Tancredi in Schwetzingen

Rossini’s Tancredi isn’t performed particularly often but it was Stendhal’s favourite opera and it’s not hard to see why both these things are true.  It’s got some really lovely music but the plot is pretty thin and it’s hard to cast.  It needs a very versatile low mezzo/contralto for the title role and a crackerjack soprano and tenor too.  I watched it in a well cast 1992 production from the Schwetzingen festival and enjoyed it despite some frustrations with the staging and the implausibly drawn out plot of the second act. 

The plot is a bit convoluted.  It’s set in Syracuse around 1000CE.  A civil war between Argirio and Orbazzano has just been settled so that they can unite against the greater threat of the Saracen general Solamir.  As part of the deal Orbazzano gets Argirio’s daughter Amenaide.  She’s not keen on this as she is love with Tancredi who is in exile with Orbazzano enjoying his lands and possessions.  Just before the planned wedding Tancredi shows up incognito and offers his services to the Syracusan army.  Then Orbazzano’s men intercept a letter from Amenaide to her lover (not named in the letter).  It’s intended for Tancredi of course but everyone, including Tancredi, assumes, on rather slender grounds, that it’s intended for Solamir.  Amenaide is condemned to death.  Although he thinks she has betrayed him, Tancredi decides to defend Amenaide’s honour and challenges and kills Orbazzano.  For some reason Amenaide doesn’t take the opportunity to set Tancredi straight on the letter.  He goes off to fight Solamir and is victorious returning either triumphant or triumphant and mortally wounded (alternative endings).  The mystery is cleared up and they all live happily ever after, or not.

The Schwetzingen production is designed and directed by Pier Luigi Pizzi.  The small stage has been extended to wrap around the sides of the pit but most of the “action” takes place pretty much at centre stage.  The scenery is simple flats and a few bits and pieces in a generally baroqueish style.  Costumes are also pseudo baroque in sort of muted jewel colours.  Only the odd banner and shield makes any sort of medieval statement.  Blocking is fairly basic and the whole thing really comes off as quite static.  There doesn’t seem to be any angle on the story though Orbazzano seems to be accompanied by plenty of first class crumpet whenever he appears which rather tends to undermine any idea that he really cares about Amenaide (and why should he? She’s a clause in a peace treaty!).  I won’t spoilerify the ending but if you do watch this disk watch it right through to the end of the curtain calls.

Musically this is very good.  Bernadette Manca di Nissa seems to have just the right kind of voice for the title role with the needed agility and power in her lower register and fine Rossinian style.  María Bayo seems much better suited to Armenaide than Rosina.  Her slightly cool approach and technical excellence really work here and she doesn’t need to be a comic.  Raul Gimenez sings Argirio in an almost Verdian way with bell like high notes and stylish legato.  Ildebrando d’Arcangelo is Orbazzano and his dark, somewhat coarse voice suits the part but he doesn’t sound like a natural Rossinian.  The minor roles are also well sung.  The voices also blend very well in the many duets, trios and ensembles. The orchestra and chorus are from Süddeutscher Rundfunk (for whom I did a radio interview aeons ago) and they are really rather good.  Gianluigi Gelmetti conducts a stylish and idiomatic reading of the score.  This is rather the sort of production and performance where one can wallow happily in the music without worrying too much about the stage action or lack of it.

The video direction is by Claus Viller.  It’s pretty good given that a fair bit of the staging is sufficiently dark to make filming difficult and he has only a very ordinary 4:3  TV quality picture to work with.  The sound is PCM stereo and it’s quite bright, vivid and realistic.  There are English, French, Italian, German and Spanish subtitles but no extras.  As a video production it’s adequate but showing its age.

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