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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Il diluvio universale (The Universal Flood) - a sacred tragedy in three acts (1834)
Noè, (Noah) Mirco Palazzi (bass); Jafet, son of Noè, Simon Bailey (bass); Sem, son of Noè, Mark Wilde (ten); Cam, son of Noè, Dean Robinson (bass); Cadmo, chief of the Satraps, husband of Sela, Colin Lee (ten); Sela, wife of Cadmo, Majella Cullagh (sop); Ada, Sela’s confidante in love with Cadmo, Manuela Custer (mezzo)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Giuliano Carella
rec. Conway Hall (South London Ethical Society), London, October/November 2005. DDD
OPERA RARA ORC31 [71.21 + 57.21]

The influence of the Catholic Church on the lyric theatre in Italy even beyond the period of the primo ottocento was all-pervasive. This influence extended from the earliest operas when women were not permitted to appear on stage well into Verdi’s middle period. In the first decade of the 18th century Pope Innocent XII banned all forms of theatrical performance. This did not prevent wealthy art lovers, including Cardinals and Princes from commissioning lavish musical works for performance in their own palaces. With the likes of Handel and Alessandro Scarlatti around the operatic element in the music was evident. This was acceptable so long as the subject matter was biblical even though the audience was receptive to the sensuality of the often-convoluted plots. During Holy Week the festive atmosphere could extend to elaborate scenic decoration particularly when they were regarded as a climax to the Christian celebrations. By the time of Rossini and Donizetti, with the lyric theatre being popular among the masses, there were few restrictions on stage performances. Women had replaced the castrati and were seen on stage in all the appropriate finery, and where the plot decreed, seductiveness. However restrictions remained in respect of the Lenten period when it was only acceptable to stage a work rooted in the Bible. Rossini’s fifth opera Ciro in Babilonia, premiered on 14 March 1812 in Ferrara, fell into this category. Although announced as a drama with choruses it was an attempt at opera seria around an oratorio. When based in Naples his Mose in Egito, premiered on 5 March 1818, was described as ‘azione tragica-sacra’ in three acts, the last short act being preceded by an interval to facilitate the preparation of the stage set and machinery to represent the parting of the sea. When presented with the requirement to compose for the San Carlo during Lent in 1830, Donizetti fell back on the same format of ‘azione tragica-sacra’ that had served Rossini. It was the last such occasion that the subterfuge would be necessary even in cloistered Naples where the censors were very restrictive. His Ugo, conte di Parigi, premiered in Milan on 13 March 1832, and Parisina in Florence on 17 March 1833, faced no such restrictions.
Donizetti conceived the plot of Il diluvio universale himself, merely employing Domenico Gilardoni to versify it. It concerns the relationship of Noah and his sons with the neighbouring satraps and their chief Cadmo.  Sela, Cadmo’s wife, had espoused Jehovah, but is still in love with him. He agrees to take her back if she renounces and curses the god of Noah. Despite her inner conviction she does so, is struck by lightning, and the flood commences. Noah and his family escape over the rising waters. Fine in a libretto, less so in the theatre. As with Rossini’s opera, which required the parting of the sea, the visual realisation of Donizetti’s last scene was something of a disaster and a drawback to the reception of the work. The San Carlo had been provided with the best stage machinery of the time when it was rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1816. It reopened in November 1817 with Rossini’s Armida. This required lavish staging for Armida’s palace and enchanted garden as well as having the lovers descend on a cloud that becomes her chariot and, as Armida waves her wand, turns into her castle. With such possibilities having been achieved, neither Rossini in his sacred opera, nor Donizetti twelve years later, were being overly ambitious. Despite the last scene the work was fairly well received but never revived in Naples after the initial Lenten run.
