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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Rosmonda D'lnghilterra - Opera seria in two acts.
Libretto by Felice Romani.
First performed at the Teatro della Pergola, Florence, on February 27th 1834
Enrico II, King of England, Bruce Ford (ten); Leonora di Guienna wife of Enrico II, Nelly Miricioiu (sop); Rosmonda, Enrico's mistress and daughter of Clifford, Renée Fleming (sop); Gualtiero Clifford, former tutor of the king, Alastair Miles (bass); Arturo, Enrico’s page, Diana Montague (mezzo)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra/David Parry
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London. July 1994
OPERA RARA ORC13 [77.55 + 72.39]

 

When this 1994 recording arrived for review I was caught in a period of writing up notes from another issue. As a consequence, and unusually with a work new to me, I played the opera through without any prior reading. I was aware that Rosmonda was premiered during a very creative period of Donizetti’s compositional life, a mere two months after Lucrezia Borgia, ten months before Maria Stuarda and eighteen months before Lucia di Lamermoor. I was not, however, prepared for the musical felicity and dramatic vitality to be heard in Rosmonda. The work may not have the melodic invention of Lucia, which can justifiably claim to be the first great Italian Romantic opera, but its combination of solos and duets are underpinned by a high quality of musical invention by the composer. Whilst William Ashbrook and Julian Budden pass Rosmonda by with only a mention in their chapter in The New Grove ‘Masters of Italian Opera’, Charles Osborne in his ‘The Bel Canto Operas’ is more detailed but not very complimentary. Whilst finding virtue in Rosmonda’s act 2 cabaletta Senza pace (CD 2 tr. 11), and the dramatic finale (CD 2 trs. 19-20), he reckons the finest number in the whole score is her Torna, ah, torna, a caro ogetto (CD 1 tr. 13). Fanny Tacchinardi-Persiani, the 21-year-old creator of the role could be thought of as agreeing as she, also the creator of Lucia, subsequently substituted the aria, albeit with revised words, for Regnave nel silenzo in the 1837 revival of Lucia. Donizetti himself later appropriated it for the 1839 revision of the latter opera for Paris where it was presented, in French, as Lucie di Lamermoor.

Rosmonda is the 43rd title in the Donizetti operatic oeuvre. Romani’s libretto was an adaptation of his earlier writing for Carlo Coccia whose 1829 opera of the same name had not been a success. The action takes place in England in the second half of the 12th century. Enrico (Henry II of England, tenor) has returned from the wars to the comforts of his mistress Rosmonda Clifford (lyric coloratura soprano) who knows him only by his name. Her father (bass) informs her of her lover’s true identity. Rosmonda is horrified, but the King promises to make her Queen. However, Leonora, his jealous wife (dramatic soprano) kills her.

Seeing the name of Renée Fleming in the cast, cynics might wonder if in my initial response I was seduced as much by her singing as by the music itself. The singing throughout the cast is of a uniformly high standard in which Miss Fleming stands primus inter pares (first among equals). This recording was, I believe, her first of a complete opera. It was a momentous year for her. She sang at Glyndebourne under Haitink and recorded Fiordiligi live under Solti, who said he fell in love with her voice. She was scooped up into the Decca net, much as Angela Gheorghiu was a couple of years later after performances of La Traviata at Covent Garden under the same conductor. Just as studio recordings of opera were imploding, and contracts cancelled, Decca had the two finest lyric sopranos of their generation on their books. Fleming recorded Rusalka and Thais in admired studio recordings and diverged away from the bel canto repertoire of her earlier career into theatre performances of Richard Strauss amongst others. I was surprised to read, in a 2002 interview, that she wished to delve again into the bel canto repertoire. In October 2002 the Met mounted Bellini’s Il Pirata for her. I listened to the matinee broadcast performance from that series with interest and was sadly disappointed. Yes, she floated her voice along the Bellinean cantilena, and to ethereal effect, but she failed to convey the dramatic aspects of Imogene. More than any other fach, the bel canto repertoire has to be sung into the voice and kept there by regular practice, preferably in theatre performance. Given Fleming’s florid virtuosity heard in this recording, I venture that had she maintained her links with Opera Rara, as many have done including the other singers here, her discography of complete operas would be significantly more extensive than it is.

Whilst Fleming’s fresh voiced singing is dazzling in the coloratura pyrotechnics, and in her shaping of the cavatinas that are realised with the most persuasive expressiveness, hers is not the only virtuoso singing on the set. The virtuosity is share in the duet with Arturo, the page, a travesty role sung by Diana Montague (CD 2 trs. 6-8). Montague’s excellent vocal and musical virtuosity is further reinforced in Arturo’s solo (CD 2 trs. 6-8). As her lover Enrico, Bruce Ford sings with the utmost mellifluousness and expressiveness. Whilst he always phrases with care for the vocal line, his performance here is the best I have heard from him in any of his recordings for Opera Rara or elsewhere. He also encompasses the varying emotions demanded in his duets with Clifford (CD 1 trs. 8-10), his wife (CD 2 trs. 2-5) and Rosmonda (CD 2 trs. 12-15) as well as the drama of the finale as his wife stabs his lover. The role of Leonora is tailor-made for Nelly Miricioiu’s vocal qualities of dramatic inflection, nuance and variation of colour. These vocal qualities are heard to particularly good effect in Leonora’s duets with her husband (CD 2 trs. 12-15) and then Rosmonda (CD 2 trs. 16-18). The latter confrontation is not without its reminders of that between Queen Elisabeth and Mary Stuart in Donizetti’s next opera, Maria Stuarda, premiered at La Scala ten months after Rosmonda. Nelly Miricioiu’s ability to vary the weight and colour of her voice, across its range, allows for a wholly convincing characterisation of the wronged and vengeful woman. The ability to convey character and situation is also heard in Alastair Miles’ well-tuned bass as Clifford, Rosmonda’s father. As always his singing is elegant, expressive and sonorous as can be heard in Clifford’s duets; first with the king (CD 1 trs. 8-10) and then his daughter when he tells her of her lover’s identity and reproaches her (CD 1 trs. 15-16).

I have enthused at some length on the quality of the singing, which is matched by the stylish conducting of David Parry who balances the lyrical and dramatic pulses to good effect. The singing of the chorus and well-balanced recording contribute to the overall excellence of this issue. If the music is as good as I contend, it is justifiable to ask why did the opera, which was well received at its premiere, disappear from the repertoire within a few years of its composition until revived by Opera Rara for concert performances in London and Belfast in 1975? In an extensive and scholarly booklet essay (pp 9-62) Jeremy Commons makes some suggestions. He recounts the many related problems in deriving this performing edition of the work from a much-amended manuscript that only fifty years ago was believed lost. The booklet also has a complete libretto with translation in English.

For those who have no affinity for Donizetti’s works, but are in love with Renée Fleming’s voice, there is a highlights issue that focuses on her contribution (ORR 214). Of others, only the truly impecunious should go down that path. Lovers of bel canto and Donizetti’s serious operas, and who already have Lucia di Lamermoor, Lucrezia Borgia and Maria Stuarda, should make this performance the next Donizetti to be added to their collection. I cannot conceive that it will ever be bettered. It represents the apotheosis of musicological research and performance. It illuminates a composer’s work and the performers’ realisation in a manner too rarely achieved. To have it on record is a privilege with the guarantee of rich enjoyment.

Robert J Farr



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