The Rossini Opera Festival this year presents the peak of Rossini’s maturity, Semiramide, together with two of his earliest work. Demetrio e Polibio was written between 1806 (when the composer was barely 15 years old) and 1808, under commission by tenor Domenico Mombelli, on a libretto by his wife, Vincenza Viganò. Mombelli had some sort of one-family opera company: he was singing with his two daughters, Maria Ester (soprano) and Marianna (contralto), in private perormances.

Juan Francisco Gatell (Demetrio)
© Studio Amati Bacciardi

This is truly the first opera written by Rossini, even if its first public performance was only in Rome in 1812, after La cambiale di matrimonio (Venice 1810), L’equivoco stravagante (Bologna 1811, also presented in this year’s festival, and L’inganno felice (Venice 1812).

The confused plot tells of the prince of Syria at the court of Polybius, king of Parthia, under the disguised name of Siveno, who falls in love with the King’s daughter, Lisinga. The king of Syria, Demetrius, claims his son back; Polybius refuses and war ensues. In the end the two loving fathers bless the union of the two youths for a happy ending.

Riccardo Fassi (Polibio) and Cecilia Molinari (Siveno)
© Studio Amati Bacciardi

The Rossini Opera Festival revived (with Alessandra Premoli) the successful 2010 production by Davide Livermore. During the overture, we see the backstage of a theatre: the curtain (on the back) is closing on a singer’s recital. The workers clean up, the singer signs autographs, the firemen check that everything is okay, and everybody leaves. At this point the characters of Demetrio e Polibio emerge from the pile of boxes and trunks left on the stage as ghosts and start telling their story. The narrative is multiplied through mirrors, through doubles of the characters that act and replace them when they’re not singing. The singers spark little flames in the palms of their hands and carry them, like true phantoms of the opera, while lit candles fly across the stage, representing love. All these open flames end up setting fire to the theatre, so that, in the Act 1 finale, the fire brigade shows up, oblivious of the ghosts, who run around singing and trying to avoid the firemen. The idea is original and beautifully executed: the ghosts manage to make the intricate, repetitive plot more palatable and less annoying.

Paolo Arrivabeni led the Filarmonica Gioachino Rossini in a rough but energetic reading of the score which, as may be expected, is not the best the composer produced. Still, he supported the singers well and gave life to this conventional music.

Cecilia Molinari (Siveno) and Jessica Pratt (Lisinga)
© Studio Amati Bacciardi

In the cast we had at least two acclaimed specialists in Juan Francisco Gatell and Jessica Pratt. Gatell’s light, pleasant tenor was very well suited to the part: his high notes were bright and easy, and his beautiful voice showed great projection. As the Persian King, Demetrio, he was convincing both as a loving father and as an enraged ruler, finding his best moments in the lyrical parts.

For the character of Lisinga, Rossini wrote musical pyrotechnics, but the coloratura and the high notes don’t always find a dramatic and theatrical justification: they seem mostly to exist as means for the prima donna to show off. And Pratt did show off, her high notes splendid and brilliant, her coloratura fast and precise, her legato smooth and moving. Her performance seemed to leave something to be desired: I remembered an emotion, a lyrical afflatus in her other interpretations that was missing here. But, honestly, this is probably due to the faults of the score, and not of the singer.

Cecilia Molinari convinced in the breeches role of Siveno. Her mezzo was secure and stylish, and her vibrato had an exciting flutter which made her interpretation engaging and charming. In the second act she gave an emotional, moving rendering of the aria “Perdon ti chiedo, o padre”.

Riccardo Fassi was a commanding Polibio, his bass well projected and stylish. The Coro Del Teatro della Fortuna contributed to the success of the evening with precision and interesting dynamics, showing a thoughtful preparation by Mirca Rosciani.