Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791–1864)
Il crociato in Egitto (1824) [204:10]
Armando Michael Maniaci (counter-tenor); Palmide Patrizia Ciofi (soprano); Aladino Marco Vinco (bass); Osmino Iorio Zennaro (tenor); Alma Silvia Pasini (mezzo); Adriano di Montfort Fernando Portari (tenor); Felicia Laura Polverelli (mezzo); Primo schiavo Luca Favaron (tenor); Secondo schiavo Emanuele Pedrini (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro La Fenice/Emmanuele Villaume
rec. live, Teatro La Fenice, Venice 16 January 2007

NAXOS 8.660245-47 [3 CDs: 73.12 + 71.57 + 59.01]

Until Opera Rara started recording the operas from Meyerbeer's Italian period, his French operas tended to dominate the record catalogue. Opera Rara have recorded Dinorah, Il crociato in Egitto and Margherita d'Anjou. Now Naxos seems to be following up on this: their recording of Semiramide has a companion in this new recording of Il crociato in Egitto. In fact, in the recent CD catalogue it is Meyerbeer's French operas which are being overshadowed by the Italian ones.

Il crociato in Egitto has the unusual distinction of being the last significant opera written for a castrato. The role of Armando was created by Giovanni Velluti, who sang in both the Venice and London performances - and loved London so much that he stayed to manage the theatre. When the opera was performed in Paris, Armando was sung by soprano Giuditta Pasta and Meyerbeer wrote new music for her.

This recording, made live at La Fenice in Venice, uses an edition based on that first performed at La Fenice in 1824, though it is slightly trimmed, no great violence is done to the score. On this disc the role of Armando is sung by the high counter-tenor Michael Maniaci. Unusually for a counter-tenor singing at this high pitch, Maniaci's voice offers flexibility and depth; his top notes are entirely creditable. But he has a rather soft-grained voice which is quite feminine in timbre. Having a man playing the role on stage is probably a great advantage, but on disc Maniaci does not present the bright-edged brilliance which the castrato originally brought to the role.

Il crociato in Egitto does not have quite the grandeur and grandiosity of Meyerbeer's French operas, but it is on a large and generous scale. The plot unfolds slowly with plenty of epic scenes. It may not be a master-piece, but listening to it you can understand why Meyerbeer was popular in Italy. He combines a respect and flair for traditional forms with a very Germanic feel for structure and polyphony.

The plot, as with Meyerbeer's later operas, sets the conflict between love and personal duty against the backdrop of an historical conflict. The story concerns Armando, a Knight of Rhodes, who is living in Egypt pretending to be Egyptian. He is secretly married to Palmide (Patrizia Ciofi) who has converted to Christianity. Palmide is the daughter of Sultan Aladino (Marco Vinco). Things are made complicated when Armando's former colleagues and fiancee appear: Adriano (Fernando Portari), Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes, and Felicia (Laura Poverelli). The struggle plays out slowly over three acts until Aladino generously allows Adriano and Palmide to return to Provence, leaving poor faithful Felicia to fade out gracefully.

The advantage of this recording is that it is made live, and is sung by a predominantly Italian cast. Whilst Maniaci and Ciofi are appealing as the leading couple, their vibrato-rich voices are not quite sharp enough in the fioriture to be ideal. In fact their timbres are rather too close to be ideal. Laura Polverelli as Felicia is richly contrasting, with her mezzo-soprano voice, but her strong vibrato will not be to everyone's taste and her passagework is inclined to be smudged.

Marco Vinco is strong with a richly grained bass voice, as Palmide's father. As his counterpart, Fernando Portari displays a bright tenor as Adriano. These principals are well supported by Iorio Zennaro as Osmino, the Sultan's Vizier, and Silvia Pasini as Alma.

As this is recorded from a live staging there are the inevitable slips in ensemble. But this is more than made up for by the dramatic commitment that the singers bring to the piece. It certainly needs help in this department as Meyerbeer and his librettist, Rossi, rather fail to make you actually care about the characters. Armando is rather priggish and not entirely admirable, he very much wants to have his cake and eat it. And you rather feel sorry for the abandoned Felicia. Perhaps I might have been more convinced if Maniaci had sounded more like a virile soldier.

In many ways, you would probably want to see the piece rather than just listen to it.

The Opera Rara recording of Il crociato in Egitto, issued in 1992, is strongly cast with Diana Montague and Yvonne Kenny as Armando and Palmide, with Bruce Ford and Della Jones. The set includes all the music that Meyerbeer wrote for all the performances he supervised. But it comes at a cost, four discs at medium to full price; whereas Naxos issue the set on three budget price discs.

The CD booklet includes pictures of the La Fenice production and a quite extensive plot summary, but no libretto. You can download the Italian libretto from the Naxos web-site, but this lacks an English translation, which might be a problem for those lacking Italian who are unfamiliar with the opera.

If you are curious about the Italian Meyerbeer then this set will give you a strong flavour of the piece, but Meyerbeer lovers will want to stick to the Opera Rara discs.

Robert Hugill

Gives a strong flavour of the piece… see Full Review