Works by Gioachino Rossini that were neglected for decades now regularly turn up in opera houses around the world, and one of the reasons is the Rossini Opera Festival, held annually in Pesaro, Italy, on the Adriatic Sea, where the composer was born in 1792. This summer brought the festival’s fortieth installment, a thirteen-day event that finished up on August 23.
Much has changed since the first festival in 1980, when Rossini was associated mainly with Il barbiere di Siviglia and a handful of other operas often performed in corrupt editions. The rof changed that by embarking on a program to perform systematically all of Rossini’s roughly three dozen operas in new critical editions. In 2021, with a staging of Eduardo e Cristina (Venice 1819), the cycle will at long last be completed.
The fortieth festival followed the usual format of presenting three major productions, of which two were new this year, L’equivoco stravagante (1811) and Semiramide (1823), plus ancillary events including a fortieth gala concert. The early-career L’equivoco stravagante (The Curious Misunderstanding)was first performed in Bologna, two years before Rossini’s breakthrough in 1813, when he scored majored successes in both the serious and comic realms with Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri. Since Rossini was only nineteen when he wrote L’equivoco, one expected signs of artistic uncertainty.
Yet they turned out to be few in what proved to be a delightful work (seen on August 19). Set on the estate of the newly prosperous farmer Gamberotto, the opera has a charming rural ambiance, like that of La gazza ladra (1817) or Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (1832). In Gaetano Gasbarri’s libretto, Gamberotto’s daughter, Ernestina, has attracted the attention of both the wealthy Buralicchio, favored by her father, and the penniless Ermanno, supported by two of Gamberotto’s servants. One of them, Frontino, cooks up a comic scheme that is surely unique. To rid Buralicchio of his interest in Ernestina, Frontino tells him that Ernestina is in fact a castrato who, because of Gamberotto’s wealth, no longer needs money from singing and dresses as a woman to avoid military service. The lie spreads, however, and soon soldiers haul the clueless Ernestina off to jail. Against the odds, things somehow work out.
The comparatively simple overture to L’equivoco lacks the “crescendo” theme that was soon to become a Rossini trademark, but most of the vocal forms familiar from Rossini’s Italian operas are present in quite well-developed forms, starting with a multi-movement introduzione, which culminates in Ermanno’s acceptance into the household as Ernestina’s tutor. Later in Act I Ernestina and Ermanno have a duet in four-movement form in which she begins to weaken but is not yet ready to succumb to him. The two-part cantabile-cabaletta aria form is also in evidence, and there are sparkling ensembles that conclude with characteristic rapid-fire patter song.
The delightful production by the well-known team of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier sets the entire opera (except for Ernestina’s brief prison scene, shown off to the side) in a salon in Gamberotto’s house, here heavily wallpapered (Christian Fenouillat was the designer). On the wall was a landscape painting with cows, which amusingly came to life (not with real cows) in Act II; there was also a bed that slid under a wall at opportune moments. Costumes (designed by Agostino Cavalca) were in the style of Rossini’s day, yet each had a special flair of its own—and the characters had elongated noses. Don’t ask why.
Vocally, the standouts were Teresa Iervolino, whose dusky, distinctive mezzo-soprano, enlivened by a sure technique, was heard to compelling effect as Ernestina, and the baritone Davide Luciano, who sang with verve and vibrancy as Buralicchio. Paolo Bordogna showed a sure feel for comedy in the buffo role of Gamberotto, but his singing was routine, and Pavel Kolgatin, though uneven, at his best displayed the flexibility and vocal trimness of a true Rossini tenor. Carlo Rizzi led the Coro del Teatro Ventidio Basso and the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai in a buoyant performance.
I wish I could report that the celebratory gala (on August 21) uncovered a future star or two, but the best performances came from the best-known singers. In challenging arias, each of the star tenors Lawrence Brownlee and Juan Diego Flórez showed what he does best: Brownlee brought suave lyricisms to “Cessa di più resistere” (Il barbiere di Siviglia, 1816), Flórez vocal brilliance to “Asile héréditaire” (Guillaume Tell, 1829). Michele Pertusi (literally) boomed out his part hilariously in an excerpt from the Act I finale of L’Italiana in Algeri, and Brownlee was pretty funny in it too; Nicola Alaimo offered another buffo delight with Don Magnifico’s aria from La Cenerentola (1817). In a more serious vein, Pertusi also excelled in the Arnold–Tell duet with Flórez, and Angela Meade offered a blistering account of an aria from Ermione (1819) that won an ovation. Rizzi was again on the podium.