One of the most grown-up review sites around

54,416 reviews
and more.. and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here



International mailing

Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             


AmazonUK   AmazonUS

Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Bianca e Falliero - operatic melodrama in two acts (1819)
Libretto by Felice Romani on a play by Antoine Arnault
First performed at Teatro ala Scala, Milan, 26 December 1819
Bianca, the daughter of Contareno, Majella Cullagh (sop); Falliero, a Venetian general, Jennifer Larmore (mez); Contareno, a Venetian senator, Barry Banks (ten); Capellio, a Venetian senator in love with Bianca, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (bass); Costanza, Bianca’s nurse, Gabriella Colecchia (mez); Priuli, Doge of Venice, Simon Bailey (bass); Pisani, a member of The Council of Three, Ryland Davies (ten);
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir; London Philharmonic Orchestra/David Parry
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London. November 2000
OPERA RARA ORC20 [3 CDs: 62.18 + 42.32 + 75.20]


Bianca e Falliero is the thirtieth in the 39 titles in the Rossini operatic oeuvre. It was the composer’s fourth opera of 1819 and was written to a commission from La Scala, Milan to open the Festival Season on December 26th of that year. Despite that pace of composition, which the composer was never to repeat, there are few self-borrowings in the opera. The first night audience were enthusiastic about some numbers and indifferent to others. The critics were also less than enthusiastic. Nonetheless the work was given a further 39 performances that season, the largest run ever for any Rossini opera seria at La Scala. The work was staged later throughout Italy and in Vienna and Lisbon, both in 1825, and Barcelona in 1826. It was revived at La Scala in 1831 in a badly butchered form and after performances in Sardinia in 1846 it disappeared. Bianca e Falliero was restored to the stage at the Pesaro Rossini Festival in 1986 in a new edition  by Gabrielle Dotto based on the autograph full score of 1819. That’s the version used here. A recording from that 1986 series of semi-staged performances featuring Katia Ricciarelli as Bianca, Marilyn Horne as Falliero and Chris Merritt as Contareno was issued by Fonit Cetra but had only a short life in the catalogue. This Opera Rara issue is the first, and only, studio recording of the work. It is in far more vivid and reliable sound than the earlier issue and enjoys an excellent balance between soloists, chorus and orchestra. David Parry’s conducting is nicely balanced between the vivaciously lyrical and the dramatic.

The libretto for Bianca e Falliero was provided by Felice Romani. He had earlier written the verses for Rossini’s Il turco in Italia premiered at La Scala in August 1914. Originally trained as a lawyer, Romani (1788-1865) became the leading librettist at La Scala and provided verses for over 100 operas including the works of Bellini, Donizetti, Meyerbeer and Mercadante among others. He based Bianca e Falliero on the French melodrama Blanch et Montcasin by Arnault. However, mindful of the Milan censors and in contrast to Arnault’s play, Romani provided a happy ending. The story is set in 17th century Venice in a period of conflict with Spain. Contareno (ten) a Senator, and the harsh and unbending parent of Bianca (sop), arranges her marriage to another Senator Capellio (bass). By doing so he hopes to restore his family finances and splendour. Bianca is in love with Falliero (mezzo) the Venetian general who has helped defeat the Spanish. She also knows that her father might not approve their marriage, as Falliero is not wealthy. This is proved to be correct as her father warns her that she will forfeit his love if she ever uses Falliero’s name. Unhappily, Bianca submits to his threats. In the conclusion to the first act Falliero returns to Contareno’s house to declare his love for Bianca while her intended husband, Capellio, looks on at her plight as her father berates her. Both men order Falliero from the house.

In act 2 Falliero does return to Contareno’s house to meet Bianca and pleads with her to elope with him. On Contareno’s return he is forced to flee over the wall into the garden of the adjacent villa of the Spanish Ambassador where he is caught and accused of treason. Falliero is put on trial before The Council of Three that includes both Bianca’s father and her intended husband. He considers himself lost but Bianca comes before the Coiuncil to explain his presence in the Ambassador’s house. In the famous quartet that outlived the demise of the opera in the 19th century, Bianca pleads for Falliero. Contareno demands the death penalty whilst the compassionate Capellio insists the matter be referred the full Senate where Falliero is acquitted. At the insistence of Capellio, Bianca’s father accedes to her marriage to Falliero.

