Rossini - Tancredi

Salle Pleyel, Paris, Sunday June 3 2007

Concert version

Conductor: René Jacobs. Tancredi: Bernarda Fink. Amenaide: Rosemary Joshua. Argirio: Lawrence Brownlee. Roggiero: Anna Chierichetti. Orbazzano: Federico Sacchi. Isaura: Elena Belfiore. Orchestre des Champs-Elysées. The English Voices.

Back to the Salle Pleyel on Sunday for an interesting and sometimes exciting concert version of Rossini’s Tancredi – but a tough one to write up: René Jacobs’ approach, with a “period” orchestra and a cast of mostly Händelian singers (a deliberate choice of course) results in so different a Rossini that I’d really have liked to hear it several times before commenting.

The programme notes remind us that only 22 years separate Tancredi, which Jacobs calls “the most Mozartian of Rossini’s operas,” from La clemenza di Tito; that Rossini was known as “Il tedeschino”; and that he had assimilated Gluck’s reforms. As you would expect, the “HIP” orchestral sound strips off the varnish of smooth, 20th-century performance practice to give us something much more raw, ripe and exciting – the power to thrill and frighten is fully restored, for example, during the offstage duel between Tancredi and Orbazzano. The brass and horn timbres come straight from Hades, the woodwind from Arcadia. Never before have I heard Rossini’s roots planted so remarkably in Gluck, Haydn and Mozart; or heard such echoes of Beethoven, Weber, even Mendelssohn (too young, I know, to have had any influence on this piece). My neighbour, who for as long as I’ve known him (30 years) has claimed Rossini was boringly predictable, was delighted: “Beautiful music […] such interesting orchestration - I always thought Rossini’s orchestration was just ordinary before.”

Re the choice of singers, Jacobs remarks that “the vocal technique of the singers who premiered Rossini’s operas was inherited directly from the castrati. When Wagner asked him why he had given up composing opera after Guillaume Tell, Rossini complained of a crisis in the art of singing linked to their disappearance.” Jacobs’ own complaint is of “stars, mainly Italian, who introduce notes, mostly high ones of course, that were never written, under the pretext of a certain tradition [...] This is something I would like to put a stop to, because Rossini’s aesthetic and singing style refer back to his immediate past, in which high notes were not an end in themselves […] This is why I did not want to work with Pesaro regulars.”

Hence the presence of Rosemary Joshua and Bernarda Fink in the unusually well-matched quartet of principals. Joshua was at her best, sparkling and silvery, committed and convincing – much better than in Giulio Cesare at the start of the season, where she was perhaps hampered by the production. Fink was less charismatic. She has a very fine, grainy voice and phrases beautifully, but makes for a relatively introspective character.

Federico Sacchi and Lawrence Brownlee are more typically (by today’s standards) Rossini singers. Sacchi, who I’d only previously heard as one of the excellent “supporting cast” in Samson et Dalila in Brussels, has a clear, round, bass sound, dark yet light, so to speak, very good for acting the Rossini baddy. Brownlee I had also only heard in Brussels, but in Il viaggio a Reims. I wrote: “Of the men, Lawrence Brownlee may be the one to watch. His lack of stage experience showed in some pretty wooden acting, but he sang with commitment and thrust and sounded to me like the kind of ‘heroic’ Rossini tenor who could take on (Rossini’s) Otello.” He sings all the notes, perfectly in tune, without once giving the impression you often get, as an unfortunate tenor struggles with Rossini’s killer writing, that he’s about to explode. He certainly got the most applause of the evening, and I see that on the web this morning he’s already being described as a potential successor to Rockwell Blake, one better able than a Florez to take on the heroic Rossini roles. We shall see.

By the way, is conducting with a ballpoint pen HIP?

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