Running Time: 2 hours 57 minutes.
I was going to do Le siege de Corinthe first, but I’ve actually seen this opera more times than its French three-act revision. Structurally it is a bit of a marvel really as its capacity and scale is just extraordinary. On a lower note, this opera is a theatrical historical document as it also started the bizarre trend of having operatic sopranos commit on-stage suicide. There were suicides in opera before, but these were strictly confined to classical or mythological plots (Seneca, Dido). Also as a device it had stopped being used entirely after the 1790s and the Venetian version of the opera had to have a convoluted ending in which Maometto dies in battle and the Venetians are a-historically victorious because having the soprano top herself was much too shocking for Venice, although not Paris apparently as Siege ends with not just the prima donna committing suicide but the mass suicide of all of the female characters. I say this is bizarre given that the method of execution, dagger or knife, is statistically rarely used by women committing suicide, although it is not infrequently a male method of suicide. In the following decade Donizetti would include four soprano suicides or murder-suicides in his operas, the bloodiest being Lucia di Lammermoor and Maria di Rudenz. I find that the sanitized Venetian version demotes the character of Anna, who is very obviously a suffering and conflicted woman, and turns her into an object that the three main male characters gamble for possession. In the original version, she is isolated, and the tragedy is her’s rather than focused on the “honour” claims of the three men in her life.
This opera exists in two distinctive versions which have dramatic structural differences. The endings are also very different in the 1822 Venetian version which is much more standardly bel canto. This opera, on the other hand, is almost through composed (yes, when Wagner was seven Rossini wrote an opera that consists of only 11 numbers and has basically no obvious divisions in the music and even goes through a scene change while staying on number even in the absence of two of the three principles of what is probably the longest trio ever).
PLOT: Negroponte, a Venetian colony in what is now Greece, 1470. There are only six soloists. Anna Erisso is the daughter of Paolo, the Venetian commander. She is engaged of sorts to Calbo (a contralto transvesti role), but she is actually in love with a mysterious man who turns out to be Maometto, the Turkish sultan. The other two characters Condulmiero, a Venetian general who only appears in a single number at the start of the opera, and Selimo, Maometto’s second in command. Also rather extremely, the opera boasts three tenor roles, and single bass, soprano, and contralto.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1 (87 minutes)
Scene 1: A room in the Governor’s palace.
0: The opening ***. After some brief rumbling a singular melody wells up, dramatic, lyrical, and repeated by the male chorus that immediately follows (particularly watch the tenors).
5: Condulmiero relates bad news for the Venetians and cautions surrender, which is rejected particularly by Calbo but it makes for a grand scene **.
10: Led by Calbo, Paolo makes his decision and the Venetians swear to defend their colony (this is, of course, foolish, but it is grand just the same ***).
Scene 2: Another room.
13: A nice prelude (a mix of gentleness and menace, heralds the first appearance of Anna **.
24: Paolo consoles his daughter, she reveals that she has previously taken a lover, one “Uberto”, but when Paolo proves to her that this is impossible, she realizes she has been deceived by an unknown nobleman. Calbo enters pressing for his marriage to Anna which she in turn seriously has issues with. This leads to a massive 25-minute long trio (or as Rossini termed it in the score a “terzettone” a “big fat trio” *** in which everything you could possibly imagine occurs. Paolo and Calbo end up leaving early (they return later) when cannon fire is heard. Then there is a scene change of all things! And no, this isn’t a new number now!
Scene 3: The town square in front of the church.
30: A vote of popular fear from the colony’s women **.
32: This is followed by a lovely prayer led by Anna ***.
37: The women then take refuge in the church (except Anna) who confronts her father as he enters and then Calbo. This is more standard recitative almost until Paolo embarks on a lyric passage and we are back in business again **.
39, 42: Anna scales the skies with her high soprano ***.
44: All three chime in at once rather magnificently ***.
47: The finale ***, starts off with Anna’s coloratura and everyone else below her going at it like wild animals. There are at least two amazing tunes here, both in Anna’s vocal line.
Scene 4: The same, the morning after. The Turks have won.
49: Then, basically without technically pausing the music for more than a single set of battery chords, Rossini goes into another scene change and a ruthless chorus for the Turkish invaders **.
52: Maometto’s aria *, is a fine piece but not nearly so explosive as the previous music (maybe Rossini was exhausted). It is alas very much a bass aria but in its own way it is charming. His men chime in at times and it gets energetic towards the end.
