Opera Philadelphia's 'Tancredi' lures a Met star — and keeps her for a drag cabaret bonus

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Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe performs in Opera Philadelphia's 'Tancredi' Feb. 10 to 19 at the Academy of Music, and on Feb. 24 ventures into cabaret with the drag artist Martha Graham Cracker at the Theatre of the Living Arts.

The most identifiable composer in all of opera will show a rarely heard side of himself when Gioachino Rossini's 200-year-old Tancredi is resurrected by Opera Philadelphia from Feb. 10 to 19 at the Academy of Music.

Serious, introspective, modern, and ancient aren't words anyone would apply to the composer best known for The Barber of Seville, but they would to Tancredi. And that's why a formidable Metropolitan Opera artist such as Stephanie Blythe is going out of her way to perform it.

Typical of Rossini, vocal fireworks abound in the opera. "But a lot of it hinges more on beauty," said Blythe, 46, who is returning to Opera Philadelphia for the first time since 2000. "The difference with Tancredi is that a lot of it is very soft and expressive. It's all about intimacy. And there are melodies that are just chillingly gorgeous."

Conventional wisdom is defied in any number of other ways. The opera was written in a mere month in 1813. The composer was 21. Plot clarity, pacing, and depth of characterization can all be said to be superior to many of Rossini's later works, which often recycled the same music and compositional techniques so predictably the composer was nicknamed "Signor Crescendo." In Tancredi, only the overture is borrowed from elsewhere.

Then there are the endings. The opera survived into the 20th century with the kind of bouncy finale that operagoers tend to hear as an obligation of the genre at that time. Yet in the 1970s, another ending surfaced. The composer had written it for a later production, more in keeping with the Voltaire play on which the opera is based, concluding not with a bang, but a tragic whisper as Tancredi's life ebbs away. It's four pages of barely accompanied voice that harks back to the more dramatically spare operas of Monteverdi and Cavalli in previous centuries. 

"The music is able to describe silence," said music director Corrado Rovaris, "like the body leaving the stage."

"By harnessing the past, Rossini created something new," said Blythe. "We [mezzo-sopranos] never get this kind of music. We never have a death scene that includes an aria. We usually get our throats slit. Real quick.

"Cheers for Mr. Rossini. Thank you very, very much!"

Then, Rossini went back to his first Tancredi ending and seems never to have tried anything like that again.

Though Tancredi launched the composer's reputation in Europe, Philadelphia (never Rossini-starved) missed it, as did much of the rest of late-20th-century America. Though staged in Europe, Tancredi turns up in the U.S. mostly in quickly assembled concert performances. Blythe's only previous outing with the role is with the Washington Concert Opera (that used the happy ending), and she has been wanting to revisit it ever since.

Beyond the death scene, Tancredi is one of the few operas whose title role is sung by mezzo-sopranos, partly because -- in that era of gender fluidity -- the male warrior is portrayed by a female singer.

And Blythe has never been one to just follow in the footsteps of others. She often presents new music on recitals, premiered Ricky Ian Gordon's opera 27 (playing Gertrude Stein), and on Feb. 24 ventures into cabaret with the drag artist Martha Graham Cracker in a program titled Dito & Aeneas: Two Queens, One Night at the Theatre of the Living Arts.

However, the opera is hardly just about her. Opera Philadelphia general director David Devan and music director Rovaris, a Rossini specialist, had been talking for years about staging one of the composer's serious operas. In a Byzantine-era story about a disgraced soldier defending a noblewoman falsely accused of treason, Blythe was only one solution to several casting challenges -- ones eventually met by up-and-coming singers Brenda Rae as Amenaide and Michele Angelini as Argirio. Conveniently, baritone Daniel Mobbs, a bel canto specialist, lives in Philadelphia and was cast as Orbazzano.

All are singing their roles in staged form for the first time -- which is somewhat unusual for seasoned professionals. Says Devan: "It's a joy to see artists working on something that's fresh for them. It's more than just a gig."

That newness can be a minus in some areas of the opera repertoire with more symbolism-steeped characters. But bel canto opera has characters of action, described in music that requires visceral, in-performance brinksmanship. "We always have to do something special, to give a reason for why the opera is here," said Rovaris. "It can never be routine. When you have opera that is routine, it's the end. You deserve an empty house."

The production will look nothing like a typical bel canto outing. In a production created for companies in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Santiago, Chile, stage director Emilio Sagi updated the action from medieval times to post-World War I -- with architectural echoes of neoclassicism.

"It's very difficult to convey medieval times in the theater," said Sagi. "You have to have so much money. So I tried a concept setting it in the changing times of the 20th century. You could understand the chivalry of these people that the librettist describes."

That means the usual flashing capes used in this era of opera will be traded for uniforms. But Blythe, for one, hardly feels cheated from a costuming standpoint, considering the extreme opposite she has in store for the Dito & Aeneas -- under the guidance of John Jarboe, the visually acute artistic director of the Bearded Ladies.

That unlikely artistic intersection makes sense to her in terms of a 1970s TV variety show -- "like when an opera singer would be invited to sing with Sonny and Cher, or when Kate Smith would be on Donny & Marie."

"You'll hear opera in a way it's never been heard," said Blythe, "and you'll hear rock and roll in a way that it's never been heard."

Opera Philadelphia presents Tancredi Feb. 10-19 at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St. Tickets $7.50-$249, 215-732-8400 or www.operaphila.org.

Dito & Aeneas: Two Queens, One Night, 9:30 p.m. Feb. 24 at TLA, 334 South St. Tickets: $50-$250, 215-732-8400 or www.operaphila.org.