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Miami Opera gives Rossini work its first US performance. Composer's call for vocal acrobatics puts today's singers on the spot

By Thor Eckert Jr. / December 14, 1987



Miami

The principal irony of the Rossini opera revival that the entire music world is experiencing these days is that, beyond Marilyn Horne, there are essentially no singers around capable of singing the music in the style in which it was composed. This thought stuck in my mind throughout the American premi`ere performance of Rossini's ``Bianca e Falliero'' with the Miami Grand Opera last week. This work had lain unperformed for 155 years until a revival at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, Italy, last summer.

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The Miami production was highly professional. The casting featured Kathleen Kuhlmann, an American mezzo making a major name for herself in this repertoire in Europe, and soprano Gianna Rolandi, who can sing more notes per second than any other singer alive. Rossini authority Philip Gossett was on hand to ensure that all the embellishments added to the music were in the authentic style.

This was a conscientious, seriously motivated revival, and it had the potential of being a real triumph for the Miami Opera. Unfortunately, the work itself precluded such a total triumph. Rossini's 30th opera was commissioned by La Scala, Milan, where it ran for an unprecedented 38 performances after its premi`ere in 1819, and was heard in several other major musical centers before disappearing in 1831.

It was written in the genre known as ``opera seria'' - literally translated ``serious work'' - in which the principals communicate in elaborate and florid arias and set pieces. It was also written for specific virtuoso singers, so the musical line is so often incrusted with runs, ornaments, and the like as to be distracting - a criticism that was leveled at the work even at its 1819 premi`ere.

Rossini wrote for superbly trained voices that could cope with even the most extravagant virtuosics and still have room to make music. As a rule, today's younger singers can barely sing a two-octave scale in evenly produced tones, let alone adorn a vocal line with Rossini floridities.

The trite plot is no asset. An angry father, Contareno, wants his daughter Bianca to marry the wealthy Capellio, but she is secretly promised to the noble, heroic General Falliero, who has just defeated the Spanish hordes. The father tries to force his daughter to sign a wedding contract (shades of Donizetti's ``Lucia di Lammermoor''). Later, Falliero escapes from a tryst with Bianca by jumping into the Spanish ambassador's gardens - and is arrested as a spy and traitor.

Contareno, a member of the dreaded Council of Three, uses his position to condemn Falliero to death, but Capellio foils the plan. Eventually, even Contareno gives in, and places his daughter's hand in that of the now-exonerated hero. To Bianca falls the finale, a dazzling - and grueling - showcase that Rossini used in his preceding opera, ``La donna del lago,'' under the title ``Tanti affetti.''

The finale of the protracted first act has its sparkling moments. The second act is tauter and more imaginative in musical style, but it comes strikingly into its own only in a much admired quartet and in that exuberant borrowed finale.

In Miami, neither Gianna Rolandi (Bianca) nor Miss Kuhlmann (Falliero) were able to sing with sufficient effortlessness to transcend mere note-spitting and really sculpt and shade phrases and infuse lines with emotional meaning - in other words, convince us that there is no other way in which their characters could possibly have communicated.

In this respect, Miss Rolandi fared better than Miss Kuhlmann, even though her coloratura soprano is no longer able to sustain a high ``C'' (which is five notes lower than the ``F's'' she used to toss off with almost gaudy abandon).

Nevertheless, she coped with this all-but-impossibly demanding role with flashes of grace, of tonal allure, and unflagging bravery.

Miss Kuhlmann's darkish timbre is appealing, though the top notes are rather inconsistent. She negotiates all the music, but shows us constantly just how much effort this entails, which robs her presence of the calm poise needed to really make an effect in this sort of music.

In the impossibly difficult role of Contareno, Gary Bennett revealed a scrawny, nasal tenor with no low notes at all, and an unusually strident upper range. Bass Jeffrey Wells managed Capellio well only when he was not pushing for sound.

The chorus performed well, though it sounded rather undernourished. In the pit, Willie Anthony Waters warmed up to the opera as the evening progressed, lending some genuine commitment and style in the second act.

``Opera seria'' is no easy form to stage, and director Francesca Zambello did not find a valid solution to the problem. Her singers lurched and mugged. They spent a good deal of time snatching documents from each other. At one point, they all played ``Button, button, who's got the button'' with a dagger. Falliero was made to look like a wimp; Bianca wandered around like a sappy Mad Lucy. It added up to a giggly series of ill-conceived tableaux.

Neil Peter Jampolis's unit set was topped with elegant archways that were neatly executed, yet the flooring was rough-hewn. On each side of a steeply raked platform were two three-level grandstands, all supported by an exposed Rube Goldberg accumulation of gold-plated pipes.

The curtain was a Venetian-blind-like affair. The set finally said nothing about period or locale.

But despite all these cavils, one could always appreciate the seriousness of this undertaking. The value of presenting an unknown Rossini opera for all to hear and judge cannot be underestimated (it will be broadcast on National Public Radio sometime next summer).

With this effort, Miami Opera has proved itself courageous and deserving of our gratitude.