CONCERT REVIEW Bel Canto with Flair

Opera Boston Performs Rossini’s ‘Tancredi’

Opera Boston

Cutler Majestic Theatre

Friday, October 23, 2009

For all of its expert craft, there are many non-trivial reasons Gioachino Rossini’s Tancredi isn’t one of his more popular operas. Large rifts gape in the plot line (Since when is Amenaide pregnant? Why doesn’t Argirio recognize the renown Tancredi when he joins his army? Why does Amenaide write a letter that is unaddressed and almost purposefully misleading?), while the drama portrays an affected and protracted moral code that holds very little in common with modern experience.

But opera begs some suspension of disbelief for the very least and, even at its very best, doesn’t require a moral tale at its very core. More than anything else, an opera is about the music and, in Rossini’s bel canto era, stunningly acrobatic singing.

Opera Boston’s vivid performance of Rossini’s work on Friday, October 23, 2009 provided much more. Artistically, Carol Bailey’s minimalist setting of Rossini’s opera in 1935 Europe was both subtle as well as imaginative. Bailey’s recasting subtly added elegant highlights to the storyline while remaining unobtrusive; a stoic backdrop of brick walls and the occasional baroque flourish provided a perfect canvass for the drama: Greco-Persian robes were traded for mafioso suits and fascist uniforms for military roles, civilian characters dressed in understated, yet strangely stately, interpretations of pre-war Europe.

Although at times overzealous or teetering on the edge of rhythmic stability during more melismatic arias, Gil Rose’s orchestra was vibrant and rang true to Rossini’s textures and musical colors, effectively enhancing Rossini’s sense of drama and, when appropriate, pathos without detracting attention from the stage. Also notable were choral passages ­— particularly by the men — that managed both fluid tone and remarkably balanced voicings. Also of note are both Linda Osborn-Blaschke (fortepiano) and Guy Fishman (cello) for a particularly effective interpretion Rossini’s late-classical/proto-Romantic continuo — a harrowing task often over-blown or under-played to the point of distraction by other companies.

And distracting from the action on the stage would be a crime; Opera Boston’s production of Trancredi marks the Boston debut of Polish contralto Ewa Podle in the title role. Podle’s contralto was large and dramatic, dipping down to a rich baritone at its very lowest while maintaining the flexibility and flourish of a well-trained mezzo-soprano in its upper range. This is perhaps what was so particularly moving about Friday’s performance: Soprano Amanda Forsythe’s radiant tone and incredible flexibility in coloratura provided a sharp contrast to Podle’s rich contralto. Arias that featured both were breathtaking — these virtuosically executed passages were performed with an ear towards what Rossini could only have dreamed of.

Baritone DongWon Kim’s Boston debut as the general Orbazzano was also a clear success; Kim’s baritone was rich and flexible — powerful without becoming lumbering or overbearing. Tenor Yeghishe Manucharya, as Argirio, seemed a bit more difficult; although clearly comfortable in the lower range, Manucharya’s voice became thin and constricted in the higher registers, often poorly disguising necessary shifts into his falsetto. Regardless, all four voices of the central drama became seamlessly blended in their ensemble work, culminating in a nuanced and poignant portrayal of the drama and pathos of Rossini’s rarely performed work.