The comic works of Gioachino Rossini stand among opera's most irresistible froth. Never out of date, The Barber of Seville boasts music known to almost everyone — certainly to any viewer of Bugs Bunny. In the last four decades, Barber has been joined by Rossini's La Cenerentola and L'italiana in Algeri as among the most-programmed audience pleasers, even in smaller regional opera companies.
The only downside to this spreading of Rossinian joy is that it can press further back into relative obscurity the composer's towering achievements as a crafter of many powerful serious operas. In fact, prompted in large part by the pioneering efforts of two Americans (mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne and musicologist Phillip Gossett) and the Italian conductor Alberto Zedda, much about Rossinian opera seria has come to light in the last thirty years, and many of those works have seen performance at the composer's "hometown" Pesaro Festival and elsewhere.
During the 1990s, the Rossini bicentennial inspired a Horne-anchored Semiramide at the Metropolitan Opera; City Opera's main contribution to the festivities was a sparkling 1999 production of Il viaggio à Reims, a droll framework for a lot of virtuoso vocalizing. Among its highest achievers vocally was a dapper, seemingly fearless British tenor named Barry Banks, hitherto thought of by New York audiences as a charming character tenor.
When Banks returned to Rossini on the City Opera stage, in April 2004's Ermione, it was as anything but a charming character: rather, it was as the conflicted and haunted Orestes, caught in the romantic and political struggles following on the Trojan War. Striding the stage with passionate desperation, he sang up a storm, matched at every turn by the evening's leading lady, the lithely beautiful, vocally daring Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska.
For City Opera audiences, the wattage of this dynamic pairing in a largely unknown work proved an unexpected thrill, and the word-of-mouth on the street and the Internet quickly sold out Ermione's run.
It also evoked one of the great periods in City Opera history, during the 1970s and early 1980s, when, spearheaded by Beverly Sills, the company struck long-buried gold by mounting Donizetti's "Tudor Trilogy" and Lucrezia Borgia as well as Bellini's I puritani. With Sills as an inspiring fulcrum, NYCO brought forth a group of singers with roulades, trills and that certain larger-than-life quality necessary to the serious scores of Bellini and Donizetti: Marisa Galvany, Pauline Tinsley, Olivia Stapp, and John Alexander, with the young Gianna Rolandi, June Anderson, Susanne Marsee, Rockwell Blake, and Samuel Ramey soon joining in.
Can we be heading into another such era? Those whose pulse rises at such a prospect — as well as anyone wishing to hear some spectacular vocalism and an important Rossini score — should not miss the company's upcoming La donna del lago, with seven performances from March 22 through April 7. Rossini's trend-setting work — the first Romantic opera of many to be based on a work by Sir Walter Scott — premiered at Naples' Teatro San Carlo on September 24, 1819. It reached New York ten years later, in French, and has occasionally been revived in concert, though City Opera's production, a joint venture with Minnesota Opera, marks the first local staging in living memory.
Front and center will be mutually admiring colleagues Pendatchanska and Banks. She takes the title role, the nickname given to the beautiful and much-pursued Elena (Ellen Douglas in Scott's novel), the daughter of a clan chieftain rebelling against Scotland's King James V, who ruled from 1513 to 1542. James (or Giacomo, played by Banks), nephew of England's Henry VIII and father of Mary ("Queen of Scots") Stuart, had as a young man been virtually kidnapped by Ellen's father, Douglas, an earl. The basically jovial James — disguised as Hubert (Uberto) — pursues reports of a mysterious beautiful girl (namely, Ellen), and mistakes her gracious hospitality for romantic interest before realizing that he is in the house of an enemy.
The tuneful opera is by no means a two-person show; the accomplished team under conductor George Manahan includes high-flying young American tenors Robert MacPherson and Andrew Drost alternating the challenging role of Rodrigo (Roderick), a hot-tempered Scottish rebel and Elena's imposed fiancé. Two outstanding Caramoor Festival-seasoned Rossini singers also take part: Laura Vlasak Nolen in the rich mezzo "pants" part of Malcolm, the heroine's true beloved, and flexible bass Daniel Mobbs as Douglas.
Structurally and vocally, though, La donna del lago is dominated by Elena and her royal would-be suitor, and — interviewed in January — Pendatchanska and Banks simply couldn't wait to face its challenges and to resume their collaboration after their sizzling Ermione triumphs here and in Santa Fe.
The genial, articulate Banks, in rehearsals for Mozart's Don Ottavio at Opera Pacific, held forth enthusiastically: "Alexandrina's a sweetheart — I love working with her. She is such a wonderful singing actress/animal: very exciting. I say 'stage animal' because doing these kinds of roles you have to take on a passion, a physical commitment that I think we share. She's such a firecracker, so full of energy onstage: you'd better step up to the plate."
Pendatchanska, in Berlin for a run of Verdi's Luisa Miller, responded in kind. "With us it is never about competition, though it's exciting to sing with someone else who is so committed to this music. What Barry does is so difficult, yet he makes it sound so easy! It helps me. He never looks like he's suffering; and that gives me confidence also to be bold — even if I am suffering!"
