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Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)
Margherita D’Anjou. Melodramma Semiseria in Two Acts
Margherita D’Anjou, (widow of Henry VI of England), Annick Massis, (sop); The Duke of Laverenne, (Grand Senechal of Normandy), Bruce Ford, (ten); Isaura, (Laverenne’s wife), Daniela Barcellona, (mezzo); Carlo Belmonte, (A general banished by the Queen, in the service of Glocester), Alastair Miles, (bass); Riccardo, (Duke of Glocester), Paul Putins (bass); Michelle, (a French physician), Favio Previati, (bass);
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra/David Parry
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London. October 2002
OPERA RARA. ORC25 [3CDs: 61.25+56.14+53.40]

In my recent review of Opera Rara’s ‘Meyerbeer in Italy’ (excerpts from the six operas written by the composer during his Italian years: 1817-1823) I give some biographical details of his German background and musical influences. He is most famous as the father of ‘Grand Opera’. His talents are most often associated with the great scenes of spectacle and splendour in the operas he wrote for Paris. However it is with his Italian operas that Meyerbeer honed his compositional skills and received international recognition.

The movement of Austro-German composers towards Italy in the second decade of the nineteenth century was undoubtedly influenced by the return of the Italian provinces of Lombardy ad Veneto to Austrian sovereignty in the spring of 1814. This opened up favourable opportunities in Milan. The operas of Peter van Winter and Mozart appeared at La Scala, with the former’s ‘Il Maometto’ being premiered in that theatre on the 28 January 1817 enjoying a success that led to 45 performances. It was into this musical climate that Meyerbeer arrived in a country that was also in the thrall of the operas of the Pesaro-born Rossini. Rossini had by that year acquired international recognition with a string of successes including ‘Tancredi’ and ‘L’Italiana in Algeri’ of 1813, and ‘Il Barbiere di Siviglia’ (1816). Meyerbeer’s first Italian opera, ‘Romilda’ was premiered in Padua on 19 July 1817 and is very much in what might be called Rossinian style. By the time of his third opera of the six, Rosburgo of 1819, he had attained something that is very much his own style. All three of Meyerbeer’s first Italian operas were a success. As a consequence he was commissioned to write a work for the 1820 season at La Scala, Milan, then as now, the premier house in Italy. Significantly he was also awarded the services of Felice Romani, the pre-eminent librettist of his day, who was under contract to the theatre. The resultant ‘Margherita D’Anjou’ brought Meyerbeer international fame and the personal friendship of Rossini.

The plot of ‘Margherita D’Anjou’ is drawn from an 1810 French play by Pixérécourt. It tells the story of Margherita, Henry VI’s French Queen who, in the libretto is referred to as the widow of Henry IV. With sympathisers led by the Duke of Lavarenne, Senechal of Normandy, she returns to England with her forces to unseat Richard, Duke of Glocester (exactly as spelt in the booklet and insert) (Richard III). Battles in the Scottish borders have no basis in historical fact but provide a backdrop for the love triangle of Lavarenne, Queen Margherita, whose interest he has aroused, and his devoted wife Isaura whom he has abandoned for the Queen. Determined to find her husband, Isaura disguised as a soldier appears in Margherita’s camp in the company of a ‘doctor’ Michele. All is well in the end with husband and wife reconciled but with the dramatic, often martial situations, mixed with buffa elements.

The opera is designated a ‘Melodramma Semiseria’. By 1820, three years after Rossini’s similarly designated ‘La Gazza Ladra’, the practice of mixing ‘buffa’ and ‘seria’ characteristics within the same work was well established. ‘Margherita’ provided Meyerbeer with the opportunity to compose distinctive, potently-scored music, some imposingly martial. Particularly fine is the introductory ‘Sinfonia Militare’ (CD 1 tr. 1), the Isaura- Lavarenne scene and duet (CD 1. trs. 19-21), the first act finale involving all the ‘primo’ soloists and chorus (CD 2 trs. 5-9) and, above all, the recitative and terzetto trio for three basses including a ‘patter’ component (CD 3 trs 5-6).

