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Lauro ROSSI (1810-1885) Cleopatra: melodrama in four acts (1876)
Cleopatra - Dimitra Theodossiou (soprano); Marco Antonio (Mark Antony) - Alessandro Liberatore (tenor); Ottavio Cesare (Octavius Cæsar) - Paolo Pecchioli (bass); Diomede (Diomedes) - Sebastian Catana (baritone); Ottavia (Octavia) - Tiziana Carraro (mezzo); Carmiana - Paola Gardina (mezzo); Prima ballerina - Anbeta Toromani; Coro Lirico Marchigiano ‘V. Bellini’ Marchigiana Philharmonic Orchestra/David Crescenzi; Director and designer: Pier Luigi Pizzi
rec. Arena Sferisterio, Macerata, Italy 24 and 29 July 2008
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: Dolby Digital 2.0 / Dolby Surround 5.0
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Sung in Italian. Subtitles in Italian and English. Italian libretto available from the Naxos website.
NAXOS 2.110279 [114:56]

Experience Classicsonline

Don’t worry if you had never heard of Lauro Rossi: neither had I, nor had the producer of this Sferisterio Festival recording when he began work on it. When I placed my bid for ‘Rossi: Cleopatra’, I imagined that the Rossi in question was one of three seventeenth-century composers of that name of whom I had heard - Luigi, Michelangelo and Salamone.

Lauro Rossi, though unknown to the Oxford Companion to Music, was a prolific opera composer. Born in Macerata in 1810, 1811 or (more probably) 1812, he studied in Naples with the teachers of Vincenzo Bellini and composed there and in Milan. Cleopatra was his penultimate opera, composed five years after Aïda: the notes point to the demand for Egyptian-themed works at that time, probably rightly. The 2008 revival at the Sferisterio Festival in Rossi’s home town seems to have been its first outing for a very long time. How typically Italian that such a small provincial town should have such a fine opera house and a more than adequate orchestra.

Of the many pros that I am going to ascribe to this recording, the first is that the director, set and costume designer, Pier Luigi Pizzi, has steered blessedly clear of the gimmicks that beset so many recent operatic productions: this is not Cleopatra on water or on ice, with Japanese dancers, or with mime artists. I’ve made up only one of those horrors: we’ve recently had Verdi’s Aïda in and on water from Bregenz, Handel’s Admeto with dancers and his Aci, Galatea e Polifemo with the singing roles doubled by mime artists. No doubt someone is planning Messiah on ice for Christmas even now. The sets and costumes on this DVD are elaborate and eye-catching without ever exceeding the bounds of common sense. Fully in keeping with the work, they contribute considerably to my overall enjoyment.

The DVD is produced by Naxos under licence from Dynamic who, of course, have a large catalogue of opera recordings on DVD and, latterly, on Blu-ray in their own catalogue. This co-operation has already borne fruit on several DVDs, including Verdi’s Macbeth, also recorded at the Sferisterio Festival, on 8.110258. Like Robert J Farr (hereafter RJF), reviewing that earlier set, I greatly enjoyed the stage direction of the very experienced Pizzi - see review.

The direction, sets and costumes are, indeed, more faithful to Egypt in the age of Cleopatra than Rossi and his librettist. In Act 1 the priests reveal how the gods have rejected all their human sacrifices:

più vittime adorne
di bende e di fior
sull’ara votammo ...

I don’t know about the earlier period, but the Greeks of the Hellenistic period - and Cleopatra was descended from the Greek Seleucid dynasty - shared the Roman revulsion at the child sacrifices of the Phoenicians and Carthaginians. On reflection, the error lies more with the translator of the subtitles: ‘dressed in veils and flowers’ implies that the victims are human in a way that adorne doesn’t.

I certainly don’t recall from Plutarch the events of Act 3, where Cleopatra arrives in Rome just in time to curse the newly-married Antony and Octavia, but it makes for such superb drama that Naxos were right to include a still from it on the front cover.

I was less happy than RJF, however, with the video direction. Admittedly, full-stage shots can seem unimpressive on the small screen, but I don’t think that we need so many transitions from wide-view to close-up, or from one close-up to another, especially as some of these leave an after-image of parts of the set briefly imposed on the singers’ faces. Something a little less ‘busy’ would have worked better for me.

I apologise for having left the musical performance until after the production, sets and costumes: I was too overjoyed to find such a ‘straight’ version on offer.