Each singer identifies with one of the legendary 19th-century bel canto stars for whom Rossini tailored his roles both vocally and temperamentally: Pendatchanska feels an affinity with the first Elena, soprano Isabella Colbran, and Banks is drawn to music set for the first Giacomo (and Oreste), tenor Giovanni David.
Isabella Colbran (1785-1845), the Spanish singer whom Rossini biographer Herbert Weinstock terms "a true dramatic soprano capable of the most elaborate coloratura ... greatly talented [, with a] penchant for grand, tragic roles." The tall, handsome Colbran eventually (after some rumor-inducing years) was to become Rossini's first wife. In all she created ten Rossini roles, including the regal title characters of Ermione (1819, Naples) and Semiramide (Venice, 1823). The thrilling final rondo section of Elena's joyful concluding showpiece, "Tanti affetti," preserves a portrait in sound of her remarkable agility.
Pendatchanska attributes her Italianate grounding to the tutelage of her mother, Valerie Popova, a noteworthy lirico-spinto soprano who ranged from Fiordiligi to Tosca and herself studied with the legendary Franco-Italian soprano Gina Cigna, a famous Norma. "We had many teachers in Bulgaria who had studied in Italy with the finest Italian singers. I was lucky to 'grow up backstage' with this Italianate legacy."
The soprano commands a wide stylistic range, but it is the flexibility and accuracy that Mozart demands which have shaped her treatment of bel canto scores. In her initial years onstage — like a true 19th-century prima donna, she made her debut while still in her teens — she confronted the ultra-high challenges of the Queen of the Night with her flashing staccati and five high Fs. Pendatchanska's City Opera debut was as a supercharged Donna Anna in March 2002; this season she has been heard as Donna Elvira under René Jacobs' baton in several European cities. Her wide-ranging Vitellia in La clemenza di Tito has been nominated for a Grammy award, as preserved on Jacobs' recording.
After nearly two decades onstage, Pendatchanska is moving ever more towards the dramatic coloratura repertory, taking in Roberto Devereux as well as Bellini's La straniera and Verdi's I due Foscari. The parts Rossini wrote for Colbran have been central to that transition. "I feel very much at home singing the Colbran roles. She had a very large range, but not what we commonly think of now as that of a 'coloratura soprano.' Many of Rossini's roles for her lie rather low, and only go up to a high A or A-sharp. From the tessitura and from descriptions I read of her voice — initially a mezzo — I believe it was quite a dark sound."
As for the daring but stylish decoration that characterizes her bel canto vocalism? "I learned so much working with Philip Gossett on Semiramide; I try to apply his style. I try to be faithful, adding some variants, emphasizing the qualities that suit my voice."
Banks, expert in music from Mozart to Stravinsky and Britten, nearly left Rossini for good: he took on Barbiere's Almaviva right out of school and it almost put him off bel canto: "It's well known in the business that that's about my least favorite role, and I kept away for years. Fortunately I found my way back to this repertory — I adore Don Pasquale and L'italiana in Algeri, both really hard, but I think it's in this kind of music that I can really give something special of myself. When offered a new Rossini role, the first thing I want to know is: Was it a Nozzari role, or was it a David role? Then I have a pretty good sense of what kind of fit it's going to be to my voice. With David, it works really well nine times out of ten. Nozzari roles wouldn't be fun for me: I am not a bari-tenor with a freak extension!"
Giovanni David (1790-1864) obviously had extraordinary agility, but also remarkable lyricism. Andrea Nozzari (1775-1832), on the other hand, took on the role of Rodrigo in Donna del lago, with its fierce low tessitura punctuated by occasional sallies aloft.
Not that "David roles" are anything other than grueling. "For three weeks before, you're like an athlete, coaxing feats of athleticism out if your instrument. It ain't pretty at the start, so you have to put a big cover on the panic button. I don't 'mark,' I always sing full out in rehearsal. Then by the time the performances come this superhuman stuff is in your voice. If we're calling ourselves bel canto tenors, it's our duty to get ease of delivery in these [he laughs] horrendous roles! When I started rehearsals for the Minnesota run of Donna, I said, 'I am never, ever singing this role again'. It seemed harder than Puritani, C-sharp after C-sharp — those notes aren't natural, even to a high tenor! But by the time I got it sung in, it was fun, and I interpolated three more C-sharps!"
Both Alexandrina Pendatchanska and Barry Banks are very accomplished in their vocalism and deeply committed to the idea of bel canto opera as passionately dramatic. City Opera audiences recognized that in delirious ovations for Ermione. Now it's time to enjoy La donna del lago (and maybe hope for Zelmira and Lucrezia Borgia to come?). It is rare these days that operatic artists grasp their job description as aptly as Banks summed up his and Pendatchanska's shared perspective: "It is our job to whip the people into a frenzy — isn't it?"
David Shengold writes about opera for Opera News, Opera, Time Out New York, and many other publications.