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Peter de WINTER (1754 – 1825) Maometto
Maometto – Sebastian Na (tenor)
Zopiro – Antonio de Gobbi (bass)
Omar – Luca Salsi (baritone)
Fanor – Cesare Ruta (tenor)
Seide – Gloria Montanari (mezzo-soprano)
Palmira – Maria Luigia Borsi (soprano)
Czech Philharmonic Choir, Brno
Czech Chamber Soloists, Brno/Gabriele Bellini
Recorded 13th and 18th July 2002 in Kurhaus Bad Wildbad, Germany
MARCO POLO 8.225279-80 [72.26 + 64.32]

 

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 opera.

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.

Maometto was 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 hands.

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.

Mahommed (Sebastian 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 to him.

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 Palmira.

Mohammed learns 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 soprano.

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 lieutenant.

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.

Robert Hugill

see also review by Robert Farr

 



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