RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Ermione - Opera in Two Acts (1819)
Ermione, rejected lover of Pirro and loved by Orestes - Carmen Giannattasio (soprano); Andromaca, widow of Hector and a prisoner of Pirro who is infatuated by her - Patricia Bardon (mezzo); Orestes, son of Agamemnon - Colin Lee (tenor); Pirro, King of Epirus, betrothed to Ermione - Paul Nillon (tenor); Pylade, companion of Orestes - Bülent Bezdüz (tenor); Fenicio, tutor to Pyrrhus - Graeme Broadbent (bass); Cleone - Rebecca Bottone (soprano); Cefisa - Victoria Simmonds (soprano); Attalo - Loic Felix (tenor)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir; London Philharmonic Orchestra/David Parry
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, March 2009
OPERA RARA ORC 42 [64.47+69.35]
As I write, 2010 is becoming quite a year for Rossini lovers. It has amongst other things seen the staging of his lesser-known works or their appearance on CD and DVD, often making them readily available for the first time. This is particularly true of the nine opera seria that the composer wrote for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples beginning with Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, (Opera Rara ORC 22)the composer’sfifteenth opera in October 1815 and concluding with Zelmira (Opera Rara ORC 27)his thirty-third in February 1822. This Opera Rara issue of Ermione, Rossini’stwenty-seventh and the sixth in the Naples sequence, comescomplete with full background to the opera as well as a libretto and translation in English. This recording and performance can stand alongside the first staged performances of Armida in both Britain (see review) and the USA as being particularly significant and welcome.
The nine Naples opera seria came about as a result of the recognition by Barbaja, the powerful impresario of the Royal Theatres of Naples, of Rossini’s pre-eminence among his contemporaries. This had become even more evident after the premieres of Tancrediand L’Italiana in Algeri in Venice in 1813. These launched Rossini on an unstoppable career that saw him become the most prestigious opera composer of his time. Barbarja summoned Rossini to Naples and offered him the musical directorship of the Royal Theatres, the San Carlo and Fondo. The proposal appealed to Rossini for several reasons. First, his annual fee was generous and guaranteed. Secondly, and equally important, unlike Rome and Venice Naples had a professional orchestra. Rossini saw this as a considerable advantage as he aspired to push the boundaries of his opera composition into more adventurous directions. Under the terms of the contract, Rossini was to provide two operas each year for Naples whilst being permitted to compose occasional works for other cities. The composer tended to push the limits of this contract and in the first two years he composed no fewer than five operas for other venues, with Il Barbiere di Siviglia being among four for Rome
Although not all of Rossini’s nine Naples opera seria were outstanding successes, only Ermione was considered to have been an out and out failure. It survived for only five performances and was then not heard again until concert performances in Sienna in 1977 and Padua in 1986. The latter seems to have stimulated the Erato recording of the same year, both featuring Cecilia Gasdia in the eponymous role, Ernesto Palacio as Pirro and Chris Merritt as Oreste; Claudio Scimone is the conductor (Warner 2564 68751-9). The emergence of a provisional Critical Edition by Patricia Brauner and Philip Gossett provided the basis for the staged performance at the Pesaro Rossini Festival in 1987. This featured Montserrat Caballé as Ermione and Marilyn Horne as Andromaca. It too was a disaster. Gossett in an excoriating criticism of both conductor, for lack of preparation, and the soprano diva for mangling the score (Divas and Scholars. Chicago 2006 pp 6-7) has continued to maintain the work to be “One of the finest works in the history of 19thcentury Italian opera.” Given Gossett’s eminence as a scholar in this field this is a considerable statement.
After the 1987 Pesaro staging, performances followed elsewhere. Most significant were those in Rome, San Francisco, and Buenos Aires as well as at the 1995 and 1996 Glyndebourne Festivals and all of which involved Anna Caterina Antonacci in the eponymous role. Her performance in that latter production, along with an admired cast, is available on DVD (review) and does much to confirm Gossett’s view as does this present recording. As to the reason for the initial failure, many have been suggested. Stendhal, in his famous Life of Rossini (1824) suggests that the failure was due to the characters spending much of their time on stage ranting at each other. More likely is the view of contemporary scholars who, in the context of Rossini’s operatic oeuvre at the time, view its structure as several steps too far for the Naples audience of 1819. In his introductory essay to this issue Jeremy Commons (p.18) states “Ermione is, quite simply, the most experimental opera Rossini ever wrote; an opera in which he broke down the accepted musical structures of the day.”There are few formal arias or even duets; the chorus or other individuals often interrupt those that are present. Of those present, notable are Orestes’ cavatina Reggia abboritta (CD 1 tr.12), the duet between Orestes and Ermione Amati? Ah si mio ben! at the start of the act 1 finale (CD 2 trs.2-3) and the duet between Ermione and Pirro (CD 1 trs.8-10). Perhaps the most notable however, is Ermione’s recitative Che feci? Dove son? and the following andantino Parmi che ad ogni istante (CD 2 tr.20) in the finale to the opera as she regrets her hasty decision to persuade Orestes to kill Pirro and which is followed by the dramatic duet with Orestes when she berates him for not recognising her love for Pirro (tr.21).
