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Peter Von WINTER (1754-1825)
Maometto. Tragic Melodrama in Two Acts
Maometto, Sebastian Na (ten); Zopiro (Sheriff of Mecca), Antonia de Gobbi (bass); Omar (Maometto’s Lieutenant), Luca Salsi (bar); Fanor (Senator of Mecca), Cesare Ruta (ten); Seide (Maometto’s Slave), Gloria Montanari (m.sop); Palmira (Maometto’s Slave), Maria Luigia Borsi (sop)
Czech Philharmonic Choir. Czech Chamber Soloists, Brno/Gabrielle Bellini
Recorded live July 13th and 18th 2002 in Kurhaus Bad Wildbad, Germany, during the ‘Rossini In Wildbad Festival’
MARCO POLO 8.225279-80 [2CDs: 72.26+64.32]

The Bad Wildbad Festival has become known as the ‘Pesaro of the North’, not only making a speciality of the operas of Rossini but also of ‘italian operas’ written by German composers of a similar vintage. In 2002 it featured the great rarity Maometto by the German-born Peter Von Winter -a work that had lain unperformed for 150 years. Although Von Winter studied with Vogler and, the booklet essay claims, with Salieri in Vienna, he was largely self-taught. Trained first as a violinist he was Music Director at Mannheim from 1787 before moving with the Court to Munich as assistant and then, in 1798, as Kappellmeister, a position he held until his death. He spent time in Italy (1791-94) writing operas for Venice and Naples. His operatic works were eclectic, drawing from ‘opera seria’, ‘opera buffa’, ‘Singspiel’ and ‘opéra comique’. Scholars designate his ‘Das unterbrochene Opferfest’ (1796) as being the most successful German operatic work between Mozart’s ‘Die Zauberflöte’, (1792) and Weber’s ‘Der Freischütz’ (1821). However, the return of the Italian provinces of Lombardy and the Veneto to Austrian sovereignty in the spring of 1814 provided a favourable opportunity in Milan for composers of Austro-German origin. Von Winter capitalised on this, as did Meyerbeer and others. ‘Maometto’ was premiered at La Scala, then as now the premier opera house in Italy, on January 28th 1817 and was such a success as to run for 45 performances featuring some of the finest singers of the day. At that time Italy, and Milan in particular, was greatly enamoured of the works of Rossini who had achieved international recognition with his masterpieces ‘Tancredi’ and ‘L’italiana in Algeri’ (both 1813) and ‘Il barbiere di Siviglia’ (1816). There is evidence that Rossini saw Von Winter’s ‘Maometto’ at La Scala and greatly admired the seriousness and complexity of the music with its Germanic origins, synthesis of the various genres referred to, and his handling of the chorus.

The inclusion of Peter von Winter’s ‘Maometto’ in concert performances at Bad Wildbad also enabled ‘The Festival’ to juxtapose it and Rossini’s ‘Maometto II’, premiered in Naples in 1820, in concert performances either side of those from which this recording derives. Although Von Winter’s ‘Maometto’ is often confused with that by Rossini, the two operas are in fact completely different in character, period and setting, being derived from separate literary sources. Von Winter wrote to a libretto by Felice Romani based on a verse tragedy by Voltaire which concerns the prophet Mohammed, founder of Islam, here portrayed as a villain. The booklet suggests that Voltaire’s tragedy, by bringing such matters to the stage, was using them as a vehicle for his known anti-clericism and antipathy to the Catholic Church.

The serious character of the plot, and the overall complexity of Von Winter’s music, is quickly apparent in the overture. The work contains no frivolous easily whistled tunes and reminds me more of ‘La Clemenza di Tito’ than ‘Die Zauberflöte’, in that respect. What is particularly interesting is the integration of the chorus as protagonist and the need for dramatic conviction and characterisation from them and the singers, with the former particularly well tuned and dynamically involved. As Zopiro, the ‘goody’ in the story, the big-voiced Antonia de Gobbi is particularly impressive. Although not always perfectly steady, his sonorous bass has extension at both ends of the voice and his diction is good (CD 1 trs. 2-5); most importantly he conveys the various emotions of the role. As Maometto, and villain of the piece, the Korean tenor Sebastian Na has a true tenor voice with plenty of expression although the metal in the tone can make for certain harshness (CD 1 tr. 9). As his henchman Omar, Luca Salsi, is strong voiced with a slight throatiness (CD 1 trs. 6. 12) and is rather unvarying in modulation and tonal colour. Gloria Montanari sings the ‘trousers’ role of Saide with strong, even and flexible, if rather nasal tone. Maometto tricks Saide into stabbing Zopiro who reveals that both Saide and Palmira, who are in love, are actually his children. Montanari conveys the varying emotions of this situation, and death by poisoning, with conviction (CD 2 trs. 3-5 and 11). The Palmira of Maria Luigia Borsi is initially, in Act I, less convincing with a rather light and wavery tone. However, in the Act II terzetto (CD 2 tr. 6) and following quintetto (tr. 7) she is suitably dramatic and goes on to express her hatred of Maometto, and anguish at the death of her brother (tr. 11), with pleasing depth of feeling and expression.

The recording is clear, slightly warm and with plenty of air round the soloists, choir and orchestra. The direction of the Australian Gabrielle Bellini, widely recognised to be the up-and-coming Rossinian, allows the drama and nuances of the work to emerge to maximum effect. The downside is the frequency of applause at the end of numbers, or even in the middle as when Zopiro enters (1.11min of CD 1 tr. 2). Given that the Festival schedule carded both the Von Winter and the Rossini Mamoettos as concert performances, I wonder if there was an effort at semi-staging and the applause denoted an entrance from the wings of a singer? The booklet essay is interesting and the track-related synopsis good; they and the brief artist profiles are given in English and German. There is a full libretto but no translation.

This is a very enjoyable and well-conducted performance of an opera by a considerable composer who has, thus far, had far too little exposure on record. It is a perfect complement to the recordings by ‘Opera Rara’ of neglected works and composers from the same period of great operatic creativity and which preceded, and laid the foundations for, the works of Donizetti and Verdi in Italy and Wagner in Germany.

Robert J Farr

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