A great number of works from the bel canto era and before have not found their way into the current operatic repertoire, generally for good reason: many are flawed, dated or just not particularly distinguished. Garsington Opera have just proved to us that Rossini’s Maometto Secondo is not one of those. This is its first ever fully staged production in the United Kingdom; I’m certain it’s going to be the first of many.

Darren Jeffery as Maometto II © Mike Hoban
Darren Jeffery as Maometto II
© Mike Hoban

Maometto Secondo is set in the 1470s at a time when the Venetian colony of Negroponte (on the Greek island of Euboea) was under siege from by the Turks. The man of the title role was known in Shakespeare’s day as “The Grand Turk”; in modern English, he is called “Mehmet II” or “Mehmet the Conqueror”. He was celebrated for military success in the expansion of the nascent Ottoman Empire, accompanied by immense brutality. The first act of the opera is set inside the citadel as battle rages outside and the Turks close in. It’s a chilling depiction of the terrors of sitting in a city that’s about to be ransacked.

The vocal performance of the night, in the face of stiff competition, came from Paul Nilon as the Venetian governor Paolo Erisso. Nilon has a gift for Rossinian coloratura: where other tenors might leave you with the not unreasonable impression that singing filigree runs at such a fast pace might be difficult, Nilon is actually able to accelerate through them, bursting into full power at the end of the run. It’s the sort of high risk singing that makes Rossini into a real thrill.

The singers of the other three main roles all but matched Nilon. In the title role, Darren Jeffery came close to the same coloratura thrill levels while projecting immense power and giving a thoroughly credible acting performance as the brutal, violent sultan who can be softened by love but is utterly incapable of understanding the feelings of Anna (Erisso’s daughter). She may have loved him in the past, but she can’t cope with the fact that he has come out of disguise and has turned out to be her family and country’s most hated enemy.

As Anna, Siân Davies didn’t display the same confidence as the others in the coloratura passages – there was just a slight diminution in pace or volume when the decoration got really fast. But it was a fine performance none the less: Davies really projected the drama and the emotional depth of her character, with glorious tone and phrasing when things slowed down a bit.

Anna’s immense closing aria was beautiful, but perhaps the finest aria of the evening came from mezzo Caitlin Hulcup in the trouser role of Anna’s suitor Calbo. She sang the Act II “Non temer: d’un basso affetto” with vivid colours and heart-melting grace and nobility. Calbo is exhorting Erisso to understand that his daughter (whom he knows once loved Maometto) cannot possibly have been faithless; there can hardly have been a dry eye in the house.

And here, a word for director Edward Dick. The setting and direction were generally good, sets made of a giant fallen statue and an opulent Ottoman divan; I don’t have space to detail everything but I want to mention one particular technique. All modern directors of bel canto have to face the problem of what should happen on stage during a big aria. Any action has happened in the preceding recitative, so in the aria itself, time stops while the character expounds his or her innermost feelings. Several times in this production, Dick solved this by a simple device: a single spot light follows the singer of the aria as he/she moves around the stage, while everyone else goes into a frozen pose with the lights dimmed. Time freezes: it’s a very 20th/21st-century solution completely in harmony with an aesthetic of two hundred years earlier.

The individual singing was excellent. The trios were better still, with the blending of the voices bringing out yet more emotion. There are three important trios, starting with the terzettone (“big fat trio”) in Act I, an extraordinary scene filled with effects: at one point, Anna is a line and a half into what is obviously supposed to be a perfectly normal cavatina when she is interrupted by a massive percussion roll to denote the Ottoman cannon fire, whereupon Calbo and Erisso promptly dash off to the battle, to return later for the rest of the trio. The subsequent trio between Maometto, Anna and Erisso was every bit as affecting, and most emotional of all was the Act II trio, near the end of the opera, as Anna, Calbo and Erisso contemplate her coming suicide and their expected deaths in battle.

This was a production up to the very highest performance standards – I haven’t even mentioned splendid chorus singing and orchestral playing under conductor David Parry. But it also showcased what a fantastic opera this is, departing from many conventions and reaching more emotional depth than most operas of its era. Maometto Secondo went through many revisions, not least because it became very politically sensitive when the Greek Independence War started in 1821 just after its early performances, and the score was lost for a long time. But various textual problems have now been resolved, and Maometto Secondo deserves a permanent place in the repertoire. Having said which, future productions will have a hard job topping this one. There are a few tickets left – go if you can.