Rossini is still best known for his comic operas, and it is easy to forget that he wrote as many serious ones. Indeed, he can be credited with bringing the opera seria tradition into the 19th century with Tancredi, one of his earliest great successes and which was first heard in 1813. Stendhal described it as “a thunderbolt out of a clear blue sky of lyric Italian opera” and without it, one could argue, the tragic operas of Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi might have been longer coming.

Maria Markina (Tancredi) © Hans Jörg Michel
Maria Markina (Tancredi)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Set in Syracuse with warring families, invading Saracens and the little issue of a misinterpreted love letter, it’s a story ripe for opera. Rossini’s librettists based their 'heroic melodrama' on Voltaire, but only with its revision made for Ferrara later the same year as the Venetian première did it reinstate the French writer’s tragic ending. And indeed the happy conclusion was all that was seen until the Ferrara version resurfaced as recently as the 1970s. Cordula Däuper’s new production for Mannheim's National Theatre takes a pragmatic pick from the various versions (there’s a later, happy-ending Milan one from 1813, too), but concluding with Rossini’s fading string tremolos as Tancredi falls dead in his lover’s arms – is there a more dramatically understated ending in all opera?

Tancredi is almost a chamber piece: there are just six solo roles, two of them minor ones for servants, and a men’s chorus. But even in this compact presentation (the evening, with interval, lasts barely two and a half hours) there are fireworks aplenty for the singers, challenges that were met by all concerned. In the title role, Maria Markina made up in vocal allure for what she lacked in stage presence as the warrior hero. She was overshadowed in this respect by the intensely engaging Amenaide of Tamara Banjesevic, whose wonderfully textured singing also stole the show. Filippo Adami proved an agile lyric tenor as Argirio, florid and precise in his coloratura yet with his feet firmly on the ground, and he was a good foil for the eloquent bass of Sung Ha’s Orbazzano.

Maria Markina (Tancredi) and Tamara Banjesevic (Amenaide) © Hans Jörg Michel
Maria Markina (Tancredi) and Tamara Banjesevic (Amenaide)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Ji Yoon as Tancredi’s servant Roggiero also distinguished herself in her brief moment in the limelight in Act II, though it’s a shame Julia Faylenbogen’s fine Isaura didn’t have more to do. There was some excellent singing from the members of the Coro Isabella Colbran (presumably, since they don’t attract any Google results, an ad-hoc chorus separate from the National Theatre’s house ensemble) and the orchestra played with spirit under the baton of Rubén Dubrovsky.

Tamara Banjesevic (Amenaide), Sun Ha (Orbazzano), Katharina von Bülow (Isaura), Maria Markina © Hans Jörg Michel
Tamara Banjesevic (Amenaide), Sun Ha (Orbazzano), Katharina von Bülow (Isaura), Maria Markina
© Hans Jörg Michel

Däuper’s interpretative hand is relatively light. A wooden bridge, demolished by the warring factions at the end of Act I, links a central, earthy platform with the world outside, suggesting an interest in exploring the themes of bridging divides and island mentality that are undeniably there in the story. But it’s not taken very far and the staging as a whole is more innocuous than challenging, though there are plenty of striking stage pictures on offer. There’s an interesting line in having two children running around to represent Tancredi and Amenaide before their families were estranged, but not much more. That said, it’s a worthy exposition of a still neglected opera.