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Ferdinando PAER (1771-1839)
Sofonisba - dramma serio per musica in two acts (1805) - Highlights
Sofonisba - daughter of the Carthaginian general Asdrubale, wife of Siface and formerly betrothed to Massinissa, a bitter enemy of Romani - Jennifer Larmore (mezzo); Siface, Sofonisba's husband - Paul Nillon (ten); Massinissa, Sofonisba's earlier lover - Rebecca Evans (sop); Scipione, the Roman consul in Africa - Mirco Palazzi (bass); Lilio, Scipione's lieutenant - Colin Lee (ten); Osmida, Sofonisba's confidante - Lucy Crowe (sop)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra/Marco Guidarini
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London. July 2005. DDD
OPERA RARA ORR237 [73.10] 




Ferdinando Paer straddles a particularly interesting period in the composition of opera. He was born just as Gluck's (1714-1787) 'reform' operas were in the full bloom. Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801) and Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816) were also in full compositional flow, the latter having to return from Paris to Naples at the Bourbon Restoration following the fall of Napoleon. Paer who had been something of a young prodigy survived the change in politics in Paris although the income and support he had enjoyed were considerably reduced.

Paer was born in Parma to a family of German origin. Jeremy Commons, in an extended and scholarly booklet essay, suggests that his godfather was no less a person than the Grand Duke Ferdinand of Parma. Paer's first opera was produced in Parma during the carnival season of 1791, when he was aged 19. Later that year he was appointed maestro di capella in Vienna where he had his first major success with a buffa earlier seen in Parma. An honorary appointment in Parma, with the grant of a pension by his godfather, gave Paer the financial security that was denied Mozart seventy years earlier and the likes of Rossini and Donizetti in the years to follow. At least Paer put his comfortable position to good use and by the age of 25 he had some 23 operas to his credit and had spread his wings to take in Venice and Milan with Rome and Florence quickly following. His works were mainly comic in genre. In 1797 Paer became Kappelmeister in Vienna from where he earned a reputation throughout Europe with his works now exploring all the popular modes of the day. After becoming Kappelmeister to the Elector of Saxony in Dresden he came to the notice of Napoleon who took him, at age 36, to Paris as 'Composer to the Emperor'. His appointment was notionally for life with an annual salary of 28,000 francs a year. With his various duties in Paris, Paer's pace of composition slackened and he lost out financially at the fall of Napoleon. He was, however, appointed musical director of the Paris Theatre Italien where he overlapped with Rossini. This post-Napoleonic period in France was marked by many artistic jealousies and it seems that Paer earned a reputation in some quarters, but disputed in others, as a bit of a street fighter. He was awarded the Legion of Honour in 1828 and elected a member of the French Academy in 1832. In the following year King Louis-Philippe appointed him his maitre de chapelle.

Given the widespread contemporary recognition of his works, and putting aside the good fortune of the choice of godparent, one has to wonder at the neglect of Paer's operas. Even Opera Rara, not renowned for circumspection in respect of the works of the primo ottocento, have not gone the whole hog and recorded the work complete, but have selected only highlights. After playing this one disc selection from Sofonisba many times. not, I stress, from critical duty but from delight and enjoyment, I ask the rhetorical question: why are Paer's works not better known. The answer probably lies in Opera Rara's series 'A Hundred Years of Italian Opera' (ORCH 101; ORCH 103; ORCH 104). Each volume covers ten years starting in 1800 and is a three CD set. Counting up the number of composers involved reveals no fewer than 17 in the 1800-1810 period. Their compositions provided the staple of the theatres of the major Italian cities. For a whole variety of reasons many have become totally forgotten despite any qualities their music might boast. Inevitably the next question arises as to why Rossini and Donizetti were able to rise above the scrambling hordes now to have their music widely admired. My personal view is that it is not the quality or function of genius alone. I believe they too would share the fate of other composers of the period were it not for the widespread success and quality of Il barbiere di Siviglia and Lucia di Lamermoor which have kept the names of those two alive. I suggest that without the former masterpiece, which has never fallen into neglect, the current Rossini revival that sees nearly 30 of his 39 works readily available on CD or DVD would not have happened. Apart from three popular Donizetti works, it has been the support of Patric Schmid and his team at Opera Rara that has largely been responsible for the composer's growing discography, mainly on CD. I do not suppose that this recording will spark a revival of the nature that we currently enjoy with Rossini's operas. However, on the strength of these highlights the choice of a composition by Paer for inclusion in Opera Rara's catalogue has been well made and has stirred in me interest in both the composer and his operas.

The complicated details of the plot need not concern this review. What is important is the quality of the solo singing, that of the chorus and the conducting, which together give such worthwhile and enjoyable insights into Paer's creation. In the eponymous role Jennifer Larmore, as so often, gives a typical first-rate bravura performance with her creamy tone gracing her runs and decorations (trs. 2-3 and in particular 6). Paul Nillon, not a regular name on Opera Rara, sings with strength and a wide range of colour and dynamics over the exacting tessitura (trs. 14-15). In the unusual circumstance of a soprano travesti role, Rebecca Evans is a big surprise. Since I last heard her high soprano live, her voice has grown; she now brings a wide capacity for vocal colour and nuance to her tonal clarity. She has always been a good vocal characteriser and that is evinced in her portrayal here (trs.4-5). She and Larmore duet in unison disturbed only by Paul Nillon's Siface, in the first part of the act 1 finale (tr.7). In terms of melody and musical construction this, and the following duet between Sofonisba and Siface (tr.8) and the concluding trio for all three (tr.9), indicate a sophisticated compositional technique allied to a creative mind. The act 2 duet between Sofonisba and Siface (trs.10-11) is more traditional with the decorated finale particularly challenging and well met. The lean and flexible bass voice of voice Mirco Palazzi is heard to good effect in the ensembles whilst the vibrant Geoffrey Mitchell Choir and the conducting of Marco Guidarini are first rate. 

A detailed synopsis is given in French, German and English whilst Dr Commons' extended essay, like the full libretto translation, is in the latter language only. The full libretto has the parts included in this recording printed in blue. Excluded parts are in black and appear to contain several interesting scenes and arias along with what I assume are recit passages. The booklet and CD are contained in the usual Opera Rara quality box with the deserved insignia of: "World Premiere Recording".

The recording and performance in this Opera Rara issue indicate a composer who seems to me to have all the virtues of a significant bel cantoist and one whose work is worthy of the championing it gets in this issue.

Robert J Farr


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