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Giovanni PACINI (1796-1867)
Alessandro nell’Indie - music drama in two acts (1824)
Alessandro – Bruce Ford (tenor); Poro, King of part of India and in love with Cloefide – Jennifer Larmore (mezzo); Cleofide, Queen of another part of India – Laura Claycomb (soprano); Timagene, Alessandro’s confidant – Dean Robinson (bass); Gandarre, General of Poro’s army – Mark Wilde (tenor)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra/David Parry
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, November 2006
Hybrid Dual CD and SACD
OPERA RARA ORR 238 [3 CDs: 47.29 + 46.11 + 67.55]
Experience Classicsonline

Giovanni Pacini was born eighteen months before his compatriot Donizetti. His father, Luigi, was a singer who later created Geronio in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia. The young Giovanni studied singing and composition from the age of twelve and his second opera was staged in 1813 when he was seventeen. He continued to produce mainly comic operas over the next few years with the speed of a typical primo ottocento composer and all very much in the Rossini style. The latter quality perhaps helped when he was called upon to assist the great man with three numbers for Matilde di Shabran premiered in Rome in February 1822 (Review). By then Pacini had made an impact in Milan and when the invitation to Naples came it was to the San Carlo, the Royal Theatre widely regarded, alongside La Scala, as the leading house in Italy at that time with its superb stage facilities and professional orchestra. Donizetti had had to earn his spurs in Naples at the small Teatro Nuovo with his opera La zingara of 1822 before an invitation to write for the San Carlo. Whereas Donizetti did not have a success at his first effort for the San Carlo, Pacini’s Alessandro nell’Indie, after a rocky first night on 29 September 1824, had a resounding success. The audience was always aware if the Bourbon King of Naples, Ferdinand IV was present in the theatre and awaited his response before making theirs. There had been hissing at the first night, but the King, who had taken an admiration for the leading lady applauded her opening aria warmly (CD 1 trs 3-5). As this follows directly after the short opening sinfonia (Tr 1) and longer chorus (tr 2) Alessandro nell’Indie was from that moment a success, at least in Naples; According to Pacini, in his autobiography published much later in his life, and supported in Jeremy Commons’ informative introductory essay, it ran for 70 consecutive performances. The opera was less successful when revived in Milan in the carnival season of 1826-1827 and for which Pacini made amendments. Meanwhile, in Naples two months before the premiere of Alessandro nell’Indie and at the small community Teatro Nuovo, Donizetti’s melodic Emilia di Liverpool had bitten the dust after a mere eight outings. The more fortunate Pacini lived to seventy years of age. Despite a mid-life compositional crisis in early 1835 when, after the failure of his Carlo di Borgogna, he felt overtaken by Donizetti and Bellini. After much introspection and radical change of style he returned to opera five years later. He composed over seventy operas as well as much other music.

The magnificent San Carlo Royal Theatre had premiered all but one of Rossini’s nine opera seria, composed when he was music director with Barbaja as impresario. The missing one of the nine was performed at the smaller Royal Theatre of the Fondo because the San Carlo had been destroyed by fire. Its rebuilding involved the very best stage facilities that matched its renowned musical standard. At its reopening in 1817, and keen to show off the new facilities, Barbaja demanded a spectacular opera from Rossini. Above all he wanted a work utilising the new facilities of the refurbished theatre in terms of scenic effect and dance. Rossini produced his most romantic effort to date in terms of the opulence of the music with his opera Armida based on Torquato Tasso’s Gerusaleme liberata about the First Crusade (Review). The libretto called for lavish staging including Armida’s palace and enchanted garden. There was to be much in the way of comings and disappearances as well as dances by nymphs, cherubs and dragons. The lovers Armida and Rinaldo descend on a cloud that becomes her chariot and, as she waves her wand, turns into her castle. Despite the spectacle of the production, the opera was only moderately well received but it set a standard to be followed. If Alessandro nell’Indie doesn’t didn’t quite make the same demands on the theatre’s facilities it did not lack in grandeur of scenery if the stage book is anything to go by as exemplified by the descriptions of the scene requirements contained in the Opera Rara libretto.