Donizetti revised Il diluvio universale for performances in Genoa in 1834. Unusually for Opera Rara, who tend to record the original with an appendix of later additions, it is the complete Genoa edition that is the basis for this recording. For Genoa, Donizetti provided additional music, particularly cabalettas, which he may have felt to be more theatrical. This would certainly have the effect of taking the work further away from the restrictions, perceived or real, of the original ‘azione tragica-sacra’. There is also the virtue of the composer’s greater musical maturity, confidence and competence that had manifested itself in the intervening years and particularly after the widespread success of Anna Bolena premiered in December 1830. This work had launched his international career. The intervening period had seen the premieres of L’Elisir d’Amore and Lucrezia Borgia and the revision was followed, within a year, by Maria Stuarda and Lucia di Lamermoor.
The music of Il diluvio universale is characteristically melodic. Whilst that given to Noah is of a more serious vein, some of the jolly tunes that accompany the Satraps are on a par with early Verdi in not particularly relating to the mood of the plot. At the premiere in March 1830, Donizetti had the great advantage of the mighty physical presence and vocal prowess of the bass Luigi Lablache as Noah. Like Rossini’s Moses, Noah needs vocal weight and gravitas. Whilst Mirco Palazzi sings with good tone and legato his lean bass does not seem to me to have the ideal weight or sonority in the lower bass range to give the role its full due (CD 1 trs.18-22). Much of the weight of the drama falls on Sela, the wife of the Satrap leader who has espoused Jehovah. The role requires a dramatic rather than a lyric coloratura voice. Whilst Majella Cullagh’s voice has grown in strength, sometimes taking her into the verismo domain on stage, her upper voice and coloratura have largely remained flexible. I did though detect something of a flutter intruding from time to time as she puts dramatic weight on her voice. She has the heft to rise above the orchestra and characterises through variety of tonal colour and weight more than the words, which sometimes go wanting. She makes much of Sela’s introductory scene and cavatina (CD 1 trs. 4-5) and is particularly strong in her scene with Cadmo as Sela pleads for sight of their son (CD 2 trs.5-7). I do though feel she lightens her tone too much in the final scene as Sela is overcome and dies at her denial of Jehovah, when more variation of colour would have been preferable (CD 2 trs.14-16). These are minor considerations in what is a formidable performance in a demanding role. Manuela Custer as Ada is well contrasted vocally with her colleague. She sings with creamy tone but without convincing me of her fluency in coloratura or trill. She characterises well in her duet with Cadmo (CD 1 trs.14-15) but is over-cautious in her own big aria (CD 2 trs.1-3). As Cadmo, the unbelieving Satrap leader and harsh husband of Sela, Colin Lee’s light flexible tenor is rather monochrome. On the plus side his diction is admirable and his voice tuneful if with a somewhat nasal or reedy tone. The chorus who have, as in Rossini’s Moses, a significant role to play sing quite magnificently. On the podium Giuliano Carella, previously unknown to me, keeps the drama on course and finishes the work with a fine flourish (CD 2 tr. 17). The recording is good rather than outstanding and I would have liked a better roll of thunder as Sela is struck down.
This is the fourteenth Donizetti opera issued by Opera Rara, the majority, as here, being studio recordings. All have been conceived and supervised by Opera Rara’s founder, Patric Schmid, and his team. Tragically, he died at the concert performance of Il diluvio universale given during the recording. Without his vision and drive these Donizetti operas, and those by other primo ottocento composers, and which are their sole representatives in the catalogue, would remain names in a list. As a critic I have to comment on the details of a recording as I hear it. On a personal level, and particularly as a lover of Italian opera, I am immensely grateful for Schmid’s vision and drive, qualities that enable me to hear and enjoy works that would otherwise probably never come my way on disc or in the theatre.
I need hardly add that this recording is presented in the superior boxed manner that has always have been Opera Rara’s hallmark. Likewise, it is accompanied by a full libretto with English translation and an extended scholarly essay by Dr. Jeremy Commons. This essay, as always, gives previously unknown insights into the period of composition as well as the work under consideration. All lovers of Opera Rara’s work, and Donizetti in particular, will want to add this recording to their collection.
Robert J Farr



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