It’s this Santa Fe production that’s currently on stage at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre, remounted and partially recast by the Canadian Opera Company.
So what kind of opera is Maometto II? As far as the work’s dramatic content is concerned, the piece boils down to a basic good guys vs. bad guys story, despite its many plot-twists. Set in the Kingdom of Negroponte (on the Greek island of Chalkis) during a war between the ruling Venetians and the invading Turks, it’s an opera with a strong martial character, full of soldiers and battles. There’s also a love-triangle: Anna, daughter of the island’s governor, Erisso, is courted by the Venetian general Calbo. But she is in love with “Uberto” – who turns out to be non other than Maometto, the Turkish general, in disguise.
Of course, bel canto enthusiasts will brush these criticisms aside. “It’s all about the singing!” they will declare – and they’re right. Indeed, without excellent singers, there isn’t much point in bringing Maometto II to the stage.
Fortunately, the COC has taken the opera’s vocal demands seriously. Based on what I heard in Tuesday’s performance, the company has assembled an accomplished and interesting cast – partly drawn from the Santa Fe production and partly new to the opera.
Others might disagree, but in my opinion the first among equals was tenor Bruce Sledge, as Erisso. He also sang Erisso in Santa Fe – and his experience with the role seems to have made him as secure in it as any tenor who ever stepped out as Rodolfo in La Bohème. From the get-go, his delivery was clear, direct and steadfast. Moreover, Sledge can act, and he brought a wide range of emotions and nuances to his character.
Soprano Lea Crocetto, another Santa Fe veteran, was cast as Anna. She embraced her role as a star-vehicle, which it certainly is. Crocetto possesses a fluid coloratura, with a pleasing little flutter – and thrilling high notes that only got stronger as the opera progressed.
Elizabeth DeShong, appearing in the trouser role of Calbo, is a small woman with a big voice and technique to burn. Although her stand-and-deliver style was dramatically limiting, she used her penetrating mezzo with musical intelligence and discretion.
And bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni was an imposing figure as Maometto. His voice is rich and powerful – yet it sometimes sounded forced, as if he felt the need to constantly prove he was the biggest, baddest singer on stage. It was pleasing to hear him in softer passages, as he sincerely professed his love for Anna (who is horrified to find out who her “Uberto” really is).
Director David Alden’s staging is nothing if not inventive. He and designer Jon Morrell created an ingenious set that can be rearranged for a variety of striking Greco-Roman tableaux. There’s even a pop-up tent that serves as Maometto’s field headquarters and boudoir. And Duane Schuler’s stark lighting underscores the dominant black-and-white colour scheme.
The production doesn’t aim for any specific historic period: although the opera is based on events that occurred in the 1470s, the Venetian soldiers are kitted out with 19th-century uniforms and weapons. Alas, they are no match for the Turks, portrayed as jihadi ninjas. Indeed, the whole production – with its harem girls, belly-dancer, crescent-moon black flags and other clichés of Eastern “otherness” – draws parallels between the 15th century and modern conflicts in the Middle East, with more than a touch of irony.
In the end, Anna takes one for the team, preferring to die rather than marry Maometto. The Turk’s military victory over the Venetians is rendered hollow.
Under early-music specialist Harry Bicket, the COC Orchestra was in fine form, whether offering a delicate pizzicato accompaniment or thumping out a grand tune. However, the COC Chorus didn’t seem quite up to its usual standards, at times sounding weak and diffuse. And as Maometto II has plenty of choruses, this was a recurring problem.
For an opera company that only stages six mainstage productions per season, and must rely on warhorses to fill its coffers, the COC took a bit of a risk on Maometto II. But thanks to a full-throttle commitment from the cast, the creative team and the company itself, the risk paid off handsomely.
© Colin Eatock 2016