the concert setting. Making his entrance in Act One, he voiced ‘Basta, non più! V’intesi, o prodi, o veri cittadini e guerrieri’ excitingly, rising effortlessly to top C♭. The building tension in the magnificent Terzettone with Anna and Calbo spurred the singer to declaim Erisso’s lines with engrossing theatricality, his reading of ‘Dal cor l’iniquo affetto’ movingly imparting the shocked father’s ire and heartbreak.

Sledge sang Erisso’s trills and top Bs confidently, his upper register integrated with the voice’s lower reaches throughout the performance. The sole top note that threatened to crack was recovered adroitly. Hatred and indignation coursed through Sledge’s vocalism in the terzetto with Calbo and Maometto, and the tenor enunciated ‘Ah perchè fra le spade nemiche’ in the Act One finale with unstinting fortitude. In the terzetto with Calbo and Maometto in Act Two, Sledge’s singing sizzled with contempt, his tone penetrating the orchestrations from the top to the bottom of the range. Addressing the tomb of Erisso’s wife in the terzettino with Anna and Calbo, Sledge tendered a master class in the art of bel canto, his dulcet phrasing escalating the emotion of the scene. Lacking an extended solo scene, Erisso might at first glance seem an unlikely part for a singer of Nozzari’s reputation. Sledge affirmed that, when sung with the fire with which Rossini imbued it, it is one of the composer’s most riveting tenor rôles.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano ELIZABETH DESHONG as Calbo in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's MAOMETTO SECONDO, 21 November 2021 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]Amico, ‘fratello,’ e sposo: mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Calbo in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Maometto secondo, 21 November 2021
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

WCO’s Maometto secondo was an evening of uniformly superb singing, but, even in such distinguished company, the Calbo of mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong was extraordinary. Created by French contralto Adèle Chaumel, who sang in Naples under the Italianized name Adelaide Comelli and married the famous tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini a year after Maometto secondo’s première, Calbo is a rôle upon which Rossini lavished particular creativity. In Act One’s Terzettone, the character is developed via pained articulations of disappointment and disbelief, voiced by DeShong with a shining top B and incredible command of the bravura writing. In DeShong’s performance, in which passages of unison fiorature in thirds were rendered with tremendous accuracy, presages of Rossini’s later music for Arsace and Semiramide and of Bellini’s duets for Adalgisa and Norma were unmistakable. This Calbo was a galvanizing presence in the terzetto with Erisso and Maometto and the final scene of Act One, every astounding feat of technique serving the character’s uncertain predicament.

It is in another enthralling trio, alongside Erisso and Maometto, that Calbo is first heard in Act Two, and DeShong braved each of Rossini’s vocal assaults with complete comfort, manifested in her unerring navigations of wide intervals and chromatic scales. DeShong’s performance of the Andante cavatina ‘Non temer d’un basso affetto’ rivaled Marilyn Horne’s singing of the piece in the 1969 La Scala production of L’assedio di Corinto, the younger singer equaling or surpassing her illustrious predecessor in all but executing the trills in ‘Del periglio al fiero aspetto.’ Her singing in the fateful terzettino with Anna and Erisso might have been anticlimactic after such exhilarating vocalism, but DeShong immersed herself in communicating Calbo’s fleeting joy at winning Anna’s affection. Calbo’s happiness is brief, but memories of DeShong’s singing will long endure.

IN REVIEW: soprano LEAH CROCETTO as Anna in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's MAOMETTO SECONDO, 21 November 2021 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]Eroina ingannata: soprano Leah Crocetto as Anna in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Maometto secondo, 21 November 2021
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

The rôle of Erisso’s courageous daughter Anna, torn between filial loyalty and illicit love for the inimical Maometto, who won her heart in the guise of a Venetian emissary, was written for Isabella Colbran, who became Rossini’s wife fourteen months after Maometto secondo’s première. Contemporary accounts of her performances in this period of her career suggest that Colbran’s voice was in decline, a supposition supported in some musicologists’ analyses by Rossini largely writing contemplative rather than fiendishly demonstrative music for Colbran in Maometto secondo. On this evening, soprano Leah Crocetto’s singing dispelled any notion of Anna being a lesser sister of Rossini’s renowned rôles for Colbran.

Crocetto introduced her complex, evolving Anna with an arresting voicing of the Andante cavatina ‘Ah! che invan sul mesto ciglio’ in which the voice was used not as a disembodied instrument but as a conduit for the text. Having negotiated the Terzettone’s trills, grupetti, and top Bs with stylistic fluency, Crocetto voiced the Andantino preghiera ‘Guisto ciel, in tal periglio’ enchantingly, her legato as mesmerizing as her coloratura. In the final scene of Act One, she sang first ‘Ritrovo l’amante nel crudo nemico’ and then ‘Rendimi il padre, o barbaro’ with abandon, ending the act with a mammoth top C.

