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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Ricciardo e Zoraide - Dramma in two acts by Francesco Berio di Salsa.
First performed at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples on 3rd December 1818
Agorante, King of Nubia unrequited lover of Zoraide, Bruce Ford (ten); Zomira, wife of Agorante and jealous of her husbands infatuation with Zoraide, Della Jones (mez); Ircano, the powerful ruler of a region of Nubia, Alastair Miles (bass); Zoraide, daughter of Ircano, in love with Ricciardo, Nelly Miricioiu (sop) Ricciardo, a Christian paladin who in turn loves Zoraide, William Matteuzzi (ten); Ernesto, an envoy of the Christian camp and Ricciardo's friend, Paul Nillon (ten); Fatima a confidante of Zoraide, Carol Smith; Elmira, Zomira's confidante, Alice Coote (mez); Zamorre, Agorante's confidant, Toby Spence (ten)
George Mitchell Choir
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/ David Parry,
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London. June 1995
OPERA RARA ORC 14 [3CDs: 69.36 + 68.40 + 45.00]


In the spring of 1815, at the age of 23 with the opera seria Tancredi and the buffa work L'Italiana in Algeri to his credit, Rossini was summoned to Naples by Domenico Barbarja, the impresario of the Royal Theatres of that city, the Fondo and mighty San Carlo. Barbarja contracted Rossini to compose two operas each year for Naples. The contract allowed Rossini, supposedly occasionally, to compose works for theatres in other centres. Barbarja's proposals appealed to Rossini for several reasons. Most importantly the San Carlo had a professional orchestra, unlike the theatres of Rome and Venice for example. The composer saw this as a considerable advantage as he aspired to push the contemporary boundaries of his own, and opera composition in general, into more adventurous directions. The San Carlo theatre was also scheduled to undergo refurbishment to include unequalled back stage facilities. Rossini established himself in Naples and presented the first of nine opera seria works he was to compose for the city on 4th October 1815. Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra was received with great enthusiasm in Naples. However, without the Spanish singing stars, Isobel Colbran and Manuel Garcia, and the tenor Andrea Nozzaria it had a lukewarm reception elsewhere in Italy. For the opera, Rossini re-used the overture from an earlier work and was to re-cycle it again for Il Barbiere di Siviglia premiered in Rome in February 1816 and by which usage it is well known today. Such re-usage was not uncommon as the overture was seen simply as a means of getting the opera started and the audience settled down. For the remaining music of Elisabetta, Rossini made good and imaginative use of the professional musicians with several innovative pieces. He continued this process throughout the nine opera seria he composed for the San Carlo in his seven year stay in Naples. Musicologists note the greater sophistication and complexity of his Naples compositions compared with the ten extra-curricular works he presented elsewhere in Italy in the same period including the buffa Il Barbiere (Rome 20-2-1816) and La Cenerentola (Rome 25-1-1817). The Thieving Magpie (Milan 31-5-1817) has many more of the characteristics of the Naples operas as would befit presentation at La Scala.

Ricciardo e Zoraide is no. 26 in the Rossini operatic oeuvre and the fifth in the sequence of nine Naples opera seria. In the third of the series, Armida, Rossini concentrated much of his artistic creativity on writing a work of visual display that would utilise the new backstage facilities at the San Carlo. In the succeeding Mosè, with its portrayal of the rising Red Sea, the composer again aimed at visual spectacle but also with significant musical innovation. There was no overture, but an opening chorus with solo contributions from the Pharaoh, his wife and son. After Moses turns darkness into light the andante quartet, Celeste man placanta, which Charles Osborne (The Bel Canto Operas) describes as one of Rossini's finest and most affecting ensembles, follows. It was through an early LP recording of extracts from Mosè that, forty years ago, I first ventured to investigate Rossini's opera seria. My quest was thwarted by lack of performances and official recordings until the Philips series starting with Elisabetta in 1975. Recording of other Rossini's operas quickly followed aided by the establishment of the Pesaro Festival in 1980, driven by the enthusiasm of the conductor Alberto Zedda and the American scholar Philip Gossett. The latter has suggested that Ricciardo e Zoraide is musically inferior to its successor Ermione premiered as mere three months later. Ermione is an adaptation of Racine's great tragedy Andromaque. I have owned a recording of Ermione for many years and having listened to it alongside this Ricciardo e Zoraide I am not convinced of Gossett's view. History reports that Ricciardo e Zoraide was enthusiastically received at both its premiere and San Carlo revival, as well as at its productions in Paris, Lisbon, Munich and Lisbon and elsewhere in Italy. Ermione, by comparison, was received with indifference at its premiere and was not heard again until a concert performance in 1977! Reluctantly I disagree with Professor Gossett, my intellectual mentor in this genre, and support the populist view. I will return more often, and derive greater pleasure, from this performance of Ricciardo e Zoraide than I will from my well sung recorded and performed Ermione. It may be that the eminent commentators who take a contrary view to mine are influenced by the author of the libretto, an Italian aristocrat. Although criticised by Byron for his libretto of Rossini's Otello, for he was no dilettante but a serious student and man of letters. The source of his libretto does not compare with Racine, but I suggest Rossini's music that had the populace humming the tunes in the street makes up any deficiency.

