Rossini Opera Festival 2023 – Eduardo e Cristina – with Anastasia Bartoli, Daniela Barcellona & Enea Scala; directed by Stefano Poda; conducted by Jader Bignamini

Eduardo e Cristina – opera in two Acts to a libretto adapted by Andrea Leone Tottola and Gherardo Bevilacqua-Aldobrandini after Giovanni Schmidt [sung in Italian with Italian & English surtitles]

Carlo – Enea Scala
Cristina – Anastasia Bartoli
Eduardo – Daniela Barcellona
Giacomo – Grigory Shkarupa
Atlei – Matteo Roma

Chorus of the Teatro Ventidio Basso

Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI
Jader Bignamini

Stefano Poda – Director, Set, Costume & Lighting Designer, and Choreographer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 11 August, 2023
Venue: Vitrifrigo Arena, Pesaro, Italy

Eduardo e Cristina (1819) is one of the least well-known of Rossini’s forty or so operas, probably unsurprisingly since it was hastily put together (for Venice while he was otherwise working at Naples) and is effectively a pasticcio as it borrows extensively from the composer’s own scores (and in one case a whole aria from Stefano Pavesi’s recent setting of the same libretto). Despite that, it was a notable success during his lifetime; indeed, individually some numbers are memorable and work well in their new context even if the narrative itself is slight.

Set in Sweden in the aftermath of a military attack by Russia, Stefano Poda entirely avoids any comment upon or drawing connections with the situation in Ukraine today or any specific war at all in this new production for the Rossini Opera Festival. Admittedly the opera itself is almost wholly focused upon the personal dilemma which arises once Eduardo returns from defeating the Russians, as the king, Carlo, plans for his daughter Cristina to be married to the Scottish prince, Giacomo. But she and Eduardo have already been married secretly, and have a young child, inciting the crisis at the centre of the narrative once that is revealed and Carlo seeks to have all three of them executed.

Rather than address politics, the production renders warfare more or less abstractly, in terms which are aesthetic or psychological, the former by way of the huge collage in high relief, at the back of the stage, consisting of human heads and other body parts and detritus (though sanitised by the use of essentially Classical sculptural forms) and flanked by full reclining bodies in plaster form, stacked in caged frames to the sides, like bodies in a morgue. The psychological element comes out through the use of dancers, virtually naked, but smeared with white paint to resemble the plaster sculptures around them, and whose gestures and contortions seem to express something of the conflict and anxieties which run through the characters’ minds (first of Cristina, and then Carlos and Eduardo once her secret is revealed) as the dancers interact with them, not exactly as their doubles or alter egos, but certainly haunting and externalising those inner tensions.

The almost constant ebb and flow of the dancers’ choreography makes the work almost a ballet, and if at times that becomes distracting, it certainly realises Poda’s stated aim of staging the opera ‘as if it were an exhibition of contemporary art’. Many in the audience (though not all) rightly appreciated the visual effectiveness and coherence of that idea insofar as it runs parallel with what is often described as Rossini’s generally abstract and Classically refined setting of words in his operas, rather than conveying the text more pictorially and emotively like his successors, such as Verdi, in composing Romantic opera. And the slower dramatic pace of his setting, which is essentially an 18th century opera seria in format (even with accompanied recitatives, here with fortepiano) also demands some sort of spectacle to engage modern audiences with such expectations of the faster, more integrated dramaturgical nature of opera which developed after Rossini’s career.

Poda also signals his intention ‘to search for the sense of union between Eduardo and Cristina between the concrete and physical’ and draws a comparison with other love stories where the two protagonists’ names similarly constitute the title, at least in apposition if not opposition, such as Tristan und Isolde. That prompts him to consider the implications of the ‘and’ between them, and it explains the reconstruction of various sculpted fragments at the end to form a harmonious whole. Or apparently it does, as the resulting form of two people entwined are placed rather unromantically with heads at the other’s feet, not their faces; but it evidently realises what Poda means by ‘the recomposition of this polarisation….in the resolution of a binary contraposition’ (that last noun doubtless more idiomatic in the original Italian, and presumably meant to carry particular resonance within this production’s aesthetic vision, given the sculptural and artistic connotation of the term contrapposto). Playing with such binaries is all the more potent in a work where the principal male role is written at mezzo-soprano pitch, and was taken by a woman at the first performances when a castrato was not available, as of course today.

Again, in principle, that makes for a stimulating and dynamic engagement with a story that is rather linear and fairly sentimental. But that resolution as staged here perhaps looks more like the solving of a brain teaser (or a wittily ironic reversal of the nursery rhyme, that all the king’s men could put Humpty Dumpty together again) rather than tell us, after such an abstract production, whether it is at a personal, psychological or social level that such wholeness comes. Despite what Poda says, the binary doesn’t appear to have been overcome as Eduardo and Cristina have simply swap their initially colourful attire for black, while the King changes his to white, and stands to the side at the end while Eduardo and Cristina embrace, appearing still as troubled as he was before.

Consummate vocal performances bring out character more straightforwardly, however. Anastasia Bartoli rounds out Cristina’s music with her ripe tone and fair use of vibrato, but faultless intonation ensures that her lines ultimately penetrate. In the trouser role of Eduardo, Daniela Barcellona grows into the role and brings a cooler, crisp precision, expressing unwavering devotion both to Cristina and the king, despite the latter’s rage. Although Enea Scala enacts Carlo as menacingly unsettled, he probably can’t help but to sing with his customary nobility of voice with solidity and evenness throughout his tenor range (Rossini writing such a patriarchal figure unusually in that register, instead of bass) rather than carry over so much a sense of the king’s harshness and inflexibility into the interpretation. But he does also successfully convey the king’s own personal conflict between political duty and private grief.

Giacomo is really something of a cipher, sung with composure here by Grigory Shkarupa (notably in that aria lifted wholesale from Pavesi’s work) even though he stands to lose Cristina once her secret becomes known, but in the opera’s happy resolution he generously yields her to Eduardo without recrimination. Matteo Roma sings the other minor role of Eduardo’s friend, Atlei, with a supple ardour if a little dry.

Jader Bignamini leads the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI in a well-paced account of the score, lending it dignity and order rather than excitability, on the whole, though with emphatic acclamations in the triumphant and choral sections. Certainly that balance is necessary within the wider, reverberant space of the sports arena beyond the self-contained stage and auditorium which have been temporarily constructed for the principal events of this year’s festival. The second, surprise attack by the Russians towards the end of Act Two – successfully repelled by Eduardo, causing Carlo’s reconciliation to him – is arrestingly augured by the forebodingly booming off-stage beats of a bass drum. But overall the orchestra’s poise supports the elegant vocal lines and the chorus’s sonorous contributions.

This is a thoughtful interpretation, which largely makes worthwhile mounting a rare and flawed opera that possesses little dramatic complexity, and it comes off with a notable degree of visual poetry, but sometimes the idea gets in the way of the musical drama.

Further performances to August 20

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