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Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)
Meyerbeer in Italy

Romilda e Constanza, ‘Che barbaro tormento’
Semiramide Riconoscuita, ‘Il piacer, la gioja scenda’
Emma di Rseburgo, ‘Di gioja, di pace’
Margherita D’Anjou, ‘Pensa, e guarda; Amico, all’erta’
L’Esule di Granata, ‘Sì, mel credi’; ‘Iltrono avito’; ‘Trema i tuoi complici’
Il Crociato in Egitto, ‘Queste destre l’acciaro di morte’; ‘Ah! Non ti son più cara’; ‘Cara mano dell’amore’; ‘Sogni, e ridenti’
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/David Parry
No recording venues or dates given
OPERA RARA ORR222 [68.06]

 

To many Meyerbeer is known as the father of ‘Grand Opera’, and his talent is justly associated with the scenes of spectacle and splendour that were the hallmarks of his Paris operas. Certainly other composers, such as Verdi, felt the consequences of Meyerbeer’s influence when commissioned to write works for the French capital. Meyerbeer’s impact on Wagner is more problematic, and whilst the latter acknowledged that he owed much to the former’s approach to the stage, he preferred to name others as musical influences. Perhaps Wagner’s known anti-Semitism was influential in this judgement and attitude; Meyerbeer was born Jakob Liebmann Beer, the son of a wealthy Jewish Berlin banker.

A piano prodigy, Meyerbeer studied composition but his first efforts at oratorio and opera were failures and he took Salieri’s advice and went to Italy to study the human voice. In Venice in 1816 he heard Rossini’s ‘Tancredi’ and, captivated, he proceeded to write in a similar style to the great man and this influence is evident in at least the first two works in this selection of the six operas that Meyerbeer wrote in his nine years in Italy. All were, in varying degrees, successful. Despite pleas from Weber to return to Germany and that operatic genre, Meyerbeer went to Paris in 1826 for the production of his last Italian operas, ‘Il Crociato’, in that city, and was so attracted to it and French culture that he made it his home. Meyerbeer returned to Germany in the 1840s and was ‘Generalmusikdirektor’ in Berlin from 1842-1849. There he conducted his own operas as well as being responsible for the production of Wagner’s ‘Rienzi’ and getting the Berlin Opera to accept ‘Der Fliegende Holländer’. In 1863 Meyerbeer returned to Paris for the staging of his opera ‘L’Africaine’ on which he had been working for 25 years; he died before it was finally produced.

Of the six ‘Italian Operas’ featured on this disc the earliest, ‘Romilda’ was premiered at the Teatro Nuovo in Padua on 19 July 1817 when Meyerbeer was 25 years old. The trio ‘Che barbaro tormento’ (tr. 4) is very much in the Rossinian style whilst lacking the latter’s hallmarks when at his best. Chris Merritt, Bronwen Mills and Anne Mason all sing securely with the soprano top line being most impressive. The impact of Romilda was such that Meyerbeer’s next work, ‘Semiramide’, was premiered at the important Teatro Regio in Turin and the Act I aria ‘Il piacer’ is sung with full vibrantly expressive tone by Yvonne Kenny (tr. 5). The canonic sexet from ‘Emma Di Resburgo’ (tr. 6) started life as a trio in Semiramide. The opera received its first performance at the ‘San Benedetto’ in Venice in June 1819 shortly after Rossini’s ‘Edoardo e Cristina’, which was largely made up of self borrowings. In ‘Emma’, Meyerbeer moved more towards his own distinctive style and the work was a huge success with the added bonus of establishing a lasting friendship with Rossini. The sextet ‘Di gioja, di pace’ features a strongly sung Emma by Bronwen Mills and the secure tenor of Paul Nilon as Norcesto.

The success of ‘Emma’, and with Meyerbeer now seen as the equal of Rossini, his next work, the fourth ‘Italian Opera’, ‘Marghereta d’Anjou’, was premiered on 14th November 1820 at La Scala, Milan, then, as now, Italy’s most prestigious theatre. It had a libretto by Felice Romani, the pre-eminent librettist of his day. The work is designated ‘melodramma semiseria’; by 1820 the practice of mixing ‘buffa’ and ‘seria’ characteristics within the same work was well established. The trio ‘Pensa, e guarda. Amico, all’erta’ (tr. 9) is for three basses. It has typical buffa patter as Riccardo, sung by Alastair Miles, puts Carlo and the quack doctor Michele, the buffa role, through a series of questions. Miles, Geoffrey Dalton and Russell Smythe sing and interact vocally very well. In the recently issued complete recording of the opera by Opera Rara, to be reviewed by me on this site, Miles sings the role of Carlo.

Following up ‘Marghereta d’Anjou’ was always going to be difficult for Meyerbeer and ‘L’Esule di Granata’, premiered at La Scala a few months after ‘Marghereta’, was less successful. Librettist Romani’s widow suggests that part of the reason was an anti-German cabal who regarded Meyerbeer as an interloper. Certainly the extended scene and duet from the work featured here show no lack of distinct and characterful melodic invention (trs. 11-13). Miles as Sulemano is particularly firm-toned and sonorous (tr. 12). However, it is really in’ Il Crociato in Egitto’ (The Crusader in Egypt) that Meyerbeer’s Italian period reached its apotheosis. The work quickly became internationally recognised as a masterpiece. Premiered at Venice’s ‘La Fenice’ it featured what is suggested was the last major role written for a castrato, that of Armando. Extracts from this work are interspersed throughout this disc (trs. 1-3, 7, 8, 10 and 14-16) and are taken from Opera Rara’s complete recording of the opera released in 1992. That recording includes the new music and revisions the composer made for subsequent productions that he himself supervised. The opening scene (trs. 1-3), originally written for the role of Felicia, was first re-written for the castrato Velluti as Armando before being transposed for the tenor role of Adriano. A younger Bruce Ford, with his clear diction and stable voice, has become the ‘house tenor’ in Opera Rara’s many excursions into the bel-canto repertory. He sings the scene with full tone, elegant phrasing and fine characterisation. From the initial version of the opera two other Opera Rara regulars, the soprano Yvonne Kenny and the mezzo Diana Montague as Armando, sing the extended duet ‘Ah! Non ti son più cara’ (trs. 7-8). One can appreciate to the full the demands and ideal delivery of the bel-canto repertoire. Likewise with the lower-toned mezzo of Della Jones singing the original castrato version of the aria ‘Cara mano dell’amore’ (tr. 10). Ms Jones’ contribution is notable for its rich wide-ranging tone and vocal flexibility. The great and famously grand finale of Act I is an appropriate highlight and conclusion to this excellent selection (trs. 14-16).

David Parry conducts all the excerpts with style and the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir take a full part when appropriate. The recording standard is all that one could wish for whilst the manner of presentation of the booklet details are less so; no words or translations are included. Whether it would have been better to put all 36 minutes of the excerpts from ‘Il Crociato’ together at the end, allowing easier appreciation of the evolution of Meyerbeer’s genius, is a matter of debate. As it is individual listeners can programme their machines for their own choice. I wouldn’t want that issue to in any way detract from either the enjoyment I have had in listening to this music so well performed, or the opportunity to better understand this period of operatic composition. Very strongly recommended.

Robert J. Farr

 



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