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Rossini was a prolific composer of operas, having penned 10 by the time he was 22. But this flurry of artistry came to a halt at the age of 38, when he stopped writing operas entirely. While his comedies are widely adored many of his dramatic works have fallen by the wayside, including those that enjoyed great success in his lifetime. Ricciardo e Zoraide is one such work. Rossini worked on this early two-act opera seria, to a libretto by Francesco Berio di Salsa, during his time in Naples beginning in 1815, and it premiered at Teatro San Carlo in 1818. It was seen in European theatres for more than 20 years before disappearing from the repertoire. Its long-awaited revival came as recently as 1990 at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, the composers birthplace, where it was staged again in 1996.

This 2018 production of the opera (marking its 200th anniversary), overseen by Canadian director Marshall Pynkoski and featuring choreography by his longtime partner Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, returned to the site of its revival. It features a pair of superstars in the title roles: the great Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez (Ricciardo, a knight, in love with Zoraide) and the outstanding South African soprano Pretty Yende (Zoraide, daughter of Ircano). Joining them are Russian tenor Sergey Romanovsky (Agorante, King of Nubia, infatuated with Zoraide), Italian bass Nicola Ulivieri (Ircano, ruler of a part of Nubia and father of Zoraide), Russian mezzo-soprano Victoria Yarovaya (Zomira, wife of Agorante), and Spanish tenor Xabier Anduaga (Ernesto, friend of Ricciardo).

The story is quite a simple one: Agorante has conquered the Asian prince Ircano and kidnapped Zoraide. Ricciardo comes to rescue her, in disguise as an African, and ends up in a duel with Ircano. Zomira, spurned by her husband in his obsession with Zoraide, plots revenge, and Ricciardo, Zoraide, and Ircano are all condemned to death. Agorante agrees to spare Ircano's life in return for Zoraide's hand, a plan to which she reluctantly agrees, for now. Ernesto arrives and, in battle, defeats Agorante's troops. Agorante agrees to the union of Ricciardo and Zoraide.

The opera is blessed with some superb ensembles and choruses, yet the main characters have relatively few solo opportunities. The two main tenors, Romanovsky and especially Florez, are called upon to sing in a high tessitura, with Florez belting out several perfecdy focused high C's in his Act I duet with Ernesto, "Qual sara mai la gioia," as they both agree to work together to free Zoraide. Romanovsky, gold-attired in an extremely macho role, doesn't show a lot of heft in his voice during his early aria "Minacci pur: disprezzo," which he launches by first checking his hair in a mirror. Yende is absolutely charming in her Act II duet with Florez, "Ricciardo! Che veggo!"--shunning him at first because of his disguise, then warming up with playful wooing once she recognizes him. She and Yarovaya (who boasts a warm and rich mezzo) have an icy but poignant multi-part duet, "Zoraide, e qui ten stai"? in Act I with barbed asides. There is some glorious singing from both women here.

Pynkoski's staging is marked by a gorgeous array of colours, especially in the costumes, in evocative use of large, delicate blue flags and fabrics waved aloft to simulate the rolling Adriatic in Act Is chorus of soldiers and explorers, and in the calming orchestral barcarole that follows. The latter scene is particularly stunning visually, with Ricciardo (spyglass to his eye) and Ernesto crossing the stage in a small ship, while a group of elegant women behind them on an overhead viaduct carry parasols. Groups of dancers play a major role throughout, as they did historically in productions of this type. They look lovely and move in elegant fashion, but sometimes risk getting in the way of the action. Conductor Giacomo Sagripanti and the Orchestra sinfonica nazionale della RAI make a fine overall impression in the pit.

The live recording took place in the Adriatic Arena, a large sporting facility that seats as many as 13,000, and as a result the acoustic is quite cavernous and not at all intimate. Singers are not sufficiently audible from some parts of the stage, so there is an inconsistency there. That flaw aside, the opera contains some exciting music and beautiful singing, and is eminently worth exploring.
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Publication:Opera Canada
Article Type:Opera review
Date:Dec 22, 2019

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