62: A mild male chorus * announces to Maometto that Paolo Erisso and Calbo have been captured and they are brought on.
69, 72, 74, 80: After some long recitative between the three men, Paolo ushers in the start of the finale ***. He and Calbo refuse to surrender **, which does seem odd given that they are Maometto’s prisoners. Anna comes out of the church and declares that the man she loves “Uberto” and Maometto are one and the same **. Anna threatens to kill herself *** unless Maometto releases her father and Calbo, he agrees. Although this is done it also causes her father to reject her.
84: The Stretta finale ***, is a masterpiece of vocal gymnastics. Although her father and Calbo have dumped her, Anna goes with Maometto as his mistress although the Sultan is concerned that she might no longer love him.
ACT 2 (90 minutes) NOTE: For some reason the sound quality declines in this act. Apologies.
Scene 1: Maometto’s tent.
0: The curtain rises on a dancing “Turkish” prelude and chorus *** as Muslim girls tell her she needs to soften up for Maometto. She declares her determination to escape as he enters and tells her that he understands her misgivings but also that he loves her and wants her to be his Queen. She declares that her patriotism precludes her ever loving him now that she knows he has lied to her regarding his identity.
9: The duet Anna-Maometto * is a fine piece but lacks a great tune. There are more traces here that Anna is considering suicide. Selimo tells Maometto that the men are ready to attack the citadel again. He goes, but not before giving Anna his seal as a guarantee of her protection in his absence.
26: Maometto addresses the troops **. It crescendos magnificently if you make it out.
Scene 2: The church vaults with Anna’s mother’s tomb prominent. (This would mark the division between acts two and three in Le Siege de Corinthe).
32, 42: The remainder of the opera consists of three numbers and spans nearly an hour. First there is a magnificent entr’acte **, followed by an aria for Calbo ** which is preceded by a long scena with Paolo. All very forlorn if good stuff until the aria which is rather upbeat and includes some grand coloratura flourishes.
50, 57: Anna arrives * to start off her forty minutes of solid stage presence. The trio that follows is lovely, gentle ** although with an air of underlining agitation and a little haunting as Paolo performs a slightly illicit marriage ceremony over Anna and Calbo over Anna’s mother’s tomb.
64, 66: Anna is then left alone * by the two men and goes into one of the longest finales ever (some 26 minutes). The female chorus can be heard off-stage in a lachrymose-like number of great gentleness **.
72: More female chorusing, this time a bit more perky or rather frustrated and polyphonic ** and towards the end taking on a proto-wagnerian climax.
76: The cavatina * is a standard if fine item.
80: The Turks arrive and Anna tells them to kill her ***.
83: Anna goes to her mother’s grave to complete the sacrifice to the most sunny woodwind accompaniment. As she starts to sing however it gets much more dramatic **. Her psychological condition is obviously in rapid decline as the flutes bop about.
87: Now with only about three minutes left, Maometto ends furiously demanding his seal back from Anna, she admits to having given it to her father (which is actually the truth). Anna stabs herself to death *** and collapses up a flight of stairs (in this production). Rossini pulls off opera’s first suicide in modern times with a brief choral requiem, almost understated, until the orchestra whirls about and the curtain falls on an ending like no other in opera.
This is the finest of Rossini’s dramatic Italian operas. In some ways it is a better opera than Guillaume Tell but this is mostly because it has better dramatic pacing, the choruses do not outstay their welcome and there is no ballet. The first act has a musical continuity unlike anything earlier in opera except possibly scenes four and five of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Although I find Le siege de Corinthe more spectacular (at least when Beverly Sills sang it transposed higher as the role of Anna/Pamyra is not intended for a coloratura but rather more of a spinto soprano) this is probably the better opera. In its original form this opera is amazing, the revision sounds a bit of a co-out though, however, I am reviewing the original here. Although very long and short on narrative, the opera rarely feels its length. The longer portions have an obvious purpose, to depict the torment that Anna is experiencing because she is probably opera’s first character that we actually get to know very psychologically, and when this ultimately climaxes in her suicide it works extremely well if just a teeny tiny bit rushed. Nothing is given to chance here, and the build up is gradual and logical, similarly to Lucy Ashton’s mental decline before she commits murder. The role of Anna is probably one of the most difficult in opera given that she is on stage for over two thirds of the entire opera, although she does get strategic breaks at critical points in the narrative. It requires a soprano who can also act, otherwise the suicide can border on melodrama. The second act is not quite up to the same level of magnificence as the first, but it is still very, very good. A solid A, very close to an A+.