The first performance of Tancredi in Venice's Teatro La Fenice in 1813 launched Rossini's career. The theatre, following a fire, was rebuilt toward the end of the eighteenth century—and burnt to the ground again in 1836. A third La Fenice, the phoenix, has stood ever since, the site ever renewing itself, leaping across historical space. Though Rossini's career quickly became international, Tancredi reaching London by 1820, I find myself being drawn back to its place of origin. It is, of course, impossible to get there: the second theatre's destruction marked the end of a world of Rossini's opera seria, a world which also subsumed his final work in the genre, Semiramide.
The distance and strangeness of Tancredi strikes modern listeners and invites us to imagine the history of its performance: the intimate dimensions of Boston Opera's Cutler Theatre, after all, may not be entirely unlike the second La Fenice. But rather than revive the past, Kristine McIntyre, this Tancredi's director, updated the staging, setting it in the bellicose Europe of the late 1930s—though the precise location was left undefined. The chorus, split into two enemy factions reconciled by the betrothal of Amenaide and Obazzano, were dressed half in dark suits, half as soldiers. Three massive brick walls, patrolled at times by gunmen, stood at the rear of the stage, a large cloth draping over the central one.
Ewa Podles, a renowned and famous Tancredi, entered sensationally as the lights dropped and the central wall rose, illuminated from behind, creating a bright square centre stage. The silhouette of her long topcoat and Homburg hat, reminiscent of Michael Jackson's style of theatricality, was staged with no little cognizance of her celebrity. But the effect was spellbinding. As she moved toward the audience, she set in motion an entirely different vocabulary of emphatic dramatic gestures, carrying in her body a lifetime's experience of the role.
The authority with which Podles sang almost took over the stage entirely. Her powerful voice and extremely unusual timbre has been much remarked upon throughout her career; combined with the sexual dynamic of defiance in voicing the male hero, Podles made for an utterly compelling Tancredi. In her interactions with Obazzano and Argirio, Amenaide's father, she pulled dramatic and vocal punches, in a low register, that the men struggled to defend themselves against. After these skirmishes, Tancredi's duets with Amenaide, sung by Amanda Forsythe, were more sympathetic. The singers breathed from the same lungs as they worked their way up and down scales at close range, creating a satisfyingly grainy interaction of opposites: pure and rich tone, clean technique and full-throttle excess.
Forsythe did an excellent job with a difficult role, for it would be hard to recast Amenaide outside the part Rossini carved out for her, as a powerless woman subject to the whims of a patriarchal order. This production suggested Amenaide's pregnancy; when Argirio, her father, discovered that she (supposedly) betrayed him, he ripped off her dress, leaving her body vulnerable, scarcely clothed. But rather than compensate for this "dressing down" by singing louder, Forsythe maintained quiet control over every nuance of her bodily and vocal comportment.
Tancredi is crammed with images of "la patria" ("the country") and fidelity to "il genitore" ("the father"). Perhaps this symbolic mode has always been theatrically dated, even in Rossini's time, when it represented to nineteenth-century Venetians the odd, antiquated sense of nobility of eleventh-century Sicilians. Going into the theatre, I had been expecting to hear many dramatically dubitable repetitions of "al campo!" ("to the [battle]field!"). Yet, watching Podles lovingly placing her hand on Amenaide's, I sensed a more modern set of over-determined symbolic meanings unexpectedly coming into play. How would this audience react to the onstage enactment of passion between women, between Podles and the young and beautiful Forsythe? Of course, there was no reaction—at least not immediately or directly. But from a few seats behind me there were audible signs of irritation, especially towards the end of the long second act and through Tancredi's slow death in Amenaide's arms.
Near the end of the second act, during Tancredi's final, high-handed reproach to Amenaide, the traitress (in "Perché turbar la calma"), there was another interesting breakdown of communication in the auditorium. After insulting Amenaide, and before parting for the battlefield, Tancredi melts and sings "ma tu piangi!" ("but you are crying!")—an awkward dramatic turn-around that banks on a strong suspension of disbelief and the orchestra's assistance in making the sharp change of mood. Podles's attack on Amenaide was so strong, however, and "ma tu piangi!" such a contrast, that the audience took the juncture as comedy and began to laugh, though the laughter died down soon afterwards.
The comic element of Tancredi's tragedy was ambivalent in this production, but not only for the audience. In the long orchestral interlude (with the orchestra masterfully lead by Gil Rose) before Tancredi's "E dove son io?" ("And where am I?") Podles took the draped white cloth, slowly pulled it down, creating an enormous train behind her. The material finally cascaded down onto the stage as the orchestra shifted from a chaconne-style, minor key figure into the major. Podles relished this dramatic moment, the enormous piece of fabric standing in for her voice during this gestural episode. After it had fallen, she arranged it carefully across the stage, covering a small bench, sat on it, and began to drink from a hipflask. This ironic moment was almost unique in the production, welcomed as brief respite from high tragedy.
In terms of staging the play and communicating the drama, Rossini's Tancredi proves itself to be stubbornly resistant to adaptation. This production's alternation between barren modernist staging and bourgeois drawing room, between 1930's soldiers' uniforms and Podles's nineteenth-century topcoat, lacked decision, seeming to throw its hands in the air in the confrontation with many peculiarities of Rossini's work. Perhaps the rigidness of Rossini's solita forma has a controlling effect on modern performances, tending to make action into static vignettes and to turn singers into statues—Podles, excepted, of course, who has become accustomed to savour the opera's rarified air.
Observing this production make scattered references to historical periods, genres and places, I wondered whether the difficulty of "updating" this opera lay in the fact that it already contains its own image of history, pulling it into the past. But perhaps a better distillation of the problem of staging this opera is the scene where Podles sits on the bench, taking sips from a hipflask. This is scene funny: the tragic hero, who has not yet broken the spell of his noble innocence, seems to come by a moment of self-consciousness whilst sitting down for a moment of quiet. And Podles, who probably has as much a claim to authenticity in this role as anyone, for a moment, in the space before singing, puts that authority aside and reflects.
I think of Podles's Tancredi, sitting on that bench as Virginia Woolf's Orlando, another character famed for skips through historical periods, morphing and changing, always unaware of her immortality. In Woolf's story, Orlando lives for over 400 years; Tancredi has not quite made its 200th birthday. The question remains whether Rossini's written score can undergo magical, Orlando-like transformations to live as long.
Photo credits: Clive Grainger