Anna’s duet with Maometto in Act Two prefigures Verdi’s music for Odabella and Attila, and Crocetto’s Verdian credentials were evident in her sensational but sensitive singing of ‘Sì: non t’inganni...Ah, tanto la pena mi s’addoppia,’ her top C again employed to accentuate the profundity of the character’s emotions. Grief tinged the soprano’s voice with gathering shadows in the terzettino with Calbo and Erisso, memories of Anna’s mother melding with love for her father and burgeoning warmth for Calbo.

The sincerity of expression of Crocetto’s account of the preghiera ‘Ferve dunque la pugna’ was deeply touching, the delicate cantilena sustained on the breath in a manner reminiscent of Montserrat Caballé. In Crocetto’s performance, the rondò ‘Quella morte che s’avanza’ was a decisive act of defiance. Preferring taking her own life to surrendering to a dishonorable passion in the opera’s final scene, Crocetto underscored the kinship between Rossini’s Anna and Berlioz’s Cassandre. Perhaps Isabella Colbran was no longer at her best at the time of Maometto secondo’s première, but Rossini’s trust in her musical and histrionic abilities was abundantly validated by Crocetto’s magnificent singing of the rôle.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone ASHRAF SEWAILAM as Maometto II in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's MAOMETTO SECONDO, 21 November 2021 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]Tuono ottomano: bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam as Maometto II in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Maometto secondo, 21 November 2021
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

At the age of twenty-one, the historical Mehmed II conquered Constantinople, hastening the demise of the Byzantine empire of Constantine and Justinian and inaugurating dominion in the Muslim realms that would ultimately encompass two reigns as sultan of the Ottoman empire. Contrary to the Euro-centric perception of Ottomans as plundering barbarians, Mehmed II was an avowed patron of the Arts whose actions as sultan were irrefutably shaped by an ardent social conscience. The aristocratic musicianship and stage deportment of Rossini’s first Maometto II, Filippo Galli, were sufficient to earn him the distinction of creating another notable operatic portrait of an iconic monarch, Enrico VIII in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. In WCO’s Maometto secondo, Egyptian bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam honored the legacies of both Galli and Mehmed II by portraying the legendary conqueror as a man whose severity was tempered by a lover’s vulnerability.

Maometto makes as dashing an entrance as any character in opera, his aria ‘Sorgete: in sì bel giorno, o prodi miei guerrieri’ requiring ironclad bravura technique and indomitable security in the upper register. Sewailam dispatched the fiorature stirringly and effortlessly projected the top Es and Fs. Dominating Maometto’s scene with the chorus, the bass-baritone matched his colleagues’ urgent vocalism in the terzetto with Calbo and Erisso. Launching the Act One finale, Sewailam voiced ‘Guardie, olà’ robustly, invoking the might of the Ottoman empire. His singing often recalled that of the preeminent recent exponent of Maometto’s music, Samuel Ramey, the two singers sharing a prowess for evincing the dramatic impetus in Rossini’s intricate music.

Sewailam partnered Crocetto brilliantly in Maometto’s duet with Anna in Act Two, voicing ‘Anna, tu piangi? Il pianto pur non è d’odio un segno’ with benevolence and concern. As Anna’s disdain for the false pretenses under which Maometto paid court to her became obvious, Sewailam’s vocalism grew more flinty, the velvet of his wooing transforming into the steel of vengeance. Sung with fury, the repeated top E♭s in the aria with chorus, ‘All’invito generoso riconosco i miei guerrieri,’ limned the sultan’s increasing exasperation.

The blustering brawn of Sewailam’s voice reverberated in the terzetto with Calbo and Erisso, Maometto having reached the limit of his magnanimity. His love thwarted by Anna’s suicide, Maometto’s humanity reached its zenith in the opera’s final scene, which in Sewailam’s performance was an affecting lament for his beloved. Singing music as demanding as Maometto’s rarely comes naturally to lower voices, but Sewailam sang Maometto unflappably, finding in Rossini’s musical obstacles aspects of a fascinating character who is too often portrayed as an insipid villain.

Mere hours after the last chord of this performance sounded in Lisner Auditorium, news of the passing of Washington Concert Opera’s founder, Stephen Crout, was announced. In the thirty-four years since the company’s first performance, the artists, staff, and supporters who bring WCO’s adventurous seasons to fruition persist in furthering Crout’s aspiration to perform lesser-known works with voices appropriate for the music. Overcoming a pandemic’s best efforts at blocking its path to the stage, WCO’s performance of Maometto secondo epitomized the spirit of Crout’s vision, presenting an exquisite score in a performance worthy of it.