Thou shalt adore Rossini; MUSIC
Sunday 24 August 1997
Pesaro is an inconsequential seaside town near Rimini: a Cromer of the Adriatic, not worth visiting unless you like Rossini, who was born here in 1792 and has become the town's chief industry, apart from herding German tourists into drab hotels. On his death, he left Pesaro his entire estate, the money being used to set up a Rossini Foundation and Conservatory. They both survive. And they have blossomed to become an exceptional alliance between scholarship and practical performance - governed by luminaries like Philip Gossett, Professor of Music at Chicago, who spends his summers in a small room on the top floor of the Birthplace building, supervising the Foundation's Critical Edition of Rossini's complete works.
This is a Herculean task, which has so far resulted in 80 published volumes, and will continue at the rate of two a year until long after Gossett or any of us is around to care (Rossini was prolific). And the objective - apart from providing authoritative texts - is to expose the groaning quantity of unknown operas (mostly serious) in the composer's catalogue: which is where the Festival comes in - founded in 1980 to place the discoveries of the Critical Edition before the public and (equally important) put Professor Gossett's editorial decisions to the test of whether they work on stage. For 17 years now, the Festival has been to Rossini what Bayreuth is to Wagner: a beacon and a benchmark. And Moise et Pharaon is certainly the brightest, most defining light it has to show this season.
Moise is a biblical opera (Moise is Moses) with a double life. Originally Mose in Egitto, written in three acts to an Italian libretto, it was enlarged by Rossini into four-act French grandeur for Paris - with all the necessary spectacle and dancing. And it's a matter for debate whether the gains outweigh the losses. Mose was taut, impactful, with an opening scene as strong as any opera of its time. Moise has longeurs and is greedy for effect. An awesome challenge. But at Pesaro it's seized by Vick, Stefanos Lazaridis (set design) and Thomas Webster (lights) who work their sports hall space from end to end with an amazing virtuosity.
The building is transformed into a vast Yeshiva library, with book-lined walls and Jewish scholars browsing as the audience arrive. The action spreads across the hall, with seating on three sides. And running round the central area is a water course: the Nile/the Red Sea, and an entertaining variant on audience participation every time a cohort of Egyptians sloshes past. If you find yourself with front row tickets, take a mac.
The show's biblical grandeur - cast of thousands, miracles, the lot - comes without the razzmatazz of Verona or the phoney reverence of Cecil B de Mille. The set is abstract, vaguely Frank Lloyd Wright, with an enormous cantilevered mirror overhead. The images are purposeful (except for Ron Howell's choreography, which flounders). And although you might question the off-the-peg good taste with which Vick turns Old Testament narrative into a survey of the Jewish experience through history (complete with chic black suits and lots of luggage: things we've seen before), it's clean, unsentimental, and I think sincere. It also follows the music in focusing on communities, rather than individuals, in conflict. Moise is a chorus-centred piece. As for the soloists, it's not so much Moses and Pharaoh who preside as the younger love-interest couple, Amenophis and Anai - superbly sung here by Charles Workman (in far better form than he was for ENO's wretched Italiana in Algeri) and Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz.
The orchestra is Riccardo Chailly's crack force from the Teatro Comunale in Bologna. And the conductor is the very young, astonishingly able Wladimar Jurowski, who leapt to attention in the British Isles last year at Wexford.
Unlikely as it sounds, there are strong connections between Pesaro and Wexford. They share the same artistic director, Luigi Ferrari, who likes to bounce young talent back and forth between the two; and another of his bouncing protegees is the young Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florenz, who was in fabulous voice this week for Pesaro's revival of the early Rossini farce, Il Signor Bruschino - rivalling Eva Mei's birdlike precision for stardom over the rest of the cast. Bright, lean, forthright in projection, it's a striking sound, slightly but not unpleasantly metallic. You'll be hearing more of him. And at Pesaro there was more the very next night when he resurfaced in that strange Rossini swansong piece, the Petite Messe Solennelle.
Scored for a dozen or so voices, two pianos and harmonium, this Messe invariably strikes me as Rossini's final joke: its greatest challenge being for the singers not to laugh. Each blast from the harmonium sounds like a passing tug-boat; there's a close approximation to a tango in the Agnus Dei; and the Gratias belongs in a Lloyd Webber musical (if it isn't there already). But Rossinians, I know, take it in earnest. They prefer to hear its freakery as innovation. And they have a point. Its colouring and logic are disarmingly original. It's also charming, delicate, a gift for lyric voices - which in this case were exemplary, and included Michele Pertusi (the strong, dark-timbred Moses in Moise) and Mariana Pentcheva (Mrs Pharaoh).
Exemplary Rossini singing comes as standard in this festival. It radiates from every open mouth. And even when a singer craves indulgence - as Paul Austin Kelly did this week, in a Barbiere Di Siviglia playing in Pesaro's exquisite little Teatro Rossini - it turns out not to be a problem. The American tenor may have been under the weather, but you wouldn't have guessed it from his ravishing Act I canzone, or his all-round handsome foil to the pouting bass, Bruno Pratico, who played Dr Bartolo like an Ugly Sister without the frocks.
As for the future, Pesaro is doing its damnedest to secure its flow of stylistically-aware bel canto singers with an Accademia Rossiniana that runs alongside the festival. Financed out of Britain by the Peter Moores Foundation, it airlifts in young artists and puts them through a regime of masterclasses and public performance which this week turned up some outstanding talent - including a charismatically beautiful Japanese voice, Akie Amou, that should be really something in a few years.
But the future Pesaro doesn't seem to want to address concerns its use of instruments. The period performance revolution hasn't penetrated far into the festival's orchestral culture: raise the subject and you feel the air chill. For a scholar-driven enterprise, that won't do. It must bite some bullets, take some risks. And if it doesn't, it could find itself adrift from the bel canto world it should be turning.
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