Premiered on February 6th, 1813 at Teatro la Fenice in Venice, Tancredi (based on Voltaire’s 1760 tragedy, Tancrède) was Gioacchino Rossini‘s first successful foray into the realm of opera seria. The title character was based on a Norman knight called Tancred of Hauteville (not the Tancredi of Lecce whose star-crossed battle with Clorinda appears in Monteverdi’s 1624 madrigal). The plot is quite holey and the story progresses slowly, which is typical of opera seria: dramatic works where the action only takes place during long and boring accompanied recitative (sung speech)… when it isn’t interrupted by lengthy arias expressing a character’s (seemingly endlessly) specific thoughts. When sung well, one might actually wish for the character to think a little longer and a bit more often. When sung ill, though…. Bleh!
The music Rossini bestowed on this show is marvelously beautiful and dramatically apt. The overture was borrowed (this is Rossini, so what did you expect?) from his earlier opera called La pietra del paragone - a work sadly without enough paragon to keep it from disappearing into obscurity shortly after its premiere. At any rate, it serves Tancredi well (and vice versa, since it probably is the only bit of music from La pietra del paragone you’ll ever get to hear now. It is a minor miracle that there are recordings of this thing available!). The three main roles of Tancredi, Amenaide, and Argirio require nothing short of super-singers just to cope with their range and the virtuoso requirement - which is the main reason why the opera is so hard to stage these days. Three super-singers cost a lot of money!
The title role requires a true mezzo or contralto (he‘s gotta really bloom down there!) with great top extension and enough vocal agility to make your local auctioneers wonder why they can’t fit in as many words per second as the singer can fit notes into a musical beat… and sounds graceful while she is at it. Amenaide really requires a lyric soprano who can chirp with the best of the coloratura soprani out there (which is to say….an outsized helium-overdosed canary with a real voice). And then there is the unconscionably thankless role of Argirio: all the high notes and ringing tones and vocal acrobatics, and still only thirdly appreciated after the opera’s main couple.
And the story is:
Set in Syracuse, Italy circa 1005 AD: Tancredi, the young knight exiled since childhood from the city when his father (who ruled the city state) was deposed of by political rival, Argirio, returns to his homeland unannounced and incognito intended on helping to defend it against Solamir and his besieging Saracens (Moors)… And also to reunite with his sweetheart, Amenaide, Argirio’s beautiful only daughter. A complication arises, though, when Amenaide’s hand is promised to brash young General Orbazzano in return for his acceptance of Argirio’s status as the leader of Syracuse. Panicked by the notion of being married off to a brute she doesn’t love, Amenaide composes a letter to Tancredi - pleading for her rescue and deliverance and posts it in haste (and without addressing the envelope for fear of interception).
Alas, the fact that this is an operatic plot dictates that the letter just has to be intercepted and the addressee misconstrued to be Solamir (THE enemy!). Amenaide’s condemnation is led by Orbazzano and even seconded by her extremely (unjustifiably) disappointed father, who must now sign her death warrant for the crime of treason. Though he (idiotically) believes the charge against her to be true, Tancredi (still unrecognized for his true identity) promptly volunteers to defend her by challenging Orbazzano to a duel… and then proceeds to dispatching the brute so speedily that he doesn’t even get to sing about it (the chorus does that for us, which probably helps keeping this show from getting Wagnerian in length… And who would want THAT, eh?) before leading the Syracusians off into battle against Solamir and the besiegers.
There are two ways to end this tale on an operatic stage: the original Venetian audience loved the ‘happy ending’ where Tancredi returns triumphant after having slain Solamir and heard from the mouth of the dying man that Amenaide’s letter was actually meant for him (don’t ask me how Solamir would know for whom the letter was meant when he never got to see it in the first place. Since when is opera logical?). His reunion with Amenaide prompts a celebratory ensemble closing number that is sure to have the audience humming to themselves as they leave the theater.
Rossini (and other more dramatically aware folks), had a second thought and returned to the tragic ending that Voltaire’s novel dictates when he re-arranged the opera for its Ferrara premiere a few weeks later. In this ‘tragic ending’ Tancredi is victorious against Solamir but returns to Syracuse mortally wounded and learns that Amenaide’s letter was really meant for him as he lays dying on the stage - leaving the audience drenched in flood of tears (shed either in sympathy with the hero or in lamentation of the end to a musically spectacular evening… undoubtedly).
Whichever version is used, this opera is sure to wow you with its gorgeous music. Tancredi’s entrance aria, O patria, was a major hit - so much so that the exasperated Wagner parodied its cabaletta (the virtuoso final part), di tanti palpiti, in the Act III Tailor’s Song of his own opera, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. In fact, this very cabaletta is also known to opera buffs as the Rice Aria according to the urban legend that Rossini dashed this little tune off in the same amount of time it would take to boil rice for dinner. Below is three successive servings of this thing from 3 different singers (they are identified at the bottom of this article).
These are all from live performances of the opera, of course (not recitals, but the whole thing), and all three mezzi are premier bel canto singers of their generations… I must admit, though, that I have a weakness for #3, who appears as a jaw-droppingly perfect acoustical incarnation of the mythical Syracusian young blood on the RCA Red Seal label’s 3CDs box set recording of this opera. If she sounds good here in the live clip, she is downright flawless in the stereo recording (which, of course, benefits from retakes and sound engineering…. And, this being Vesselina Kasarova we are talking about, there isn’t the usual trade off at the expense of dramatic commitment either).
