A fictional tribute to Rossini in late-middle age, staged at the Royal Opera House and chapel at Versailles and performed by Montserrat Caballe, Marilyn Horne and others, is the "Great Performances" offering at 9 tonight on Channels 28 and 15 (also at 8 tonight on Channel 24, and 9 p.m. Saturday on Channel 50).
It is a tribute in singing and vocal display by two of the preeminent divas of our day, with assistance from a handful of their operatic colleagues, plus chorus and orchestra. The format in which they function is a concert attended by the composer, mimed vaguely by actor Paul Brooke, surrounded by a theaterful of 19th-Century types in costume.
The staging, on the French site by Frank Dunlop and for television by Humphrey Burton and Yves-Andre Hubert, looks silly (Horne, for instance, sings excerpts from two of her more famous trousers-roles in a voluminous, red ball gown), but remains largely peripheral. What is important is the singing--much of it authoritative, some of it very pretty--and the playing, by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
Claudio Abbado conducts, constantly, it seems, at tempos that fail to assist the savoring of mood, word and bel-canto expression. The show-opening reading of the Overture to "La Gazza Ladra" is only the first example one encounters, but it is typical: The small orchestra plays scrappily and with inconsistent balances. Abbado seems to work hard at keeping the little band together; sometimes his efforts pay off.