The singing is never less than adequate and often excellent. Dimitra Theodossiou rightly heads the cast listing in the brochure. She has a very powerful voice which places her head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. At the risk of sounding a male chauvinist, I have to point out that her appearance, especially as made up here, is more suited to Electra than to Cleopatra - in fact, I’d love to hear her sing the Richard Strauss role. Perhaps we’ve just been spoiled for good-looking Cleopatras by Daniele de Niese in that role in Handel’s Giulio Cesare and, in any case, though Plutarch praises at length the barge in which she first entertained Antony, her Venus-like attire, and her perfumes, the myriad lights when she invited him to supper and the flattery with which she referred to him, but not, as I recall, her beauty: judging from her coins, the historical Cleopatra seems to have been no great looker.

As RJF notes in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, she can fine her voice down when needed (Naxos DVD 2.110232 - see review), though I found rather less evidence of it here: it’s in the big moments that she shines. The force of Theodossiou’s voice and personality makes her so dominant, especially in the scene in Rome - invented by Rossi and his librettist - in which she ruins Antony’s marriage to Octavia and curses the whole proceedings. When Octavius, in the final act, briefly seems to fall under the same spell as Julius Cæsar and Antony before him, before Antony’s funeral cortège brings him back to his senses, we can quite believe the spell that this Cleopatra can weave.

The voice of Alessandro Liberatore, as Antony, is no match for that of his Cleopatra. She is, after all, the titular star of the opera: this is not Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, where her role is somewhat played down. His voice is attractive enough - a very pleasant, lightweight tenor - but, like everyone else, he is completely out-sung by her in their duets - and, to some extent, by other singers when he duets with them. Göran Forsling thought him able to colour his voice to good effect, but found him rather dry-voiced in Massenet’s Thaïs, which I guess amounts to much the same thing (Arthaus DVD 101385 - see review). Similarly, Jack Buckley commented that he was ‘little more than all right’ in Verdi’s I Lombardi at this year’s Sferisterio Festival - see review.

Paolo Pecchioli is a light-voiced Octavius, more bass-baritone here than bass. Even more than in Shakespeare who attributes a final lament to the conqueror:
let me lament,
With tears as sovereign as the blood of hearts,
That thou, my brother, my competitor
In top of all design, my mate in empire,
Friend and companion in the front of war,
The arm of mine own body, and the heart
Where mine his thoughts did kindle - that our stars,
Unreconcilable, should divide
Our equalness to this. (Antony and Cleopatra, 5.1.40-48)

Rossi’s Octavius seems genuinely desirous of maintaining the triumvirate or, at least, his partnership with Antony, and Pecchioli’s singing and acting convey that very well.

Rossi’s Octavia is rather a timid creature, fearful that she will never win Antony’s love. (According to Plutarch, she was not timid but a determined lady, who defied her brother’s orders to move out of Antony’s house in Rome when the conflict arose between them.) Like Pecchioli’s Octavius, Tiziano Carraro is credible both vocally and in acting terms in the role.

The role of Diomedes, merely a ‘follower’ of Cleopatra in Shakespeare, is much expanded by Rossi and his librettist to become her admirer and would-be lover. He’s the first of the soloists to sing, lamenting the priests’ prophecy of Cleopatra’s doom. Sebastian Catana sings and acts the part well.

I have included Anbeta Toromani as the prima ballerina in the cast listing: her short dance adds considerably to the performance without ever being as obtrusive as some of the choreography can be in modern opera productions.

The recorded sound is good, especially played via an audio system, and the picture is more than acceptable, though it’s a little grainier than most recent opera DVDs, let alone Blu-ray discs. On screens over 37” the effect is probably quite noticeable.

The synopsis in the booklet is more than adequate and I warmly welcome Naxos’s decision to make the Italian libretto available online. The English subtitles are generally helpful, though they are very hard to follow in duets and trios: I/he sing/s is not a very helpful way to show that two singers are singing similar but slightly different words. Occasionally, the subtitles paraphrase unnecessarily: dolore means not ‘pain’ but grief or sorrow. It would have made much more sense to have used the more familiar name forms in the English subtitles - Antony, not Antonio, etc.

If you like Verdi, you will almost certainly enjoy this performance of Rossi’s Cleopatra, especially if you are a snapper-up of what in the eighteenth century used to be called ‘curiosities’ - not then a term of abuse when every gentleman had his ‘cabinet of curiosities’. I have a category ‘Discovery of the Month’ in my MusicWeb Download Roundups. That’s not a category on these pages but, if it were, this would be my Discovery of the Month.

Brian Wilson



 


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