Admirers of Rossini's vast opera seria output have been given two rare gifts in as many months: firstly the Royal Opera's La donna del lago and now Garsington Opera's Maometto secondo. Had this UK premiere been presented as a concert performance, it would have raised the roof more than once but with Edward Dick's Carry On Follow That Camel production, it fails to persuade us of Rossini's strength as a writer of opera as drama.
No attempt is made to tackle the issue of how to present Muslims on stage in the current climate and what we get is a grinning bunch of bearded thugs waving scimitars and a harem of belly dancing beauties. ENO's woeful Kismet comes to mind. If it's supposed to be parody, it misses the mark by a long shot, coming across as nothing but a very old-fashioned view of dastardly foreigners. Darren Jeffrey's bear-like Maometto tries several times to undress his erstwhile lover and it just looks gratuitous and unpleasant (what is it with Rossini and mauling, as La donna del lago suffered from the same problem?).
Conductor David Parry is a distinguished Rossinian (his English-language recording of La gazza ladra, derived from the Garsington production, is still the only way for many to hear a near complete performance) and, despite a thinness in the orchestra at times, he drives a full-blooded reading of a score that has more than just a few showy highlights.
The singing is also never less than respectable and rises to the heights at times. As Calbo, Caitlin Hulcup earned the only solo round of applause on the first night with her massive Act Two Aria and Stretta, and deservedly so, while the following trio of Hulcup, Paul Nilon and Sian Davies had a still intensity that was missing in much of rest of the performance, thanks not least to a lack of directorial distraction at this point. If one wonders early on why Davies had been cast as the virtuous Anna, it becomes fully apparent as the night wears on.
The acting leaves a good deal more to be desired. The singers need much more help than they get here. Mind you, although this is a score that can sound great on disc, perhaps its failure to transfer to the stage has quite a lot to do with the dramatic weakness of a pedestrian plot. Such as it is, it revolves around a marauding invader who turns out to be the ex-lover of the governor's daughter, bringing to mind Bashar al-Assad, a pleasant young man while studying ophthalmology in London, but a heartless butcher once back in his own country.
The city under siege shows few signs of distress other than a chopped-up Greek statue that spreads across a large part of the playing area. Otherwise, all is pristine, with a Dad's Army of grey suits, a spick and span Nilon as the governor and starched-within-an inch-of-their-lives nurses, one of whom is the prim heroine.
Rossini was ever the recycler and he was to revive Maometto for Venice, giving it a happy ending and pasting Tanti Affetti from La donna del lago onto the end (in the original Naples version presented at Garsington, Anna stabs herself to death). It then arose again in Paris in a re-worked version called The Siege of Corinth.
Rossini wrote 39 operas, many of far greater quality than their modern performance record would indicate. Any staging is to be welcomed but neither the Royal Opera's nor Garsington's recent efforts make the best case for them.
- Simon Thomas