Life & Culture

Why Israeli opera stars are flocking to Italy's version of Glyndebourne

Pesaro is a town with a rich Jewish history and now growing numbers of Israeli Opera singers perform at its opera house


After a day on the perfectly organised beach of the Italian seaside city of Pesaro —white umbrellas lined up in uniform rows, two sunloungers per umbrella — I took my seat on a double-decker bus next to an elderly lady slightly overheating in her evening dress and jewels.

Though we were travelling to the sports stadium just outside the city, passing a sign that announced it is incongruously twinned with Watford, the passengers on board were all similarly well-heeled. Because this was no ordinary bus; this was the shuttle bus to the Rossini Opera Festival (ROF).

Italians love their opera, and Pesaro loves Rossini, its famous early 19th-century son whose most famous work, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, has long been a staple of international opera houses.

Thanks to the ROF, more of his works have become increasingly recognised worldwide having been lovingly researched, studied and, most importantly, performed again in his birth city on Italy’s Adriatic coast.

Visiting the festival has been something of a dream for me. Rossini is one of my favourite opera composers. I even named my cat after him. But you don’t have to be a fanboy to see the appeal.

If splitting the day between a white sand beach and delicious fish trattorie is your idea of a great summer break, then spending the evening witnessing the vocal splendour of some of the best interpreters of belcanto opera could just be the cherry on top of your cake — or the olive on your pizza. Nothing recharges the body and soul quite like sun, sea and sopranos.

Since its launch 43 years ago the festival has trained a new generation of belcanto singers who come specially to learn to conquer this technically demanding music.

It has helped launch the careers of superstar performers such as tenor Juan Diego Flórez, now the festival’s artistic director.

And this year the Israel mezzo soprano Shachar Lavi shone in the Cantata in Morte di M. F. Malibran, composed in memory of the famous singer by Gaetano Donizetti, Giovanni Pacini, Saverio Mercadante, Pietro Antonio, Coppola and Nicola Vaccaj on texts by Antonio Piazza.

The city also has a fascinating Jewish history: by the time Gioachino Rossini was born there, Jews had already been living in the city for around 400 years. Its beautiful Sephardic synagogue dates back to the second half of the 16th century, built during a golden period for the city and for many Portuguese Jews who sought refuge there.

In 1944, Pesaro was liberated by the Allied forces, which included the British Army’s all-Jewish unit, the Palestine Brigade.

Today the city has a Holocaust memorial in its main square, inspired by the German artist Gunter Demnig’s Stolpersteine, the now familiar brass plaques set into countless public pathways around Europe. Pesaro’s version takes the form of larger ceramic tiles in the pavement, showing reproductions of various documents and photos relating to Italy’s racial laws and the deportation and killing of its Jews.

The festival prides itself on reviving previously under-performed and long forgotten Rossini operas, giving them a new life on the international stage. One such example this year was the striking production of Eduardo e Cristina, which opened the festival.

This first modern production stunningly recovers a work frequently performed between 1819 and 1840, but which faded into obscurity after that.

Even though much of this opera is “recycled” from other works, it feels entirely whole and coherent. Quite astoundingly, the same music here provokes totally different emotions to those it rouses in other settings, such is the genius of Rossini, who frequently borrowed from his own work.

Much of this production’s success is down to Stefano Poda, whose direction, set design, costumes, lighting and choreography are perfectly woven together to transform the work from a narrative piece into a thematic modern art performance.

One comes to Pesaro to hear brilliant music, but Poda reminds us that opera should be experienced on stage, stimulating multiple senses.
Metal scaffolds frame the stage on either side, piled high with white, corpse-like human forms.

A montage of broken, dismembered sections of ancient statues forms the backdrop, against which giant individual metal cages are mobilised throughout the opera to form prisons, rooms, and even an enormous statue cut into jigsaw pieces, only to be fully completed with the opera’s final romantic resolution.
Poda’s grand vision is meticulously executed on stage, mirroring the themes of the libretto and the emotion of the score.

His exceptional modern dance troupe, at times almost completely naked, are also painted a ghostly grey-white to match the set. Sometimes they are statues, sometimes ghosts, sometimes soldiers.

