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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Opera Arias and Overtures

Tancredi (Venice, La Fenice, 6 February 1813)
Oh patria! Dolce e ingrata patria…Di tanti palpiti [8.04]
Overture [5.41]
Aureliano in Palmira (Milan, La Scala, 26 December 1815)
Dolci silvestri…Perché mai luci apprimo {6.30]
Overture [7.01]
La donna del lago (Naples, San Carlo, 24 September 1819)
Mura felici [9.15]
Ah si pera [4.24]
Semiramide (Venice, La Fenice, 3 February 1823)
Overture [11.36]
Eccomi alfine in Babilonia…Ah quell giorno [11.09]
Il si barbara sciagura [9.28] with chorus
Max Emanuel Cencic (counter-tenor)
Ensemble Vocal Le Motet de Genève
Orchestre de Chambre de Genève/Michael Hofstetter
rec. Studio Ansermet, Genève, 27 September-1 October 2006.
VIRGIN CLASSICS 00946 3857882 6 [73.14]

Specialising, as I do, in nineteenth century Italian opera, occasionally a disk or opera set comes along with the words ‘world premiere recording’. These provide an interesting challenge quite distinct from yet another Barber of Seville or Rigoletto. If it is a composer I am familiar with, I will know where the work fits in his oeuvre and what I might expect as I listen to the first of several hearings. In other words I have a base framework from which to work and in which to make my comments. This recital is different and is the nearest I have come for a long time to it deserving the imprimatur of ‘unique’.

Rossini wrote only once for a castrato when he agreed to compose an opera for the opening of the 1813 Carnival Season on 26 December at La Scala. It was his twelfth opera, immediately following Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri, both premiered to acclaim in Venice earlier the same year. He also hoped for a success to follow that of La Pietra del Paragone that had gone down well the year before at La Scala. With the famous male soprano Giovanni Battista Velluti on the roster Rossini wrote for him the role of Arsace, Prince of Persia in his new work, Aureliano in Palmira. Velluti was probably the last of the great castrati and his ego often overcame his aesthetic appreciation of the music he had to sing. In consequence he was renowned for excessive vocal decoration and embellishments. His doing so at the premiere of Aureliano ensured that thereafter Rossini did not permit singers this extravagant indulgence but wrote down the ornaments he was prepared to allow. Whether Velluti’s excesses contributed to the lack of enthusiasm for the work we do not know. It was not an out and out failure being performed fourteen times in the Scala season and elsewhere in Italy. Velluti sang the role when the opera was given in London in 1826.

Elsewhere in his operas Rossini wrote trousers or breeches roles. These, such as the eponymous hero in Tancredi, Arsace in Semiramide (1823) and Malcolm, Elena’s lover in La donna del lago, are featured here. Writing for the contralto or mezzo voices allowed Rossini to reflect a wide range of emotions from the heroic and dramatic to the reflective. The concept of a counter-tenor singing operatic roles, particularly in Handel is not new, but is a relatively recent phenomenon with other variants also to be seen and heard. In the revival of Maometto Secondo at La Fenice in 2005, Condulmiero, a Venetian general and a role written for a tenor, was sung by Nicola Marchesini, described as cotralista or male falsetist. Whether this was to get round the problem of casting a comprimario role with such high tessitura I do not know, but in my review I was equivocal as to the vocal suitability and dramatic impact. I am similarly minded in respect of Max Emanuel Cencic’s efforts here. Yes, he has a florid technique but compare his chest strength and penetration with that of say Ewa Podles in her 1998 live recital with a chamber orchestra; Cencic with a period band is not in the same league in the three arias common to both recitals (trs 1, 5, 8). Nor are his singing in the extracts from La donna del lago in any way comparable with that of Patricia Bardon on Opera Rara’s superb recording of the work (Review). Cencic lacks the capacity to portray the emotions of the role (Review). His florid singing and somewhat disembodied tone militate against realisation and characterisation. His coloratura is good in the extracts from Aureliano in Palmira, albeit that the very top of his voice is not wholly secure, but I suggest that those items alone do not justify a disc of this experimental nature.

Cencic sings on only six of the nine tracks. The overtures, played with vigour, occupy twenty-four minutes. The Ensemble Vocal Le Motet de Genève makes a significant contribution to the second item from Semiramide (tr. 9). The recording is clear and well balanced.

Robert J Farr


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