Lauro ROSSI (1812Ė1885)
Cleopatra - Melodrama in Four Acts (1876)
Cleopatra - Dimitra Theodossiou (soprano); Marco Antonio - Alessandro Liberatore (tenor); Ottavio Cesare - Paolo Pecchioli (bass); Diomede - Sebastian Catana (bass-baritone); Proculejo - William CorrÚ (bass); Ottavia - Tiziana Carraro (alto)
Coro Lirico Marchigiano ĎV. Bellinií
Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana/David Crescenzi
rec. Teatro Lauro Rossi, Sferisterio Festival, Macerata, Italy, 24-29 July 2008
Director, set and costume designer: Pier Luigi Pizzi
Dual Layer Disc. Sound format Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Dolby Surround 5.0.
Video format, NTSC: No Region Coding. Aspect Ratio: 16:9
NAXOS DVD 2.110279 [114:56]

Dates tell you an awful lot when it comes to opera. Take Lauro Rossi for example. Born two years after Verdi, he died two years before the premiere of the great Italian masterís Otello. His Cleopatra, based on an Egyptian theme, was premiered four and a half years after Verdiís Aida, also based on an Egyptian theme. Although Rossi seems not to merit even a mention in Michael and Joyce Kennedyís Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (Fifth Edition, 2007), he was no operatic or composer ingťnue. On the contrary, he was among those chosen by Verdi to compose a section of the proposed Messe per Rossini - in his case the Agnus Dei. It is also true that his name does not feature, along with seven others of the twelve chosen by Verdi for that composition, in the esoteric list of operatic composers found in the Opera Rara catalogue. This is perhaps forgivable as even the vastly experienced Pier Luigi Pizzi, director of this production, claimed not to have heard of him until this production! He should have done more home-work. I have a performance of Rossiís comic opera Il Domino Nero recorded live with the Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana, the same as here, on 28 September 2001. Nor should Pizzi have been surprised given the name of the theatre where this performance of Cleopatra took place, rather than in the open-air arena normally the venue of the large-scale opera performances of the Sferisterio Festival (See reviews of Maria Stuarda, Macbeth and Norma from the 2007 Festival). Meanwhile, we should be grateful that Pizziís efforts at fund-raising saved the Festival, albeit with some changes of programme after the withdrawal of state funding; perhaps shadows of things to come nearer home in the UK.

Fortunately the essay in the accompanying leaflet is highly informative. Rossi premiered a shared composition at the San Carlo, Naples, in 1830 after which his compositions came thick and fast. On Donizettiís recommendation he was offered an appointment at the Teatro Valle in Rome. His tenth opera was premiered at La Scala in 1834 indicating that Rossi composed at a similar pace to Donizetti and Rossini, as was necessary to earn a living in an era when the diva was paid more than the composer. After the failure of a commission for the great diva Maria Malibran in Naples in 1834, Rossi took his talents to North and South America where he was music director and organizer of several opera companies. After a return to Europe Rossi was not short of work, composing both comic and tragic operas. His comic opera Il Domino Nero, presented in Milan in 1849, was a great success. But when the security of an academic post was offered in Milan in 1850 he took it and his pace of composition lessened. Even so six of his works were a success during this period. He moved to Naples Music Conservatory in 1870, working there until 1878 during which time he wrote his penultimate work Cleopatra, and after which he retired to the musical town of Cremona.

Premiered at the Teatro Regio, Turin, on 5 March 1876, Rossiís Cleopatra caught the publicís imagination. Whether or not Verdiís AÔda premiered five years earlier influenced his composition, or its reception, is conjectural. Whilst the musical style lacks the bravura of Verdiís creation it is composed with the dramatic situations well supported by the music, be that in aria, duet or ensemble. Despite the well-known nature of the love of Anthony, Antonio here, and the eponymous heroine, Rossiís Cleopatra requires a clear and easily comprehensible production. In this respect none does that better than the vastly experienced Pier Luigi Pizzi, especially as - his norm these days - he also designs the sets and costumes. The costumes of the Roman contingent are very much in period with bare knees and togas for the men and long decorous red dresses for the women; the colour differentiating them from the white of the Egyptians. Cleopatra herself is dressed wholly in a black, somewhat voluminous dress. Her admirer, Diomede is also dressed in all black but with an ornament. The single set is very much standard Pizzi mainly comprising wide-stepped stairs with the odd black flat surface downstage where the eponymous heroine has some of her dramatic moments in clear focus.

I do not know which came first, the signing of Dimitra Theodossiou or the choice of opera. They certainly go well together. The work requires a big dramatic-voiced Cleopatra who can throw her voice and whole being into the portrayal. The downside of Dimitra Theodossiou in any repertoire of this type is an intrusive vibrato at dramatic climaxes. I would not wish to overstate this, as the impact is less than it might be. Her vocal contribution is significantly superior to that of her colleagues, most notably in Cleopatraís act two-aria sequence starting with Lieto in raggio (Chs.9-11) as bereft in her palace Cleopatra yearns for Antonio. As her advisor and would-be suitor Diomede, Sebastian Catana, more bass than baritone, is among the best of a variable supporting cast (Chs.4, 5,12,13). The tenor Antonio, Alessandro Liberatore, is musical but lacks the required heft and clear ping to his voice (Chs.24-26). As Ottavio Cesare, who wishes Antonio to marry his sister in order that he can wage a successful war in the east, Paolo Pecchioliís bass has more cover than clarity and the role loses some dramatic impact as a consequence (Chs.9, 28); one senses a good voice trying to escape. With her strong contraltoish tones Tiziana Carraro, as Cesareís sister Ottavia, has too much dramatic impact than the role really calls for (Chs.16-18). David Crescenzi, the chorus master, conducts the performance. He stepped in at the very last minute and as a consequence the extant overture was not performed. Like the chorus he prepared, his achievement in Rossiís little known opera is considerable.

The music itself falls somewhere between that of the Italian bel canto and the verismo composers. You will look in vain for the fibre and character of Verdiís Aida, let alone of Otello. Nonetheless it is melodic and contains several dramatic confrontations and some notable scenes, including the thrilling ensemble that closes Act 3.

The DVD direction shows a little of the intimate theatre. During the opera itself not much is seen of the whole of the stage, the director focusing on close-ups or mid-shots. The sound and picture quality are good.

Robert J Farr

see also review by Brian Wilson

A welcome hearing of a competent, but little known, Italian opera composer overshadowed by Verdi.