Of course, Kasarova has a rather happy history when it comes to Tancredi. It was her taking over of the role, sight unseen and music unheard, on two weeks notice for Marilyn Horne at the 1992 Salzburg Summer Festival (commemorating Rossini’s 200th birth year that season), that proved to be her big breakthrough onto the operatic A-list. She also sang the part to critical acclaims (and audience raptures) when she debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1997 with Eve Queler and the Opera Orchestra of New York… from whence the live recording clip came. The RCA Red Seal set, though, was recorded in 1995 when the singer was only 30 years old and had a clear clarinet-like voice with a rather intoxicating tinge of smoky melancholy mixed into its polish port wine-ish texture. She could have just simply sung the music with that mesmerizing voice and the CD set would still be worth paying more than $50 for even if all the other cast members suck (which they emphatically don‘t), but the lass was already a consummate professional then and decided to also give us perhaps the most dramatically believable portrayal of the role available on commercial recordings, too.
Hers is an introspective and psychologically convincing character who suggests many more aspects of Tancredi than one would expect just reading the libretto and perusing the score. His heroic credential is so secure to him that he doesn’t feel the shallow need to broadcast it by the volume of his voice; instead it is in Kasarova’s pensive piano singing that convinces of the knight’s security and blue-bloodedness. Her ringing forte when Tancredi has his moments of Italian hot-blooded eruptions seals the deal regarding the character’s alpha-manhood. The swirl of vocal coloration and easefully natural dynamic variations and rubato (at times employing all of the above on a single sung word!)… This is no singer singing rehearsed music, this is a live person consolidating his own thoughts aloud for us to shamelessly eavesdrop on. And that, is a hard illusion to pull off, especially when all we can hear is her voice! Listen to this clip below and weep in gratitude of Sony Music (who owns RCA label) for making this performance available to us all for posterity!
Her Amenaide on this CD set is the Italian soprano (and another regular at Opernhaus Zurich, Kasarova’s de facto artistic home theater) Eva Mei. I should confess that her pinched sounding voice doesn’t usually strike my imagination, but here she is very fine indeed as the designated tragically misunderstood heroine - and it sure doesn’t hurt that her voice blends splendidly with Kasarova’s during their 2 gorgeous duets.
Listening to the CD I often can’t help musing if Rossini wouldn’t have seriously considered writing a longer part for Argirio to sing had he someone like Ramon Vargas, the tenor-with-the-voice-to-melt-even-gay-girls’-heart, at his employ when he sat down to compose the opera. To be sure, Pietro Todràn, the original Argirio, must have been a fine singer… But Vargas is just…. Vargas. Even straight guys drool all over themselves by the 2nd bar of his Pensa che sei mia figlia! Then we get to the 2nd act and he and Kasarova launch into their characters’ duet, M’abbraccia, Argirio/ Ah se de’ mali miei, and the drooling positively escalates to a pandemic condition, affecting wide enough a spectrum of gender identities that Dr. Kinsey himself would have founded a new branch of sexual psychology just to study the phenomenon (okay, okay, I exaggerated a bit… But that doesn‘t mean that it is advisable to listen to this dude sing this music without a good supply of bibs and towels on hand!).
The supporting cast is all well done, of course, and Roberto Abbado’s work with the Munich Radio Orchestra and the Chorus of the Bavarian Radio is superb. I would say more about them (because they really do deserve a lot more than just a sentence’s worth of praise each), but isn’t this essay already long enough to wrap around the globe twice (with a few inches left to spare)? Really, if I haven’t convinced you of the purchase-worthiness of this recording of this opera, then a thousand or so more words would likely not make any difference (though perhaps the knowledge that the CD set‘s high price is really a bargain considering how it comes with BOTH versions of the opera - in their entirety - would?). Tancredi’s popularity faded toward the end of the 19th century when it fell completely out of the standard repertoire at all major opera houses…. and was only revived with the rebirth of bel canto enthusiasm in the mid 20th century, thanks in no small part to Marilyn Horne and colleagues. Now we are blessed with the likes of Bernadette Manca di Nissa, Daniella Barcelona, Ewa Podles, and the scintillating-beyond-words Vesselina Kasarova…
I am not sad to have missed Viardot-Garcia, Malibran, Pasta, and even Ferrier. I have heard the current crop of spectacular bel canto singers and I dare say that even Rossini himself would likely be thrilled to death to hear his music reverberating through operatic halls and even private dens (thanks to the stereo) today with them as media. If you have a passion for opera and exquisitely sung music, go out and buy a recording of Rossini’s Tancredi today. There are a few good ones around now, but if I could needle you a bit more for it, the one CD set of the thing that you can’t afford to not have is the RCA Red Seal box set with Roberto Abbado presiding over Kasarova, Mei, Vargas, Peeters, Paulsen, and Cangemi.
If you arrived here from my AssociatedContent’s Tancredi’s O Patria article, click here to return there… or not.
Mystery Tancredis from the sample clip: (1) Daniella Barcelona, (2) Marilyn Horne, (3) Vesselina Kasarova.