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Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia
Review by Cameron Kelsall | Season Schedule

Also see Cameron's recent review of John

Brenda Rae and Stephanie Blythe
Photo by Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia
The composer Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) is best known today for writing repertory staples like Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) and L'Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers), and for abruptly retiring in 1829 at the age of thirty-seven. Yet his output extends far beyond those classics—he composed forty full-length operas between 1812 and 1829—and many companies are eagerly reintroducing some of his more obscure works to the opera-going public.

Last fall, the Metropolitan Opera staged his epic final opera, Guillaume Tell (William Tell), for the first time in eighty years; the new production also represented the company's first production using the original French libretto. The acclaimed mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato has made the title role of his 1819 melodrama La Donna del Lago (The Lady of the Lake) a staple of her repertory in recent years, and both the Santa Fe Opera and the Canadian Opera Company have taken stabs at his musically and dramatically challenging Maometto II. Opera Philadelphia is the latest company to try their hand in the Rossini renaissance; through February 19, they are presenting the company premiere of Tancredi in a production that originated at Opera de Lausanne.

Although Tancredi is considered Rossini's breakthrough opera by many critics and scholars, it remains a repertory rarity today. This is likely due, at least in part, to the opera's somewhat convoluted plot. Set in the city-state of Syracuse during the first century of the common era, the action revolves around Argirio and Orbazzano, two noblemen whose families are engaged in a longstanding civil conflict. When they momentarily set aside their differences to jointly fight Solamiro, an outside invader, Argirio betroths his daughter, Amenaide, to Orbazzano as a gesture of good will. But Amenaide secretly loves Tancredi, a soldier whose family was driven into exile some years before. When a letter written by Amenaide to her beloved is intercepted, her father and fiancé assume that her lover is actually Solamiro, and she is sentenced to death. Tancredi must return to Syracuse in disguise, risking his life to save his love, even though he too believes himself to have been betrayed.

The current production, directed by Emilio Sagi, updates the setting from the Byzantine Era to Europe in the years following World War I. This is an understandable choice; in the context of the interwar period, with nationalism on the horizon, it makes sense that a perceived traitor like Amenaide would be treated with such naked hostility. Despite this, the audience is left to do a lot of work for itself, as Sagi and colleagues fail to strongly define the time and place. The hulking granite sets (by Daniel Bianco) are little more than imposing; Pepa Ojanguren's elegant costumes are also fairly generic. Outfitted in a braided black military uniform, the title character looks like he just stepped off the barricade in Les Misérables.

Opera Philadelphia compensates for the lack of specificity in the production by providing an unimpeachable cast of bel cantists, led by the veteran mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe as Tancredi. At age forty-six, and nearly a quarter-century into her career, Blythe's darkly hued voice has lost none of its power or volume. Her plush voice easily fills the vast Academy of Music, with plummy low notes that seem to shake the rafters through their sheer force. Always a deeply invested artist, she acts the role beautifully as well, capturing Tancredi's unyielding loyalty to country in the beautiful entrance aria "Di tanti palpiti" ("These many heartbeats"). Opera Philadelphia has played an important role throughout Blythe's career—she sang some of her first leading roles with the company—and her return after more than a decade of absence is very much welcome.

The February 10 premiere served as the company debut for two fast-rising American singers: the soprano Brenda Rae as Amenaide and the tenor Michele Angelini as Argirio. Although the opera is named for Tancredi, Amenaide is the longest and most vocally challenging part. Rae possesses a large and agile voice, and she greets the role's myriad demands with aplomb. She executes trills with exciting flourish, and her fioratura is pinpoint precise. Her interpretation of the role is deeply moving—in particular, her delivery of the act two aria "no, che il morir non e si barbaro per me" ("No, death is not barbaric to me"), in which Amenaide sings that she would rather die than betray Tancredi, is both technically thrilling and theatrically touching.

Angelini shows himself to be a Rossinian to the manner born, with a voice that easily sails above the staff. His is not the largest voice in the game, but he has that enviable quality—often called ping—that allows his modest instrument to project clearly to the farthest reaches of the auditorium. Argirio is caught between paternal love and patriotic duty; Angelini conveys this duality well.

Philadelphia favorite Daniel Mobbs is an appropriately villainous Orbazzano. Mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita, another debutante, brings a lovely voice and noble bearing to the role of Isaura, Amenaide's confidant and defender. One hopes that she will become a frequent visitor to the company. Anastasiia Sidorova—a member of Opera Philadelphia's Emerging Artists Program and a student at Curtis Institute of Music—shines in the brief but memorable role of Roggiero, Tancredi's page.

Music director Corrado Rovaris is stalwart as ever in the pit. He offers a refined reading of the score, and shows himself to be a conductor attuned and sensitive to his singers' needs. Still, occasional coordination problems with the all-male chorus (prepared by Elizabeth Braden) persist.

So, is Tancredi a neglected gem? Yes and no. The score is beautiful, especially in the hands of the top-flight singers Opera Philadelphia has assembled. Dramatically, it can feel a bit stilted, trying the patience throughout the second and third acts (here presented together, after a brief intermission). We know that Tancredi will forgive Amenaide—it just takes a while to get there. But while you're waiting, you at least get to hear some thrilling music. Opera Philadelphia doesn't quite make the case for this opera's seamless integration into the modern repertory, but it does succeed in offering a world-class evening of music.

Tancredi continues at the Academy of Music (240 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA) through Sunday, February 19, 2017. Tickets ($19-209) can be purchased online at or by calling 215-732-8400.

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