First some landmarks,
to help you get a feel for the territory
that this fascinating opera occupies.
A native of Mannheim, De Winter was
born two years before Mozart and died
a year before Weber’s early death (Weber
was his junior by 30 years). Vienna
trained, he received lessons from Salieri
and from 1798 until his death he was
Kapellmeister at the court in Munich
and conductor of the Italian opera there.
De Winter’s continuing
German roots are worth bearing in mind.
He is not a composer in the mould of
Simone Mayr, a Bavarian composer who
naturalised as an Italian, taught Donizetti
and was very influential in early 19th
century Italian opera. He did not specialise
in Italian operas. He composed in all
genres, symphonic as well as operatic
and his operatic repertoire stretches
from singspiel, tragédies-lyriques
and opera seria through to comic Italian
In 1814 Lombardy and
the Veneto were returned to Austrian
rule, so that German opera came back
into popularity in Milan and Mozart’s
operas (including Don Giovanni
and La Clemenza di Tito) were
played at La Scala. So it is not surprising
to find the Milanese authorities turning
to veteran Austro-German composer De
Winter for a new opera. De Winter had
concentrated on sacred music after the
failure of his operas in Paris in 1804
and 1805. Between 1816 and 1818 he did
a concert tour of Germany and Italy.
It was during the course of this that
he directed three of his operas in Milan.
premiered in 1817 to a libretto by the
distinguished librettist Felice Romani.
The opera enjoyed some success and received
45 performances; Rossini even mentions
it in his reminiscences. The original
cast were all Italian and had distinguished
themselves in Rossini’s operas; this
is very much an Italian opera, albeit
one written by a German.
This recording is based
on performances of the opera at the
Rossini in Wildbad Festival in Bad Wildbad,
Germany. The Festival authorities have
assembled a substantially Italian cast
(no mean feat these days when considering
performances of Rossinian opera seria),
with Czech orchestral forces and an
Italian conductor, Gabriele Bellini.
The opera’s overture
immediately betrays the work’s German
origins; a serious introduction with
its echoes of Mozart and Beethoven leads
to a livelier section, with Turkish
percussion which has distinct overtones
of Weber. But once the first scene starts,
the mood turns more distinctly Italian.
Written to an Italian libretto, constructed
in the traditional Italian manner with
the librettist providing all the set
pieces that a composer like Rossini
would expect, the opera would have provided
the Italian singers with a work in a
familiar style. But de Winter casts
a slightly skewed eye on proceedings,
giving the orchestration a denser, Germanic
cast (try to imagine Mozart’s orchestration
of ‘La Nozze di Figaro’ applied to Rossini’s
‘Il Barbieri di Siviglia’).
The plot concerns the
antics of the prophet Mohammed and is
not at all related to Rossini’s opera
of the same name. Romani based his plot
on a play by Voltaire. When listening
to the opera we must bear in mind that
the rather grisly plot was intended
by Voltaire as an anti-Papal and anti-clerical
play. As would be expected from an experienced
librettist like Romani, the plot is
efficient but rather unmoving and not
a little unsavoury to modern tastes.
The city of Mecca
is under siege by the Mohammed as
he seeks to conquer the city an
convert it to his new religion.
The people pray to their own gods
and Zopiro, the Sherriff of Mecca,
(Antonio de Gobbi, bass) urges them
on; Zopiro holds hostage a Mohammeden
slave, Palmira (Maria Luigia Borsi,
soprano); he laments the death of
his wife and children at the enemy’s
The slave Palmira
is missing her beloved, Seide (who
is also Mohammed’s slave). Mohammed’s
lieutenant Omar (Luca Salsi, baritone)
appears with overtures of peace
which are angrily rejected by Zopiro.
Palmira’s lover Seide (Gloria Montanari,
mezzo-soprano) appears having voluntarily
given himself up to the enemy so
that he can be with his beloved.
Na, tenor) appears at the city gates
and enters the city without difficulty.
He is angry at Seide for his action
in giving himself up. Zopiro agrees
to speak to Mahommed and Mahommed
tells him that his (Zopiro’s) children
are still alive. Zopiro however
refuses to hand over the city in
return for his children.
The city council
agree to have Palmira and Seide
freed as a good will gesture on
signing a peace treaty, but Zopiro
confounds them by producing a paper
which appears to prove that Mohammed
is going to use the treaty to open
the gates to his soldiers.
Mohammed and Omar
plan to kill Zopiro and force Seide,
who had sworn an oath to kill an
enemy of the prophet, to agree to
do the deed. Seide is horrified,
but agrees when faced with the loss
of Palmira. Seide is torn between
his duty to Mohammed and his feelings
for Zopiro who has always been kind
Seide attacks Zopiro
but fails to kill him. In the ensuing
melee, it is revealed that Seide
and Palmira are Zopiro’s children.
Mohammed announces a prohibition
on killing and arrests Seide and
that Zopiro is dying and has learned
the truth about his children’s identities.
Mohammed informs Palmira that he
intends to take her as his bride.
She is furious. On learning that
Seide has escaped she knows she
can die content. Seide appears with
an angry mob, but he falters and
Mohammed threatens all traitors.
After a final embrace from Palmira,
Seide dies, having been poisoned
whilst in prison. Palmira dies rather
than remain prey to Mohammed. Mohammed
now claims the power of life and
death over the people.
De Gobbi makes a noble
Zopiro. He is obviously something of
a celebrity in Wildbad as his first
entrance receives applause; throughout
the performance, arias are applauded
which can become annoying. De Gobbi
has a dark, grainy voice and is not
an obvious candidate for singing Rossinian
fioriture, but he is expressive and
efficient, though his passagework is
a little smudged. This is something
that applies to the whole cast, they
are all impressive but none of them
is perfectly at home in the passagework.
As the unsavoury Mohammed, Korean tenor
Sebastian Na sings with a fine, full
throated technique throughout. There
are moments towards the end of Act 1
when he seems to tire, but over all
he is impressive; though I could have
wished for a rather more subtle performance.
Na sings the part consistently using
mainly chest voice, in a manner that
now seems rather old fashioned. In fact,
stylistically all the singers on the
disc sound a little old fashioned. There
are a number of moments when I wondered
what a tenor like Juan Diego Florez
would make of the role.
In that matter of vocal
casting, the opera is somewhat transitional.
The tenor role Mohammed is not just
the title role, but is a sizeable role
as well. But he remains something of
a villain and gets no romantic interest.
The romantic interest, the hero of the
opera in fact, is played by a mezzo
The heroine, Palmira,
is sung fearlessly by Borsi. She has
an affecting voice and in a role less
dependent on fioriture, I could imagine
her to be moving. Here, she has moments
of instability and her voice can lose
focus in the upper register. But she
makes it all the way to the end of a
difficult role and I gradually warmed
to her. As her lover, Gloria Montanari
sounds rather too plummy for my taste.
Here fioriture is sometimes a little
smudged, but like Borsi she seems to
win through by the end. Luca Salsi provides
sterling support in the role of Mohammed’s
The booklet provides
a good article on De Winter with background
to the opera. It includes an extensive
plot summary in English but the libretto
is only in Italian.
This is a fine, if
flawed performance of fascinating opera.
The performance’s virtues are sufficient
to allow us to appreciate a hitherto
unexplored byway of Italian opera.
see also review
by Robert Farr