Charles Osborne, in the chapter on Rossini’s operas in his book ‘The Bel Canto Operas’ (Methuen 1994), asserts that it is in the music of act 2 that Bianca e Falliero shows itself worthy of revival. He repeats that statement in his booklet essay (p.35). I disagree. Some commentators have suggested that the music of Rossini’s Naples opera seria works is superior, and more adventurous, than that which he wrote contemporaneously for the more conservative audiences in Milan, Rome or Venice. I cannot say that the music here is of any less quality, diversity or dramatic nuance than that found in Rossini’s Otello (1816), Armida (1817) or Mosé (1818) - all written for Naples. The music conveys the moods of the dramatic situations Romani penned and moves the drama along with conviction. Rossini certainly made considerable technical demands on three of his principal singers not least on the role of Falliero, sung here by Jennifer Larmore. She is building a welcome discography for Opera Rara who will issue a recital disc from her in May 2005. Her mezzo voice has not the declamatory chest register of Marilyn Horne at the time of her Pesaro performances. To compensate, Miss Larmore’s tonal evenness and accuracy across her wide vocal range in the demanding runs and tessitura of Se per l’Adria and Il ciel custode, as Falliero greets the Doge, are a joy (CD 1 trs. 8-9). As well as these hurdles Falliero has the florid duets with Bianca in both acts (CD 2 trs 2-5 and CD 3 trs 6-10) and the involvements in the extended scenes of his trial when he at first refuses to plead his case (CD 3 trs. 12, 13 and 15-17). Jennifer Larmore conveys these situations with intensity and subtle variations of vocal colour whilst encompassing, with seeming ease, the coloratura demands. Her performance as Falliero is outstanding and is central to the success of this recording. As Bianca, Majella Cullagh is equally agile in the high tessitura of her solo, the cavatina Come sereno il di (CD 1 tr. 12). Only having the one solo does not indicate that Rossini was letting his soprano off lightly, the audience would expect more vocal fireworks from the soprano diva than that! These come in her duets with Falliero and in the dramatic confrontations with her domineering father Contareno (CD 1 trs. 16-19 and CD 3 trs 6-10). The scenes between Bianca and her father demand not only vocal agility but also the expression of a wide variety of emotions. Majella Cullagh has the agility but lacks something in vocal colouring and emotional intensity. In 2004 I heard her in two staged productions and was mightily impressed by her vocal strength and agility. On both occasions she coloured her tone and brought greater vocal intensity than here. She is a considerable singer who is still developing. I would rather have her singing, as here, when she is making positive progress rather than hearing a diva in decline.

The role of Contareno is one of those fiendishly high tenor roles that Rossini seemed to take a delight in writing in his Naples period. Barry Banks sings it here. I first heard him in 1982 as a mellifluous Tamino when a student at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music. This was in a production by his teacher Joseph Ward that included Jane Eaglen as one of The Ladies, Joan Rodgers as Pamina and Linda Kitchen as Papagena; future stars all. In the 1984 College production of Rossini’s Il Barbiere his Almaviva was praised for superb control of the extended lines that make the composer’s music so difficult to communicate. The role of Contareno is even more demanding than Almaviva, at both ends of the register. Banks’ skills have taken him to Paris, the Met and many other distinguished venues. Listening to him here, unencumbered by his small stature, we can hear why. Contareno is a nasty piece of work and with a metallic edge to his tone Banks manages to convey that strongly at the bottom of his range. In the fiendishly florid high tessitura his open-toned singing shows why he can stand alongside the North Americans who have dominated this fach for the last twenty five years of the Rossini revival (CD 1 trs 15-19). As Capellio the bass Ildebrando D'Arcangelo is sonorous and steady. He manages, by vocal means alone, to convey his greater humanity than that possessed by his fellow Senator, Bianca’s father. All the smaller parts are well cast whilst the ever-reliable Geoffrey Mitchell Choir are vigorous and accurate. 

The Opera Rara packaging is as luxurious as we have come to expect, but the booklet left me frustrated. There were no track timings and instead of the usual informative essay that by Charles Osborne’s seems to be a précis, even to the same phrases, of the chapter in his book covering the works of Rossini. His synopsis of the plot is good but would have been better track-related. Also, in the synopsis he divides each act into three scenes, whilst the libretto, with English translation, marks thirteen plus a finale. I do not wish to appear unduly pedantic, but to really get a feeling for any new work or performance, I want to dip in and out easily as well as listening straight through. All means possible in the presentation should facilitate this.

Niggles about the booklet should not detract from the many positive virtues of this issue. From overture to finish this recording has been, for me, a most enjoyable voyage of discovery of an opera that, until twenty years ago, had not been heard for over 140 years. Rossini’s music fully deserves the outstanding quality of performance it gets from orchestra, chorus, singers and conductor on this Opera Rara recording. Whilst the company has a record of maintaining its recordings in the catalogue, I recommend all lovers of Rossini’s operatic oeuvre to go out and buy it as soon as funds or circumstances allow. It will provide musical pleasure and a feast of good singing.

Robert J Farr


Return to Index

Untitled Document

Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.