Maometto II, Conquerer

That was a fast three hours and twenty minutes. While I expected Maometto II, the Rossini opera presented by the Canadian Opera Company at the Four Seasons Centre, to be full of spectacular singing, I did not expect to be sucked into the story, at times spellbound.  This opera about invaders and invasion won me over completely.  The COC Production that premiered at the Santa Fe Opera in 2012 was directed by David Alden (who directed COC’s recent Lucia). Alden seems to understand how to stage a virtuoso vehicle, mostly staying out of the singers’ way.

The story –concerning the expanding Ottoman Empire’s battles with Venetian forces—takes place in the 15th century. Nobleman Paolo Erisso (tenor Bruce Sledge) who leads the Venetians would give his daughter Anna (soprano Leah Crocetto) to Calbo (mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Deshong in trousers ), except that she’s already in love with someone else. The suspense builds, with the impending attack by the Ottomans. And of course it turns out that the one she loves is Maometto II (Luca Pisaroni) who she met while in a disguise on a reconnaissance mission.

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Luca Pisaroni as Maometto II in the COC production (photo: Michael Cooper)

The audience took awhile to warm to the style, at first somewhat hesitant about applauding, and indeed stunned into silence at times by the power of what we were seeing. And the usual casting expectations are a bit scrambled, as the tenor is the father not the hero, the rivals for the love of the soprano are a bass and a mezzo-soprano.  But we gradually cut loose in response to the big arias in the second act, once we’d decided to embrace the opera. All four principals had great moments, although I think DeShong had the loudest applause. Crocetto and DeShong both had several opportunities to shine in the second act, while Sledge’s best opportunities came earlier in the opera.

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(l-r) Bruce Sledge as Paolo Erisso, Leah Crocetto as Anna and Elizabeth DeShong as Calbo in the COC’s production of Maometto II, 2016 (photo: Michael Cooper)

At Pisaroni’s first appearance –singing from far upstage—I was frankly astonished at how well his voice projected. Maometto’s music is often ornate & quick, requiring great precision to articulate, but Pisaroni’s pitch was bang on, the voice cutting through the orchestra.  This is a believable conqueror, with physical swagger and genuine presence.

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(l-r) Luca Pisaroni as Maometto II and Bruce Sledge as Paolo Erisso in the COC’s production of Maometto II, 2016. (photo: Michael Cooper)

Harry Bicket is a big reason why this was such a spectacular experience, raising the bar for the COC orchestra. I couldn’t help noticing – in contrast to what I’ve seen in the Carmen performances—how well Bicket followed the singers throughout without any slips. Bicket made Rossini sometimes sound like Beethoven, sometimes like Mozart, and always like Rossini. With Bicket you know your performance has integrity & authenticity.

With sets & costumes designed by Jon Morrell (who did costumes for COC’s Aida) there are some arresting visual images, including some genuinely scary moments to amplify the drama that’s in the score. But we’re not experiencing a story being told in realistic fashion. Even so I did not expect to be on the edge of my seat, fearful and troubled by what I was seeing.

I’m seeing the opera again later this week, eager to once again hear four excellent principals and their stunning music. Bel canto can take getting used to, a style so full of coloratura that the decoration takes over, more icing than cake, more froth than coffee. But one rarely hears this music sung so accurately, with such sensitivity & passion.

Maometto II continues at the Four Seasons Centre until May 14th.

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