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1323 – Luca Pisaroni as Maometto II in the COC’s production of Maometto II, 2016. Conductor Harry Bicket, director David Alden, set and costume designer Jon Morrell, and lighting designer Duane Schuler.

Michael Cooper

Maometto II
Canadian Opera Company
Four Seasons Centre

Canadian Opera Company Four Seasons Centre Friday night Opera in the nineteenth century – especially the Italian bel canto version – was an exercise in the glories of excess. Excessively long, excessively opulent, excessively complicated – the operas were especially devoted to the excesses of the human voice. Voices of unnatural power, agile and forceful at the same time, perfectly tuned, sweet and pure at one moment, violent and agitated at the next , moving from high to low almost instantaneously – the spectacle of the trained human voice, awesome and exhilarating, was the essence of opera's glory.

And a hefty helping of that glory was in evidence at the Four Seasons Centre on Friday night in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Rossini's Maometto II, a rarely staged work of his from 1820. Maometto II may be the best-sung production of the season at the COC, and that's saying something at Alexander Neef's COC, where the quality of the singing is always extremely high. But this one may have topped them all, a tribute to the show's four stars, who bathed us in the magic of the operatic voice for three wonderful hours and then some.

Gioacchino Rossini's comic masterpieces, like the Barber of Seville, are so universally admired that it's easy to forget that he wrote many serious operas in his lifetime as well, of which Maometto II may be one of the most dramatic. Written for a sophisticated Neopolitan audience at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Maometto is based on a real fifteenth century Turkish sultan, Mehmed II, and his conquest of Venice. With its East-West, Muslim-Christian conflict, the story has undeniable contemporary relevance and although director David Alden has tried not to overemphasize the present-day correspondences, they're certainly still there. It's hard not to think of ISIS when Maometto and his ninja-like black-clad forces invade the stage in Act 1, promising torture and mayhem. And there's an odd belly dancer at the beginning of Act 2, representing wanton European sexuality, one assumes, watched over by a chorus of burqa-like veiled women.

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But what made the conflict of Maometto II come alive was actually less the staging, and more the music that Rossini wrote for the opera. This is not your Rossini of "Figar-o, Figar-o, Figar-o," but a dramatic score crafted by a master at juxtaposition, character, and sound painting. The standard aria has been almost completely abandoned for an integrally-connected score, that moves with speed and direction from beginning to end.

And David Alden's direction and staging of the opera was superb – simple and comprehensible, without a wasted gesture, movement, or piece of stage business. A stage and set basically black, white and gray in Act 1 reveals an enormous blood-red ramp for Act 2, when the action turns from mayhem to romance, but that ramp folds neatly back into the floor for the more sombre last scenes. And that sense of economy and precision was in evidence throughout the opera.

Until the principal singers started displaying their craft, that is, and the florid, expansive nature of the score and the opera itself became more evident. But it is a great credit to all the performers that their vocal perfection and resulting extravagance never once diverted attention from the basic drama of the work. The music always served the story, even when the story got a bit thin. (Basically, the plot line revolves around the fact that Maometto, the conqueror of Venice, has, unknowingly, fallen in love with Anna, the daughter of the leader of the Venetians. As Facebook would have it, "It's complicated".) Anna, in the end, turns into the real hero of the piece, one of the first strong nineteenth-century women in art, a line which runs from Elizabeth Bennett to La Traviata's Violetta to Anna Karenina to Carmen to Hedda Gabler.

As Anna, soprano Leah Crocetto was superb, with a clear, plush voice that could and did express every emotion Rossini lavished on her character, and he lavished many. Crocetto was eminently believable as the woman torn between her duty to her country and father, and the stirrings of her own heart. Every time Crocetto sang, she advanced our understanding of her character, with lines and phrases that were incredibly difficult technically. Like all the principal performers, the technical demands never got into the way of the music and the drama – a minor miracle.

And Crocetto's Anna, as wonderful as it was, competed for attention with the amazing mezzo of Elizabeth DeShong, playing, as a trouser role, Calbo, a Venetian General, and Anna's would-be beau. What a sound DeShong made all evening! She reminded us that a mezzo-soprano is merely a soprano with an enhanced lower range, so that DeShong traversed an enormous vocal compass in her part, with a thrilling timbre throughout. Her second act aria, reminding Anna's father of his daughter's loyalty, was a staggering show stopper.

And the greatness didn't stop there. Bruce Sledge made an effective and complex Paolo Erisso, head of the Venetians, whose agonies at his city's fate and suspicions of his daughter's loyalty, were effectively and poignantly portrayed. And then there was Luca Pisaroni's Maometto. It's a tribute to this cast that Pisaroni was matched in his brilliance by all his colleagues, even though his malevolent Maometto was a triumph. Frightening, decisive, assured at the beginning of the work, Maometto becomes a man undone by love in the middle of the opera, only to return to his belligerent self by opera's end. Pisaroni has a powerful bass-baritone, which he used to good effect, but it was his acting, in the accompanied recitatives that Rossini wrote for his character, where he was most chilling. He was completely believable as a half-civilized warrior throughout.

The COC has ended its season on a real winner, a spectacular display of the power and otherworldly skill that is the essence of opera. You'll probably never get another opportunity to see or hear Maometto II again, so it would be worth going under any circumstance. As it turns out, this neglected masterpiece has been mined for every dramatic and musical moment it has to offer. It makes the experience of opera come alive.

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