This year marks the 200th anniversary of the première of Ricciardo e Zoraide, perhaps the least successful of the operas written by Rossini for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples; the Rossini Opera Festival celebrates this anniversary with a new production by Marshall Pynkoski and an all-star cast.

Pretty Yende (Zoraide) and Sergey Romanovsky (Agorante)
© Studio Amatio Bacciardi

The plot is a typical example of Orientalism, in fashion in Europe since the late 18th century. A Nubian king, Agorante, defeats a Middle Eastern king, Ircano, and kidnaps his daughter, Zoraide, who is in love with the Christian paladin, Ricciardo. Ricciardo disguises himself as the African guide of the Christian ambassador, Ernesto, and manages to ingratiate himself into Agorante’s favour. In this way he manages to penetrate his palace and meet Zoraide, plotting her escape. After numerous quite incomprehensible plot twists, the paladins defeat Agorante, so Ricciardo and Zoraide can walk off happily into the sunset. Setting such a story on stage in this time and age is no easy task; Pynkoski stays clear of any parallel with today’s world, choosing a literal, old fashioned representation, which tells the story clearly, with no glitches but, alas, with no ideas. The sets by Gerard Gauci were reminiscent of 19th-century theatre, including scenery flats and backdrop, pretty to watch, but generic. The same could be said for the costumes, by Michael Gianfrancesco, with the women in embroidered robe à la française, and the men with garments reminiscent of generic 18th-century folk costumes: tight breeches and colourful vests. Dancers dressed in pastel colours were omnipresent, engaged in classic ballet choreographies which, together with the moon on the backdrop during the love duet and the starry sky in the finale, brought the sugar level of the production dangerously close to “corny”.

Juan Diego Flórez (Ricciardo)
© Studio Amatio Bacciardi

Conductor Giacomo Sagripanti led the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale RAI in a nuanced reading of the score, with a detailed dialogue between the orchestra and the “band on stage” (actually, off-stage), a device used by Rossini for the first time in this opera, which would have a strong influence on 19th-century opera. The military band, employed in the overture, sets the martial tone, leading directly to a chorus of warriors and the entrance of Agorante. The most interesting numbers in this opera are the ensembles: the four-part canon at the end of Act 1, the two duets in the second act, the incredible six part-a cappella ensemble during the scene with Ircano. Each main character sings only one aria, none of which are among the most inspired Rossini has written.

The cast assembled for this production could hardly have been better. Juan Diego Flórez, making his debut as Ricciardo, showed his undiminished expertise in Rossini. His high notes were bright and confident, his coloratura exhilarating. His legendary elegance was evident throughout the evening: his was a masterclass in bel canto.

Juan Diego Flórez (Ricciardo) and Pretty Yende (Zoraide)
© Studio Amatio Bacciardi

Pretty Yende, whose bright soprano was exciting and secure, sang Zoraide. Her style was maybe not always on point: she has beautiful super-high notes and a perfect picchiettato, and tended to employ them ubiquitously in her variations. Her legato and breath control were optimal, and her interpretation was a great success. Her love duet with Flórez was maybe the highlight of the evening; despite the corny setting and old-fashioned acting, their declaration of love was believable, and the second part of the duet (the slow part, in triple metre) moving and sweet. Sagripanti found a tender, affectionate colour for the accompaniment of the intimate scenes, like this love duet. He supported the singers with an impalpable, suffused sound, a sort of benevolent aura descending over the protagonists. Very effective.

Agorante, the Nubian king who kidnapped Zoraide, was Sergey Romanovsky, who made an impression last year in Pesaro in Le Siège de Corinthe, as Néoclès. Agorante is a baritenor, a classic Nozzari role, and Romanovsky was very much at ease in this tessitura. He was commanding and charismatic on stage, very credible as the warrior-king.

Xabier Anduaga (Ernesto) and Juan Diego Flórez (Ricciardo)
© Studio Amatio Bacciardi

A third tenor is included in the cast, the Christian ambassador Ernesto. Young tenor Xabier Anduaga (he was in the Accademia Rossiniana only two years ago) was maybe the biggest surprise of the evening. His voice featured a remarkable projection, beautiful high notes and general confidence and mastery of the style. He was (for some reason) portrayed as a high ecclesiastic, strongly channelling the “Young Pope”. The audience loved him.

Nicola Ulivieri, as Ircano, portrayed Zoraide’s father with a strong, beautiful bass-baritone, while Victoria Yarovaya, as Zomira, Agorante’s spurned wife, made the most of her aria di sorbetto, both contributing to the great success of this performance.