was the composer’s last
and longest opera. I do not think I would go on to say that it
was also necessarily his best, but it is certainly an amazing
work full of life. It is, in many ways, both a summation of his
operatic genius and a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been
had he continued to write for the stage. Like his other last operas
it was written for Paris and in its scale and mixture of public
and private events is a clear forerunner of such works as Les
and Don Carlos.
At the same time it can be
regarded as essentially classical, but with that style subtly
transfigured into one that is just as essentially romantic. It
represents a turning point in the history of opera, so that the
obvious question arises as to why it is so seldom encountered
on the stage, and why many music-lovers know it solely by its
undoubtedly magnificent overture.
There are several answers to this, but as is clear from these discs they are a mixture of the inherent performance problems and of the expectations of the audience. The performance difficulties tend to centre on casting, in particular of the tenor role of Arnold. This was first sung by Adolphe Nourrit, but its most famous performer was Gilbert-Louis Duprez who made a feature of taking the many high Bs and Cs from the chest rather than with the head voice as the composer would have expected from previous singers. Nowadays tenors who use the head voice in this role are rare, and one of the great pleasures of this performance is Nicolai Gedda’s willingness to do this for at least some of the time. Maybe it is less momentarily exciting but the sheer quantity of high notes can make tenors singing with the chest voice very wearing to listen to. In addition he sings with real elegance, assisted by the use of the original French words.
Problems of casting almost as great arise with the role of Matilde, and the choice of Montserrat Caballé was inspired. Her tone and phrasing show both classical restraint and an understanding of the composer’s style, and so too does Gabriel Bacquier in the title role. I could continue in this vein for the many other secondary roles; the inclusion of French singers seems to have spurred the others on in their adoption of a Gallic style. It is typical of the care over casting that the first solo - the very minor role of a fisherman – is beautifully sung here by Charles Burles with just the right ease of tone and attention to phrasing. The chorus and orchestra are English but sing and play with immense care for the subtlety of Rossini’s writing under Lamberto Gardelli’s very idiomatic direction.
And here we must turn to the second part of the problem of performance. The speed of events in this opera, as in so many of Rossini’s “serious” or “semi-serious” works, is leisurely. The formal structure of individual numbers frequently makes use of extensive repetition, and many of those numbers are essentially scene-setting rather than driving the plot forward. The lengthy ballet sequences in Acts 1 and 3 are musically delightful but hold up the action just where one expects it to be moving on. This recording is complete – a real virtue in principle in such a rarely recorded work, but one which may try the listener’s patience at times. Nonetheless what we have here is the only recording of the opera in its original language, performed in a way that respects its essentially noble and humane character as well as its musical style. To enjoy it fully the listener must accept its length and the inclusion of episodes more related to the setting than to the story. A libretto is contained in a “bonus” disc and is an essential adjunct.
The obvious comparison is with Decca’s recording conducted by Riccardo Chailly with Pavarotti, Freni and Milnes in Italian. Exciting as that undoubtedly is I much prefer the present version for its fidelity to the text and idiom of the opera as the composer would have known it. Even if you are fortunate enough to attend a live performance the chances of its reaching anywhere near the musical standards achieved here are remote. The prospects for a rival recording of similar quality are equally remote so that for anyone interested in Rossini or indeed in nineteenth century opera in general this is a welcome and indeed essential reissue.