The balance between orchestra and soloists, so often heavily favourable to the latter in bel-canto opera is somewhat less weighted in ‘Margherita’, particularly when the significant contribution of the chorus is added. David Parry’s skill in welding this performance into a cohesive whole is admirable as is the contribution of the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir. One must note too the contribution of Patric Schmid (co-founder of Opera Rara) and his team in deriving this version which, when performed in a public performance at the Royal Festival Hall, London, was the first performance of the work for 148 years! The printed libretto includes the words of some secco recitative whose music could not be found. There is an extensive and scholarly essay by Mark Everist on opera in the ‘ottocento period’ and on the versions of ‘Margherita’. It is given in English and Italian.

The vocal demands of the opera are considerable. Opera Rara has built an international cast around the ‘house’ regulars of Bruce Ford as Laverenne and Alastair Miles as Carlo, leading a highland regiment initially against the Queen on behalf of Glocester. In the high tenor role Ford is reliable with phrasing and diction good. However I found something of the mellifluousness and flexibility of his younger self missing. There are some signs of strain as he lifts his voice to the higher regions (CD 1 tr. 15-16). Alastair Miles is sonorous, steady and characterful and manages with aplomb a couple of big leaps up and down the scale during the conclusion to Act I. There is no confusion with the lighter bass of Fabio Previati as the factotum-cum-doctor. His excellent diction and sheer musicality, particularly in the buffa components of his role are major plus points. Both female singers have strengths and weaknesses. As the eponymous Queen, Annick Massis is light-voiced and flexible in her runs. She rides the orchestra well at the conclusion of Act I. However, in her Act II scene and aria, with its violin introduction and obbligato (CD 2 trs. 11-13), there is a touch of acidity in her tone at the top of the voice. A later revision of this passage is given as an appendix (CD 3 trs. 14-16). Ideally the part would benefit from a slightly heavier voice with more inherent colour, albeit one with the flexibility that Massis has. Be that as it may, my reservations are not so great as to mar my enjoyment of her characterisation and overall contribution. The same is true of Daniela Barcellona as Isaura. Her contribution in Act I is mainly limited to the two duets of the opera, with Michele (CD 1 trs. 8-10) and Laverenne (CD 1 trs. 19-21) although she does get the final scene with aria and rondo (CD 3 trs. 11-13). Barcellona was the only success in the 2003 Rossini Festival production of Semiramide at Pesaro. She is making a considerable impact in Europe, being scheduled to sing Bellini’s ‘Romeo’ at the Salzburg Summer Festival Season in 2004 followed by ‘Malcolm’ in Rossini’s ‘La Donna del Lago’ at Saint Sebastian. She is a big-voiced and full-toned mezzo with a good extension at the contralto end without recourse to excessive chest register. After her Act I duets I was disappointed with her. In the opera’s final scene and aria (CD 3 trs. 11-13), in the introduction, she has difficulty in holding the legato line. In the aria itself (tr. 12) she sounds rather ‘plummy’ and although her rise up the scale at 3:50 is impressive the next rise concluding at 4:22 is distinctly less so.

The recording is set in a clear airy acoustic with the voices set slightly back from the orchestra and with the magnificently vibrant chorus, vital protagonists in the opera, superbly caught by the microphones. Despite my minor reservations this is an outstanding addition to the recorded catalogue in general and to that of Opera Rara in particular. They are to be congratulated on the research that brought the recording and performance to fruition, thus allowing us to hear Meyerbeer’s fourth ‘Italian Opera’ - the one that brought him international recognition. It is also a very worthy companion to Opera Rara’s recording of ‘Il Crociato in Egitto’, the composer’s sixth and final opera of that period, issued in 1992.

I would have preferred artist profiles to the proliferation of their photographs in the booklet. I am, however, pleased to see a picture of Sir Peter Moores CBE, whose Foundation supports such worthy endeavours as this recording, which may not otherwise have been possible.

Robert J Farr

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