Ermione is based on Racine’s Andromaque of 1667, the first great tragedy of Jean Racine and regarded as a pinnacle of French drama. The librettist, Leone Tottola, was true to the origins and there is no attempt at a happy ending as was often the contemporary practice and expectation. Despite these factors the score has many of Rossini’s hallmarks of melody as well as the drama of his opera seria. What any performance must have, and gets here, is vibrancy and momentum. For this the conductor, David Parry, deserves the highest praise. To this must be added the contribution of the chorus who play a vital role in the evolving drama. The Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, a presence on many Opera Rara recordings, bring an involvement and commitment to the performance of the highest standard in repertoire that will be unknown to them. Add a first class recording quality and only the accomplishments of the soloists remain before we can claim an outstanding performance.
The soloists at the premiere and abbreviated run in Naples those years ago included the redoubtable, if declining in skill, Isabella Colbran. She was joined by the two famous tenors on the San Carlo roster, Andrea Nozzari as Pirro and Giovanni David as Oreste. Both were noted for their formidable techniques; the former having a somewhat baritonal timbre whilst the latter’s ability in florid singing was perhaps only surpassed by the incomparable Rubini. In the Warner recording, Ernesto Palacio, nowadays famous as the teacher of Juan Diego Florez, can be recognised by his soft-grained timbre and sensitive phrasing whilst Chris Merritt, on best vocal behaviour, sings Orestes. On the basis of the casting in the original Naples performances I would have expected the roles to be reversed. In this performance Pirro is sung quite superbly by Paul Nillon who inflects his singing with passion and more beauty of tone and phrase than I have often heard from him. Colin Lee, sings Orestes. Lee is often the back-up to the renowned Florez in the high tessitura of Rossini performances at the major addresses, perhaps getting to sing at the end of the run after opening night and the headlines. Well, that is changing pretty fast with his now being carded as Tonio for the whole of La Fille du Régiment at Covent Garden in 2011. He has already featured alongside Florez in the recent La Donna del Lago in Paris as well as singing the role of Arturo in the Metropolitan Opera’s relay of Lucia di Lammermoor, now available on DVD. As well as having the necessary vocal flexibility, he fields more body of vocal tone than his Peruvian coeval. This enables him to invest significant characterisation in his interpretation without distortion of his singing or vocal line. This quality is particularly appropriate and appreciated in the act one duet with Ermione as noted above.
Carmen Giannattasio’s warm soprano scales the vocal challenges of the role. She conveys Ermione’s various complex emotions to near perfection. Her singing in the act two finale is of the highest standard conveying the character’s over-wrought state prior to her collapse. She does this significantly better than the leaner-toned Cecilia Gasdia on the rival set; overall the role fits her like a glove. Certainly her contribution is the most significant in a generally distinguished group of soloists. That is not to understate the contribution of the tenors mentioned or that of the third tenor, Bülent Bezdüz as Pylade. His timbre is distinct from that of his colleagues whilst conveying the character well. Graeme Broadbent as Fenicio sings sonorously in the lower register, more a Zaccaria in waiting; higher up the scale he is a little less convincing. I greatly admired Dublin-born Handel specialist Patricia Bardon as Malcolm in Opera Rara’s recording of La Donna del Lago (see review). I find her distinctive low mezzo vocally firm, tonally even and certainly expressive. Seeing and hearing her as Carmen earlier this year for Welsh National Opera (see review) confirmed my impression. If she does not quite manage to reach the heights of her performance in the earlier Opera Rara Rossini, recorded live at the Edinburgh festival in 2006, hers is still a worthy and well-sung interpretation (CD 1 tr.3 and CD 2 trs.10-12). All the lesser roles are well taken with distinctive vocal qualities that make following the libretto easy in the various concerted passages.
The recording is clear and well balanced, far preferable to the recessed sound on the Warner. Although the Warner performance is at bargain price the presence of the full libretto and translation is vital in this opera of complex ensembles. Add the extra ten or so minutes of music in the Ricordi edition and this recording and performance is a clear winner. It’s yet another success for Opera Rara as they work their way through the nine Neapolitan opera seria.
Robert J Farr
A quality performance of one of the rarest and most distinctive of Rossini’s opera seria composed for Naples.