In February, Opera Philadelphia, performing at the venerable and beautiful Academy of Music, presented a veritable Gioachino Rossini rarity, giving five staged performances of his early opera seria “Tancredi” (1813), with a stellar cast of bel canto singers, headed by Stephanie Blythe. In the past 40 years, New Yorkers have only heard this work in concert, with Marilyn Horne, at Carnegie Hall, in the 1970s and ’80s, with Vesselina Kasarova there in the ’90s, and with Ewa Podles, at Caramoor, a decade ago. The action of this tale, after Voltaire, set in the Middle Ages, just before the Crusades, was, in this production, shared with Opéra de Lausanne and Teatro Municipal de Santiago, updated to shortly after World War One, with scant ill effect. Philadelphia’s “Tancredi” opened on February 10 and I heard the third performance, on the 15th, with hearings on the 17 and 19 matinee remaining.
“Tancredi” is a dark, somber, and political opera, which may be the reason for its relative unpopularity. The virtuosic fireworks all have serious underpinnings, the rejoicing invariably tinged with distrust and recrimination. In Siricusa, the inimical families, the Argiri and Orbazzani, are about the join forces to fight the Saracen enemy Solamiro. Senator Argirio’s daughter Amenaide is a diplomatic pawn, slated to wed Orbazzano against her will, when her heart belongs to the exiled warrior Tancredi. Orbazzano’s henchmen intercept her affectionate letter to Tancredi, thinking it was meant for Solamiro. Orbazzano halts the plans for the marriage and all, including her father and Tancredi, who has returned to Siricusa, condemn her, and her father sentences her to death. Though thinking her guilty of treason, Tancredi battles Orbazzano for Amenaide’s honor and kills his foe, but rejects the love he still thinks faithless. Fatally wounded in the war against Solamiro, Tancredi learns, only when dying, that Amenaide is innocent. Argirio blesses their union and forgiveness reigns, as the hero’s life ends.
There are striking arias, duets, ensembles, and choruses throughout “Tancredi,” but only one solo, the short, lilting ‘hit tune’ “Di tanti palpiti,” part of Tancredi’s entrance monologue, ever seems to be excerpted. Other parts of it, particularly the tenor arias and the soprano and mezzo-soprano duets, deserve acclaim as well. “Tancredi” is not a short opera, but with Corrado Rovaris at the helm, it moved along smoothly and rapidly.
Metropolitan Opera mezzo Blythe was the imposing, heroic and brooding Tancredi, lavishing seamless, dusky tone on her music. She intriguingly ornamented “Di tanti palpiti,” once we’d heard the first statement of the melody; blended beautifully with soprano Brenda Rae, as Amenaide, in their duets; offered a resolute farewell, with a final accusation, to a love presumed faithless, when going off to fight; and delivered a quiet, dignified death scene, probably preferable to the flashy happy ending that Rossini and librettist Gaetano Rossi originally devised.
Just a decade ago, at Juilliard, high soprano Rae impressed in Lowell Liebermann and J.D. McClatchy’s “Miss Lonelyhearts” and as Eurydice in “Orphée aux Enfers.” Here, she held the audience at the Academy rapt with her breathtaking legato prison scene aria, “No, che il morir non è,” and was cheered for her subsequent prayer, “Giusto Dio che umile adoro,” for Tancredi as he went to war, and the cascades of coloratura in its fiery cabaletta, as she celebrated her champion’s victory. This listener would like, someday, to hear Rae and Blythe take on Rossini’s “Semiramide,” once the province of Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne.
Coloratura tenor Michele Angelini, as Argirio, was announced as indisposed, with a cold, but agreeing to soldier on. From the bravura vocalism he favored us with, sealing the deal with Orbazzano in the opening scene; guilt tripping Amenaide in “Pensa che sei mia figlia;” and ruefully sentencing his daughter to die, in “Oh! Dio, Crudel! qual nome … Ah! segnar in vano io tento … Si virtù trionfi omai,” with flawless florid passages and ringing high notes aplenty, one would scarcely have known that anything was amiss. To the names of Juan Diego Flórez, Lawrence Brownlee, and Javier Camarena, in rarified bel canto tenor repertory, add Angelini as a most worthy successor. Angelini’s duet with Blythe, “Ah, se de’ mali miei,” as he sent the warrior off to defend Amenaide, though both still denounce her, was a highlight.
Making their mark in supporting roles were lyric bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs, as the villainous Orbazzano; and mezzo-sopranos Allegra De Vita and Anastasiia Sidorova, both given their moment to shine, as, respectively, Amenaide’s companion Isaura and Tancredi’s, Roggiero. Kudos to the men’s chorus and the orchestra, helping to make first act finale “Ciel, che lessi,” an all-but-a cappella prayer followed by a stormy stretta, memorably grand.
Director Emilio Sagi and scenic designer Daniel Bianco set most of “Tancredi” in a grim, grand, and gray palazzo. The celebration of Tancredi’s victory took place, in contrast, in a hall of mirrors, suffused with light. Tancredi died on the battlefield, amid classical statuary that amounted to his own monument. Costumes were by Pepa Ojanguren and lighting was by Eduardo Bravo.
On February 24, Blythe and Opera Philadelphia turn to lighter fare, “Dito & Aeneas: Two Queens, One Night,” with travesti performer Martha Graham Cracker. Performances of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” follow from April 28 to May 7. Visit www.operaphila.org
for tickets and further information.