On July 14 the Santa Fe Opera premiered the new critical edition of Rossini’s Maometto II. Originally written for Naples in 1820, the opera has a strange history. After the piece failed in Naples Rossini rewrote it for Venice in 1822. There it had a happy ending. In 1826 he extensively redid the opera and had it performed in Paris as Le siège de Corinthe. It got to the Met in 1975 as The Siege of Corinth performed in Italian as L’Assedio di Corinto. Beverly Sills made her Met debut in this opera. It’s easy to understand why the Rossini scholar Philip Gossett felt the need for a redo. The Dutch musicologist Hans Schellevis was assigned the task.

Rossini, who literally invented 19th century Italian, opera, is such a giant of this art that anything by him is of great interest. Maometto II is mature Rossini; he was 28 when he wrote it. Mature Rossini starts at age 21. But this opera regardless of how well restored is not the master’s best. By comparison to other serious operas by Rossini – say Semiramide or William Tell – it has the vocal difficulty without the great inspiration that suffuses those two operas. Having assembled a cast that is up to the tremendous demands that Maometto makes, it would seem to me that the Santa Feans would have done better to mount Semiramide which could have been done with success by the same four principals who excelled in the restored opera.

But they did what they did, so let’s stick to that. One of the attractions that likely appealed to the staff of the Santa Fe Opera, but which matters much less to their audience, is the threw writing that Rossini uses here in contradistinction to virtually all his other operas. There are very few recitatives in the work; one vocal part flows into the next with little or no pause. The audience being unfamiliar with the work frequently applauded only to have the music continue. Almost none of the music sticks in your mind. What a listener takes away from Maometto II is that Rossini wrote some fiendishly difficult music and that miraculously the Santa Fe Opera found four singers who could handle the difficulty.

The opera has a very convoluted story involving a potential misalliance between a Turkish sultan (Mehmet II aka Maometto, the conqueror of Constantinople) and a Venetian noblewoman, Anna. He’s a bass and she’s a soprano. Her father, the leader of the Venetian garrison at the city of Negroponte, a tenor, wants her to marry his general Calbo, a mezzo-soprano. Anna at first declines because she’s in love with another Venetian who turns out not to be a Venetian but Maometto on a reconnaissance mission for his father. When Maometto captures Negroponte Anna realizes her error though she still has feelings for him and vice versa. None of this is historically possible as Mehmet II had been sultan for more than 20 years before this action took place. No matter, it all gets sorted out when Anna stabs herself to death rather than yield to the embrace of an infidel, but only after almost three hours of fioratura.

Luca Pisaroni took the title role. Considering that the opera is named after him the part is not a long one. Maometto appears at the end of the first act and at the beginning of the second. Though he does appear in the finale his part was essentially over an hour earlier. But while not long, its difficulty is immense. The new critical version has expanded his part at the opening of the second act. Pisaroni made the role into a triumph singing with expression, power, and remarkable coloratura technique. Sam Ramey sang this part about 30 years ago when he was in his prime. It takes nothing away from Pisaroni to say that he was almost as good. His scena in the second act was almost cruel and unusual punishment when one considers what Rossini asked of his bass protagonist. Nonetheless, Pisaroni was up to every challenge.At its end Maometto made a spectacular exit riding a chariot pulled by three horses (see above).  The difficulty of his music was so great that I feared Pisaroni could not possibly make it through, but he did and with virtuosic panache. Pisaroni also acted his part well, though there was more than a hint of Ming the Merciless about his aggressive posturing.

The opera’s longest part is Anna’s. Leah Crocetto is a young soprano from Connecticut. She is just starting to make her way through the world’s great opera houses. She was the winner of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2010 National Council Auditions. She has a voice that is powerful, agile, and beautiful. She gave everything asked of Anna by Rossini who wrote this role for his first wife the legendary Isabella Colbran. Surprisingly, she seemed even stronger at the opera’s end than at its start. There seems no limit to what she can achieve. Her only problem would appear to be her weight which is already such that it may threaten her health.

Irish mezzo Patricia Bardon was the general Calbo. She has a large, very large, voice that handled Rossini’s roulades and runs with ease. The only caveat I have is that her tone became a little shrill at its highest extension where her pitch was also a little off. But a fine performance by an emerging young artist who has already sung at the Met.

Tenor Bruce Sledge has also sung at the Met. His repertoire consists of mostly lyric parts. But the large sound he projected in this opera suggests that he could easily move on to heavier roles. His singing of Erisso, Anna’s father, was secure and technically adroit. His sound is not creamy and rich, but it is well produced. Rossini’s fireworks gave him no problem.

The Santa Fe Opera’s chief conductor Frédéric Chaslin conducted with both power and nuance. His orchestra was with him throughout the long evening. Chaslin has the Rossini style to perfection. While the opera is filled with many gems, to me the most affecting moment was the second act terzetto ‘In questi estremi istanti’ sung by Calbo, Anna, and Erisso. The sequential entrance of the three singers has an ethereal beauty unique to Rossini.

Jon Morrell’s costumes were a puzzle. The Venetian soldiers wore mid to late 19th century uniforms and carried rifles topped with bayonets. The Turkish soldiers were dressed like ninjas while Maometto and his aide wore Turkish garb congruent with the time of the story (15th century). His sets were quite good. The basic set was a marble rotunda that had a large plaque to its right (the audience’s left). It had a verse from Petrarch on it. As the action progressed it moved to the side to reveal a Madonna and child. Later three statues of galloping horses emerged from it. It was these horses that Maometto used to make his dramatic exit. At the start of the second act, a dramatic triangle of red cloth was swept across most of the stage to suggest the tents of Maometto’s camp. Above these appeared a row of veiled women’s heads. The effect was stunning.

Director David Alden made good use of Morrell’s set. He made the story as believable as an early 19th century serious opera can be. The coordination between sets and actors was maximized. A very good job of staging a difficult story.

In summary, this was a powerful production of one of Rossini’s less well known operas. The production’s level was equal to the best that could be found anywhere in the world. Anyone who is interested in great opera would gain from seeing this staging. You’re not likely to get too many chances to see Maometto II, much less at this level of vocal and theatrical excellence.

Below is an interview with Philip Gossett in which he discusses Maometto II. Professor Gossett obviously loves this work.