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
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
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
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
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
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
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.