Moving with grace and athleticism, they shine particularly in a staggering, death-like limp across the stage, representing the bitterness of battle. Stark lighting and fluid movement of all these parts results in a constant blurring of boundaries between the set, the dancers and the music.

This combination is put to exceptional effect, conjuring ideas that complement but never upstage the opera itself: fallen monuments to great powers emphasise the contrast between the horrors of war and the joy of victory; a king’s happiness at the death of enemies is contrasted ironically with his daughter’s sadness in forbidden love; and the love of father and daughter is shown clashing with her love for her clandestine lover and their secret child.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for director Arnaud Bernard’s staging of Adelaide di Borgogna, which took one of Rossini’s admittedly less accessible, historic operas and attempted to turn it into a pantomime.

Struggling to give it a modern twist, he reaches for the cliché of staging the opera as a rehearsal, backstage in an opera house.

The story is set in the Middle Ages. King Berengario has murdered the legitimate ruler of Italy, Lotario, and then tries to coerce Adelaide, Lotario’s widow, into marrying his son Adelberto in order to solidify his hold on the throne.

Bernard superimposes over the serious plot and delicate music a peculiar mime-show of hammy acting, in which the singers flirt with and kiss one another while having tantrums about their costumes and their director’s stage instructions.

If this meta-theatrical concept seems intriguing during the overture, it quickly becomes massively distracting from and disrespectful to the main opera, and to the labours of the singers themselves who have to battle with not only the intricacies of the music, but also the peculiarity of a totally disconnected side show.

Despite attempts to intertwine the stories, there really is no synergy between them. By the end, the opera-within-a-farce idea thankfully fades away, the set now made up almost entirely of a medieval cathedral wedding, reminding us of what might have been.

Aureliano in Palmira was more traditionally staged. The historical plot focuses on the Roman emperor Aureliano’s conquest of the Middle East and his war against Queen Zenobia.

This is played out as a love story (well, it is an opera), with Zenobia and Arsace, the military leader defending the city of Palmira, enjoying three exquisite duets.

Sara Blanch as Zenobia and Raffaella Lupinacci as Arsace blended well together to provide some of the many memorable musical moments of the festival, reminding us that to hear Rossini well sung, there really is nowhere quite like Pesaro.

The ROF doesn’t just celebrate the music of Rossini, it also holds concerts including works by other belcanto composers.

According to the notes, the Cantata, sung this year by Lavi, was not performed after its premiere at La Scala in 1837, a few months after the death of the artist in Manchester at the age of just 28. Rossini had referred to Malibran as a “wonderful creature, with her disconcerting musical genius”.

Lavi’s performance was nuanced and sensitive not just to the technical requirements of the music but also the emotional character of the material. Her impressive handling of the music is enhanced greatly by her obvious emotional response to it.

Talking to me the day before her performance, her excitement to be returning to the festival after her debut there in 2014’s Viaggio a Reims is palpable. “Here, you can hear things musically that you don’t hear anywhere else,” she said. It is clear that performing at Pesaro is not only a treat for the audience but also for the artists.

For Lavi, performing in Pesaro seems almost a pilgrimage as much as a performance. “I come with my knowledge as a performer, as a musician, how I think this music should be done, but the public that come here just come because they love it.

They are very excited to hear this kind of music that you do not hear anywhere else, and they know that they will hear it right, because the singers who come here are specialists. To come to the heart of belcanto to hear belcanto is very exciting.”

Lavi joins the ranks of other Israeli and Jewish artists to perform at the festival over recent years, including the Israeli mezzo sopranos Zehava Gal and Hadar Halevy, soprano Hila Baggio, pianist Maria Nikitin and conductor Yuval Zorn.

If the idea of an opera festival seems fancy or posh to some, they’ll have missed the point. In Italy opera feels as much part of appreciating the beauty of life as the beach and good food, and this festival proves that point.

Opera is for everyone, and Rossini delivers something for everyone, whether romantically, historically, tragically or comically; as with so much in Italy, it’s all about the beauty.

Glyndebourne and Garsington are fun, for sure. But Pesaro could well be the new highlight of my opera year.

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