Classical review: Maometto secondo, Garsington Opera, Wormsley

Garsington's 'Maometto secondo' is risibly directed but superlatively sung 

It was a bold move by Garsington’s outgoing artistic director to schedule the two-centuries-late British premiere of Rossini’s epic Maometto secondo – subsequently scaled down as the more familiar Siege of Corinth - even if his successor was going to have to make it work. But was it a wise move?

Venice is under siege from the Turks, and its governor Erisso (tenor Paul Nilon) holds a council of war during which his general Calbo (mezzo Caitlin Hulcup) stiffens his resolve; his daughter Anna (soprano Sian Davies) is torn between her desire to obey her father’s wish that she should marry Calbo, and her secret love for the mysterious Uberto (who is the Sultan in disguise).

Nilon’s coloratura has exquisite nobility, while Davies’s singing is imbued with a lovely unforced grace; Hulcup delivers her trouser-role with none of the usual irritating faux-masculine mannerisms, and with an artistry to take the breath away. She negotiates the most awkward leaps as if nothing could be more natural; she has distinctly different voices at the top and bottom of her register, but moves between them with seamless ease.

When baritone Darren Jeffery makes his flamboyant entrance as the Sultan, the opera’s central quartet is complete, and on the wings of David Parry’s band in the pit, the duets and trios in the first act of this ravishing score are spun out so winningly that one wonders why it was never staged in Britain before.

Robert Innes Hopkins’s school–of-Ozymandias set consists of a gigantic broken Greek statue, and the Venetians are clad in Twenties garb, but the irruption of the scimitar-waving Turks takes us somewhere more problematic. It’s not just that they’re kitted out like Fifties-Hollywood Saracens, it’s the Gilbert & Sullivan style in which Edward Dick has directed them; each time they appear they seem funnier, and Dick’s weird notions of defilement by the lascivious Other – reinforced by a risible libretto - pile on the unintentional comedy.

After being attemptedly enlisted into the harem by the female chorus in belly-dance mode, Anna fends off the Sultan’s fumbling advances by kneeing him in the ribs while in mid-aria; no attempt is made to square the character-contradiction which compels her suicide amid rivers of tears, including those of the suddenly soft-hearted Turkish baddies.

The silliness of the plot explains why no one else has done this opera, but Dick’s silly production is still worth catching - for four wonderful singers.