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How to destroy an opera!

Vitrifrigo Arena
08/13/2023 -  & August 16, 19, 22*, 2023
Gioachino Rossini: Adelaide di Borgogna
Varhudi Abrahamyan (Ottone), Olga Peretyatko (Adelaide), Riccardo Fassi (Berengario), René Barbera (Adelberto), Paola Leoci (Eurice), Valery Makarov (Iroldo), Antonio Mandrillo (Ernesto)
Coro del Ventidio Basso, Giovanni Farina (chorus master), Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, Enrico Lombardi (conductor)
Arnaud Bernard (stage director), Alessandro Camera (sets), Maria Carla Ricotti (costumes), Fiametta Baldiserri (lighting)

O. Peretyatko, V. Abrahamyan (© Amati Bacciardi Studio)

Rossini’s Adelaide di Borgogna (1817) has the unfortunate distinction of being his weakest opera seria. It is alleged that some of the music is not in fact Rossini’s, and on hearing the score, one senses there is a portion of “filler” that doesn’t take off, a rarity for Rossini.

The story is based on historical (albeit embellished) events. In 950, Lotario, King of Italy, died in mysterious circumstances, most likely arranged by Berengario, who had been running the kingdom during the monarch’s illness. He tries to force Lotario’s widow into marrying his son, Adelberto, thus usurping the throne. Adelaide asks for the help of the Holy Roman Emperor, Ottone (Otho the Great) who comes to her aid. Berengario uses deceit to buy time, offering his friendship and Adelaide’s freedom. Ottone is immediately attracted to Adelaide as is she to him. Berengario’s troops attack during their wedding ceremony and manage to kidnap Adelaide, but Berengario himself is captured. Adelberto offers an exchange of Adelaide for his father, Berengario. However, Adelaide escapes and she finally marries Ottone, while Berengario and Adelberto are imprisoned.

Obviously, this opera’s plot is not the most thrilling. However, a decent production could bring out its best qualities, especially given the exceptional voices at the Rossini Opera Festival’s disposal. Sadly, French stage director Arnaud Bernard had other ideas. He resorted to the tired idea of “a play within a play” in a work that doesn’t lend itself to such manoeuvres. This works best in comedy and in serious works that have a more elaborate context. Adelaide di Borgogna is among the least probable operas for such a venture.

The opera opens to the rehearsal of a production of the actual opera, where we’re exposed to numerous side plots, more entertaining than Adelaide di Borgogna’s: the prima donna (Adelaide) captures her off‑stage lover Adelberto in flagrante with a soubrette. She seeks solace in Ottone (a trousers role sung by a mezzo). The consolation develops into a romantic involvement between the two women. The bass singing Berengario (Riccardo Fassi) is a serial Don Juan involved with a number of young women who work backstage. Adelberto constantly tries to win Adelaide back and is rebuffed, not before making a fool of himself, constantly blundering.

It’s hard to ask the public to believe in a work when the stage director himself does not. Yes, one was often immersed in the silly “offstage” goings on, but not so much in the drama of the actual opera. This was a pity, as the opera’s cast was first‑rate.

Armenian mezzo Varhudi Abrahamyan, as Ottone, was the star of this production, with a rich mezzo ideal for Rossini’s trousers roles. She has an excellent technique, clear diction and ample stage presence. Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko, as Adelaide, possesses a lovely instrument and is a beautiful woman. Her bright coloratura met the challenge of the role’s most difficult moments, but it was too light and lacking in colour to evoke the necessary pathos for the role. This was accentuated by the stage director’s antics. One could not ignore her excellent offstage portrayal of a temperamental spoiled prima donna. This further diminished her ability to convince as the wronged Adelaide.

René Barbera was a droll Adelberto, whose portrayal of his offstage character was amusing. He revealed a comic verve that I hadn’t previously noted in previous roles. However, Adelberto is not supposed to be droll. Vocally, his voice has bloomed into a heftier one, yet he is still a master of coloratura and has maintained his ease in the upper register. Roberto Fassi was a luxury in the not‑so‑major role of Berengario. His rich, dark bass had all the needed authority for the evil intriguer. Yet, one couldn’t see him as too imposing, having seen his backstage frolicking. The smaller roles were more than competently sung.

The scheduled conductor Francesco Lanzillotta had an accident shortly before the performance, and was therefore replaced by his assistant, Enrico Lombardi. However, even he could not save this production. The previously alluded to “filler” quality in the opera’s weaker passages remained an incongruous distraction. Perhaps this was the stage director’s intent: divert the audience from a weak plot and some tedious musical passages. If that was his intent, Arnaud Bernard was quite successful.

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