Ricciardo e Zoraide was regularly performed until 1846 when it fell from the repertoire until it was revived at Pesaro in 1990. The cover of the booklet, with its extensive and informative essay by Jeremy Commons, a performance history and complete libretto with English translation, shows William Matteuzzi as Ricciardo and Bruce Ford blacked up as the Nubian King Agorante, at the 1990 Pesaro revival. This recording was made in 1995 and the work was performed again in Pesaro in 1996 conducted, as here, by David Parry. Rossini's confidence and innovative nature is immediately to the fore with the use of a stage banda and the chorus in place of a formal overture. Elsewhere the composer's use of accompanied recitative and the development of solo items into complex and concerted ensembles is notable. The opera is set in Dongola in ancient Nubia. Ricciardo, a Christian knight, loves Zoraide who is also loved by Agorante the Nubian King who has captured her father Ircano. Keen to protect her position Agorante's wife Zomira facilitates the capture of the two lovers. The opera ends with Christian knights rescuing them and Ricciardo sparing Agorante's life.

Rossini wrote the roles for the particular vocal skills of the San Carlo singers including Isobel Colbran whose coloratura skills and variety of vocal colouring was renowned. In the Colbran role of Zoraide Nelly Miricioiu gives a performance of great technical agility, tonal variety and histrionic skill. This is well evidenced in the final scene as Zoraide pleads for her father's life and that of her lover before they are liberated (CD 3. trs. 7-9). In the high tessitura role of Ricciardo, written for one of the San Carlo wonder tenors Giovanni David, William Matteuzzi gives one of his best performances on record. He has not the tonal mellifluousness of Diego Florez but he sings the high florid tessitura of the role with accuracy and only the slightest, occasional, hint of dry tone or nasality. All the Naples opera seria used the glorious roster of the house tenors to the full. The vocal demands on Agorante, sung by Bruce Ford, are as considerable as those made on the role of Ricciardo, but demanding a greater strength of voice lower down the tenor range. For over a century it seemed that the tenor demands Rossini made in these operas were never going to be met again. Bruce Ford's assumption of a role written for Andrea Nozzari is a veritable tour de force. Whether in duet with Zoraide (CD 2. trs 11-13), glorying in his power or in his contribution to the wonderful inventive quartet Contra cento (CD 2. trs 15-16) leading to the dramatic ‘Let her be dragged to the deepest dungeon' (tr. 17) his well-characterised singing is at the heart of this performance. Della Jones as the scheming wife Zomira sings with evenness and a wide variety of colour (CD 3. tr. 2). Her vocal timbre is nicely contrasted with that of Nelly Miricioiu as Zoraide. Whilst recognising this is not a trousers role I did I hanker after Marilyn Horne's chest notes once or twice! Alastair Miles, as Zoraide's father Ircano, is tonally sonorous and steady and portrays the character well. Paul Nilon and the young Alice Coote are notable in the comprimario roles that are without weakness. David Parry's conducting makes the most of Rossini's inventive and adventurous score. As in all these bel canto operas recorded by Opera Rara the George Mitchell Choir play a vital part, but none more so than here where Rossini really made the chorus contribution really significant to the unfolding drama. The recording is typical with the clear solo voices set slightly back on the sound stage.

I have indicated something of the quality of the accompanying booklet. In my view Jeremy Commons' essays for Opera Rara deserve their own collection; they contain so many gems of information. Here, as in other issues, he also details something of the research that went in to deriving the performing edition recorded here. This may well have more music than heard in Naples at the premiere, as pages of the autograph previously stuck together, at some unknown time, have been opened out and included.

This recording from Opera Rara can stand alongside the various other studio recordings of Rossini's Naples period marketed in the last twenty years. I cannot envisage another recording of the work and even if one did materialise it would be hard pressed to better the performance and recording standard found here, let alone the supporting documentation of this issue. Just as I enjoy Aida and Don Carlos as much as Otello and Falstaff for their melodic beauty, without recourse to musicological ideology, so I enjoyed this Ricciardo e Zoraide as much as Mosè, Maometto, La donna del lago and Zelmira, the other undoubted innovative masterpieces of Rossini's Naples opera seria.

Robert J Farr

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