You’ve probably already heard Gioachino Rossini’s early comedy The Silken Ladder (La Scala di Seta). Well, you’ve almost certainly heard the first six minutes at any rate. The overture is one of his most popular pieces for concert performance and on compilation CDs. Now Albuquerque’s enterprising Opera Southwest is giving New Mexicans a chance to see and hear all 90 minutes of it, with an open-air staging at the Albuquerque Museum amphitheater.
The Silken Ladder premiered at Venice’s Teatro San Moisè in May 1812, just a year before Rossini hit the big time with Tancredi and The Italian Girl in Algiers. The San Moisè was a small theater that specialized in ensemble-oriented comedy by up-and-coming composers; Rossini was a precocious 20-year-old who was using the venue as a laboratory to cultivate his skills, writing five one-acts for the company for three years.
They’re musically substantial, with especially impressive ensembles and extended finales (that for The Silken Ladder is almost 14 minutes long), and pack a lot of comic action into their 80- or 90-minute spans. Critic Raymond Ericson aptly described the piece in The New York Times as “a one-act delight, with a libretto as charmingly ridiculous as a Feydeau farce and music in Rossini’s most ebullient style.”
The characters may be familiar types (two young lovers, an older male wooer, a nosy servant), but the plot is driven by an amusing twist. Here, the lovers are secretly married (he climbs up a silk ladder to her bedroom window every night) and her guardian wants to marry her off to an old friend, with the clandestine husband to serve as witness at the bigamistical wedding.
Anthony Barrese, Opera Southwest’s artistic director and conductor for the Rossini, sees benefits in the production in addition to its inherent charms.
“We have an apprentice program for singers, and, like the San Moisè, we believe in giving young artists a first shot,” Barrese says. “So we do fully staged productions such as this one where current and former apprentices play most of the leading roles.
“This piece may be early Rossini, but it has a real dramatic shape and most of the characters have an aria that showcases their vocal skills, so it works perfectly for us and our apprentices. And the museum amphitheater is a glorious place for an outdoor opera, especially as the sun begins to set on a September evening.”
The Silken Ladder is also part of a long-term artistic initiative for the Albuquerque-based company, which is to produce most of Rossini’s output.
“We’ve done about half of his operas that I want to do,” says Barrese, “and have now staged more different operas by him than any company in the country, except for the Metropolitan Opera. They’ve done 10 and this will be our ninth.”
The company started with the three most famous comedies, The Barber of Seville, Cinderella, and The Italian Girl in Algiers, then headed into less-familiar territory with Tancredi, The Turk in Italy, William Tell, and Otello. (Yes, Rossini wrote one, as did Giuseppe Verdi.) Two more Rossini operas are in the pipeline in the seasons following The Silken Ladder. With any luck, Opera Southwest will beat out the Met for first place at some time during 2023.
The Silken Ladder will be sung in Italian with English translations available on smartphones via the LiveNote app. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10 through Sunday, Sept. 12, at the Albuquerque Museum, 2000 Mountain Road NW. Tickets, which are $35, are available at operasouthwest.org.