Alessandro nell’Indie has only three principal roles. In this respect Pacini was perhaps influenced by the fact that he had three of the finest singers of the day at his disposal. This trio included the renowned baritonal tenor Andrea Nozzari who had created roles in all the opera seria Rossini had created for the San Carlo. Alessandro nell’Indie is set in India and boasts several exotic scenes making appropriate demands on the San Carlo facilities. The text of Alessandro nell’Indie was originally by Metastasio, the great dramatist of a century earlier and whose works were enjoying an Indian summer in advance of the heady delights of approaching romanticism. Alessandro nell’Indie did not follow the earlier operatic treatment of Metastasio’s work which had involved long sections of secco recitative and solo arias. Rather he adopts more variety with duets, ensembles as well as solo arias and, above all, fast-closing sections. Whilst the librettist modifies whole sections of Metastasio’s text, the plot and sequences remain the same. The plot is a basically one of simple clemency and the benevolence of a despot, in this case Alexander The Great, all against the backdrop of his conquest of India.

The clemency theme litters many opera libretti from the previous century including those by Mozart. Whilst Pacini’s basic musical structures differed from the earlier works of this type, he makes no effort at reflecting the venue or local colour in the music. In fact it is very penny plain and can be considered simply as a vehicle for his star singers with the background of spectacular scenery. In the Opera Rara single disc titled Pacini Rediscovered (Review) there is a track of the terzetto, Che fai fellon'... Ciel! d'una misera, that Pacini added for the Milan revision. In that performance Majella Cullagh sings Cleofide with a dramatic conviction that I do not find as convincing in the American soprano Laura Claycomb’s interpretation. Yes, her voice is appropriately flexible and even, but she fails to add enough colour and, allied to poor diction, her overall characterisation leaves me unmoved (CD 1 trs.3-8). Whilst Bruce Ford has never been the most tonally grateful and mellifluous of tenors, I find his characterisation wholly convincing in a generally pleasing account (CD 2 tr.2. and CD 3 trs.9-10) despite moments of dry tone. Jennifer Larmore, as the Indian king Poro, is not at her best, lacking that creaminess of timbre that has illuminated her bravura singing in so many Opera Rara recordings, not least the recital titled Bravura Diva (Review). I also compared her act one aria Se possano tanto (CD 1 tr.14) with her Tacete! Ohime, quei from his 1823 Temistocle on the Pacini Rediscovered disc and wondered where that creamy colour had gone. Is her voice rising towards the soprano I wonder? Lower sonority and power is also lacking in Dean Robinson’s voice as Timagene, Alessandro’s confidante. In compensation, Mark Wilde as Gandarre, General of Poro’s army, sings strongly with clear lyric tone and more than a touch of Italianate squilla to go with his good expression.

The other main protagonist, and in quite a big way, is the chorus. Whilst Pacini’s music for the chorus has no echoes of early Verdi, its regular involvement as Indians or Greek warriors or priests is important to the story. There are no fewer than seven substantial choral contributions including the introduction immediately following a short sinfonia. In this approach Pacini was perhaps influenced by Rossini who used the procedure to set the drama under way in La donna del lago (CD and DVD review). Jeremy Commons is more flattering, suggesting that the construction of this chorus is such that it becomes a choral overture (CD 1 tr.2). Again, as Commons suggests, this may have been Pacini seeking to impress the audience with his grasp of harmony and counterpoint. It certainly launches the work most impressively. Unfortunately his creativity hits the doldrums later on, when there is a distinct and mundane rum-ti-tum quality to the choral writing as in the opening chorus of act three. Be that as it may, the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, as so often on Opera Rara recordings, give the choral contributions their considerable all. However, like the three main soloists they cannot disguise Pacini’s flagging inspiration as the opera progresses. I went back to an extract on the Pacini Rediscovered disc to see where the composer had got to in 1829 in his Il contestabile di Chester and compared it to Donizetti’s evolution with his 1828 revision of Emilia di Liverpool. The younger man had, in my view, moved on considerably by comparison with Pacini in terms of musical and compositional maturity. It is the difference between the good and the great, a fact that Pacini was himself to recognise when he withdrew from composition for his period of self-analysis, returning later to the fray with a significant change of style.

Opera Rara have championed Pacini with recordings of his Carlo di Borgogna of 1835 (ORC 21) and Maria, regina, d’Inghilterra of 1843 (ORC 15) as well as other extracts in recitals. In doing so they enable opera enthusiasts to investigate, enjoy and criticise Pacini and various otherwise forgotten and neglected composers from the primo ottocento - a period of plenty and from which we know too few. Despite my caveats, I welcome this opportunity to hear Pacini’s music from Opera Rara, supported by the Peter Moores Foundation. The quality of the recording in dynamic, balance and clarity is first rate in either format on my reference system.

Robert J Farr

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