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7th annual Rossini Opera Festival hits a high note

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A SUMMER'S evening. A seaside village. A full moon reflected across the waters of the Adriatic. Suddenly the night air is rent by a burst of applause, then the sound of a symphony orchestra. The scene: the Piazza del Popolo. The occasion: an outdoor concert. The seaside resort: Pesaro, the city in which Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini was born almost 200 years ago, and which today honors him with an annual Rossini Opera Festival each August and September. (This year's started July 30 and ends Sept. 18, the longest yet.) Now in its seventh season, the festival aspires to the kind of international prominence enjoyed by Salzburg's Mozart Festival.

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Located on the coast of Italy, Pesaro is a quiet, bucolic town of just under 100,000 inhabitants. Here, on Via Rossini (a street less than a mile in length that runs at a right angle to the seashore) is the narrow, four-story brick house where Rossini was born on Feb. 29, 1792; here is the town's main square, the Piazza del Popolo, and the Teatro G. Rossini, the center of the festival.

Known originally as the Teatro del Sole when it was founded in 1637, the house has gone through a series of renovations and reconstructions because of repeated fires and the ravages of World War II. Today it is a small jewel of an opera house, the interior laid out in the horseshoe shape so popular during the baroque era. It seats less than 100 on the main floor, above which rise four tiers of boxes surmounted by a gallery for standees. The acoustics are excellent.

As the festival has grown, the need for performance space has grown as well. This year's festival has been greatly expanded to include concerts in the main square, each of which has been televised throughout Italy. And the auditorium of a music conservatory that occupies the 18th-century Palazzo Olivieri-Machirelli has been fitted to serve as an additional spot for opera productions.

The festival has seen performances by Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarotti, and an indoor concert by Monserrat Caball'e. There have been orchestra concerts, museum exhibits, lectures, and even a series of piano recitals entitled ``Omaggio a Liszt,'' honoring that composer during this Liszt celebratory year.

But the high points of the festival have been the operas. Two of these, ``Il Turco in Italia'' and ``Le Comte Ory,'' were restaged from earlier seasons and presented at the opera house. The festival's centerpiece was the first production in modern times of ``Bianca e Faliero,'' staged at the conservatory.

``Il Turco in Italia'' is an opera about the making of an opera. Prosdocimo, a poet, goes about the stage, observing people on ``a beach not far from Naples,'' keeping notes, and meddling in events just enough to insure that ``intrigues, confrontations, and a happy ending take place just as if they were happening in an opera.''

I preferred the casting of three years ago, which featured a musically exciting Samuel Ramey in the title role rather than this summer's Ruggero Raimondi, who presented the part with force, but not finesse. Lucia Aliberti, the Fiorilla of the present cast, has a voice remarkably like that of Maria Callas, but with little of the musicianship. Goria Banditelli dealt adequately with the part of the gypsy girl, Zaida, producing a satisfactory, if not overwhelmingly beautiful, sound. Enzo Dara is a wonderful basso buffo, and, as the distraught husband Geronio, brought humor, superb timing, and musicianship of the highest order to the part.

``Le Comte Ory'' involves the ribald Count Ory in a series of exploits, masquerades, and ploys to win the amorous attention of the Countess de Formoutier, whose husband is away from home on a crusade. The festival production featured the youthful tenor William Matteuzzi in the title role of Count Ory, and the young soprano of growing international fame, Mariella Devia, as the Countess de Formoutier. Pier Luigi Pizzi's setting seemed a bit stark and cold for this light-hearted comedy of fun and frolic.

``Bianca e Faliero'' is an opera seria, a pageant opera made up of a series of ``set pieces'' -- arias, duets, quartets, and choruses. The book is trivial and a bit ridiculous. Set in the gloomy splendor of 17th-century Venice, the story concerns the fate of a young general, Faliero, whose success has led officers and nobles of the court to be wary of his power, a situation complicated by Faliero's love for the Doge's daughter, Bianca.

Richly garbed Venetians in silk robes of regal maroon moved among ladies sumptuously dressed in gowns of filigreed silk over satin. More ``choreographed'' than ``staged,'' each gesture and movement led from one magnificent tableaux to the next.

Conductor Donato Renzetti was the only weak link in an otherwise fabulous production. Insensitive to nuance, uninspired, and unable to make his orchestra -- the London Sinfonietta Opera Orchestra -- reach the heights of the score, he still did not mar a performance that ended with a standing, five-minute ovation.

Katia Ricciarelli, as Bianca, and Marilyn Horne, as Faliero (a male role written for contralto, as was the custom of the day), stole the evening. Their two duets, ``Sappi che un dio crudelle'' (``I've known a cruel god . . .'') and ``Va, crudel'' (``Go, cruel one . . .'') were moments of sheer beauty as they blended their voices in passages of melodic richness and intricate ornamentation. Horne's aria ``Qual funebre apporato'' (``That gloomy apparition'') stopped the show for three minutes of applause, foot stomping, and shouts of ``brava.'' It was the most exciting moment of the festival.