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Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Tancredi, Opera in Two Acts.
Libretto by Gaetano Rossi after Voltaire tragedy of 1760 but with a happy ending
first performed at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 6 February 1813
Tancredi, a Knight and son of the deposed king of Syracuse, Ewa Podles (mezzo); Argirio, ruler of Syracuse and father of Amenaide, Stanford Olsen (ten); Orbazzano, leader of a powerful family faction in Syracuse, Pietro Spagnoli (bass-bar); Amenaide, daughter of Argirio in love with Tancredi, Sumi Jo (coloratura soprano); Roggiero, Tancredi’s friend, Lucretia Lendi (mezzo); Isaura, Anna Maria di Micco (mezzo)
Chorus Capella Brugensis
Collegium Instrumentale Brugense/Alberto Zedda
Recorded at the Poissy Theatre and the Musical Centre Lyrique-Phonographique, Ile de France, 26-31 January 1994
NAXOS OPERA CLASSICS 8.660037-38 [75.20 + 72.07]


For every composer who becomes successful many do not and either fall by the wayside or rapidly speed past their sell-by date, being quickly forgotten. This was never more true than for opera composers in the provinces of what we now call Italy, the motherland of opera, in the later decades of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. Every major city had two or three theatres presenting opera, which was the popular entertainment amongst the population, whatever their social status. For those who made it to the top of the milk to become the most popular opera composer of their day there was often a defining opportunity, or moment, or a particular composition. For Donizetti it was Anna Bolena (1830), for Bellini it was La Sonnambula (1831), for Verdi it was Nabucco (1842) and for Puccini it was Manon Lescaut (1893). For Rossini it was Tancredi.

Born in Pesaro in 1792, the son of musician parents, Rossini was not yet 21 years of age when he scored a success with La pietra del paragone (LINK) at La Scala in May 1812. It was his seventh opera. It came in the middle of five one act farsa (LINK) which he wrote in a hectic compositional period for Venice’s small Teatro Moise. It was while Rossini was in Venice in November 1812 preparing for the premiere of the fourth of those farsa, L’occasione fa il ladro premiered on 24th November, that he was invited by the Teatro La Fenice, the city’s premier theatre, to compose an opera seria for the following season. The subject of Voltaire’s Tancrède (1760) had already been chosen, as had the librettist, Gaetano Rossi. It was Rossi who had provided Rossini with the verses for the first of his operatic compositions to be staged, the one act farse, La Cambiale di matrimonio, on November 3rd 1810.

Rossini’s Tancredi is set in the Sicilian city of Syracuse around 1005. Argirio (ten), ruler of the city has promised his daughter Amenaide (sop) in marriage to Orbazzano (bass) so as to unite their families against the Saracens. Amenaide however is in love with Tancredi (mezzo) son of the deposed king of Syracuse. Tancredi returns from exile in time to stop the marriage despite believing Amenaide to be unfaithful to him. When Orbazzano has Amenaide condemned to death on a trumped up charge Tancredi fights and kills him. Tancredi leads a successful expedition against the Saracens and is united with Amenaide in a happy ending.

Tancredi was favourably received and was subsequently seen in other Italian towns to great acclaim. For its second staging in Ferrara, several weeks after its premiere, Rossi’s libretto was altered to match the tragic ending of Voltaire’s play. Rossini composed new music but the ending was not popular with audiences. Over the next few years it was translated into twelve languages and performed all over Europe and the Americas. It was Rossini’s defining work and set him at the forefront of his contemporaries, a position he quickly consolidated with L’Italiana in Algeri three months later. It was after a revival in Venice in 1815 that the catchy tune from the cavatina Di tanti palpiti (CD 1 tr.6) spread to have ‘a wider and more universal popularity of [than] any aria in the world’ (Stendahl. ‘The Life of Rossini’, 1824). Despite its immense popularity, Tancredi like all the bel-canto seria fell into neglect until revival in the 1950s, after which it was regularly revived becoming a favourite of Marilyn Horne. Her interpretation was recorded live by Fonit Cetra at La Fenice in 1983 and originally issued in the CBS Masterworks series. It is not currently available. That performance, like many theatre revivals in the past fifty years, used the Ferrara tragic ending, as does the 1978 studio recording with Fiorenza Cossotto as Tancredi, reissued by Warner Fonit in 2003.

As I noted in my review of a Rossini recital disc by Ewa Podles (LINK) her steady sonorous low-timbred mezzo is ideally suited to the ‘breeches’ roles in the Rossini operas. Her voice is even and true over a considerable range to which she adds the ability to shade her tone and expression to convey the moods of the role being sung. She brings appropriate gravitas to Tancredi’s recitatives and appropriate variety of expression in the duet with Amenaide, particularly in Lascia: non t’ascolto (‘leave me I will not hear you’ CD 2 tr. 13). Similarly her characterisation in the solo scena Dove son io (‘where am I’), the following Ah! Che scordar non so (‘I cannot forget’) and the rondo Perche turbar (CD 2 tr. 16) is superb. This scene, and the final reconciliation of the lovers (CD 2 tr. 20), can be seen in retrospect as not merely the epitome of bel canto but the stirring of Romanticism. No wonder the work set Rossini at the forefront of rivals and the opera travelled so widely to acclaim!

The rest of the singing cast, the vibrant chorus and the conducting of Rossini scholar Alberto Zedda are of an equally high standard. Sumi Jo exhibits wonderful colours in her flexible voice to give a formidable realisation of Amenaide’s agonies and uncertainties. Her act 2 Gran Dio! (CD 2 tr. 8) as she asks God to protect her warrior and cabaletta Giusto Dio (‘God who I worship and can read my heart’, CD 2 tr.9) are as perfect in emotion and expression as is possible whilst maintaining line. Jo’s singing and characterisation are perfect complements to Podles’s Tancredi. Excellent too is the portrayal of Argirio by Stanford Olsen. He is far preferable to the dry-toned Ernesto Palacio on the CBS version with Marilyn Horne. He handles the florid demands of his Ah! Segnar invano io tenta and cabaletta, after Argirio has unwittingly condemned his daughter to death, in a particularly fine manner (CD 1 trs. 18-19). Pietro Spagnoli as Orbazzano and Lucretia Lendi as Roggiero also contribute well with good, characterful and well-tuned expressive singing.

The booklet has a decent track-related synopsis, artist profiles, and an essay on Rossini. There is also another rather diffuse essay deriving from an interview with Alberto Zedda attempting an analysis of the nature of Rossini’s music and the interpretation of an opera such as Tancredi. All these are in English, French and German. There is a full synopsis without any translation. What is significantly missing is a track-listing and timings. Naxos normally provides this and it makes moving between the synopsis and the libretto much easier. That reservation apart this Naxos issue of a work that was not only defining for the composer, but also opera in general is outstanding. The fact that this excellent performance and recording of the original version of the opera, and which seems to stand alone in the current catalogue, is without weakness is particularly gratifying. All lovers of bel canto and the evolution of romantic opera should have it on their shelves.

Robert J Farr

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