Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Stabat Mater (1842 version)
Anna Netrebko (soprano)
Joyce DiDonato (mezzo)
Lawrence Brownlee (tenor)
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Antonio Pappano
rec. Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Pardo della Music, Rome July 2010. DDD.
EMI CLASSICS 6 405292 5 [52:27]

There was not much suggestion of retirement when Rossini presented his longest, and most romantic opera, William Tell, at the Paris Opéra on 3 August 1829. In 1828 when he began composing Guillaume Tell, Rossini was 36 years old and following the death of Beethoven he was the world’s best-known composer. It was his 39th year and yet he was never to compose an opera again despite his living until the age of 76. The reasons conjectured are many, including the hypothesis that he recognised his time in the genre was over with Donizetti and Bellini increasing moving towards romanticism. Equally likely was his health. Rossini ‘enjoyed’ ill health. To accompany his endemic depression we must remember he also suffered from obesity and chronic urethritis; all testimony to his gastronomic and earlier carnal excesses with financial in security and lassitude complementing these woes.

Despite Rossini’s intention and expectation of retirement, he was to find that friendships have their cost. Then, as now, there are no free lunches in life. During the composition of William Tell he had been guest at the Chateau of a friend Alejandro Aguado, a Spanish-born banker, who after the premiere of the opera invited him to go on an all-expenses paid trip to Spain. Aguado in turn was a friend of the Archdeacon of Madrid who greatly desired a religious work from the Italian master of opera. A Stabat Mater was proposed. Pergolesi’s masterly and respected setting was a deterrent to Rossini and the project hung heavily on him for two years. In the event he wrote six of the twelve parts, farming the other six out to another composer. It was in this form that the work was first performed in 1833. The agreement was that the manuscript was not to be sold and Rossini accepted a gold snuffbox in lieu of payment. However, when the Archdeacon died the manuscript was sold and ended up in the hands of a Paris music publisher. Embarrassed at the thought of the dual authorship being revealed Rossini set about recovering the manuscript and providing his own settings. In this final form of ten parts, which is as presented here, the work had a considerable triumph in Paris and Bologna in 1842.

Over the years I have heard Rossini’s Stabat Mater several times, despite the difficulty of casting the tenor role, and owned several different versions. Giulini conducts one version that has stayed the course in my collection (DG 410 034-2). Recorded in 1981 with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus it is characterised by the conductor’s rather languorous and spiritual approach, much along the same lines as his reading of the Verdi Requiem. In this Giulini is utterly different to Pappano in the present new version. Pappano takes an altogether more dramatic view, something akin to Solti in his recording of the Verdi work. What amazes me the most is the difference in timing between this, at fifty-seven minutes, and Giulini at no less than sixty-five, with Pappano being nearer, if slightly faster than earlier well known versions such as Hickox at sixty minutes (Chandos), but not as fast as Kertész at fifty-four (Decca). As far as individual movements are concerned the introductory Stabat Mater dolorosa (tr.1) differs little between Pappano and Giulini, but come the duet for the soprano and mezzo Qui est homo (tr.3) and the variance is nearly a minute with Pappano at 6.20. The two Quartettos (trs.6 and 9) differ to a similar extent. As well as the dramatic thrust and wide dynamic variation of Pappano’s version, these contrasting timings have a major impact on the singers and the overall perception of the piece.

As here the singers are well known in opera circles. Both Giulini’s and Pappano’s sopranos, Katia Ricciarelli and Anna Netrebko, have biggish voices. The former had Aida and other lyrico-spinto roles in her repertoire. I would not have described Netrebko in those terms a couple of years ago, when her light flexible voice enchanted me in Bellini’s I Puritani, recorded in January 2007 (see review) and in I Capuleti e I Montecchi recorded in April 2008 (see review). However, I noticed a distinct difference in her voice in the Met broadcast of Lucia di Lammermoor in February 2009. The tone had thickened and she was not as steady. These characteristics were further confirmed when listening to a broadcast of Carmen from Vienna recorded earlier in 2010, when her Micaela is distinctly insecure with an obvious vibrato. In between the Bellini and Donizetti performances she gave birth. It is not unusual for a woman’s voice to change character significantly in those circumstances, but if she has sung too near the birth or too soon after, when the oxytocin hormone kicks in to relax the muscles in readiness for parturition, the change might persist. Add her unfamiliarity with the Rossini genre, and her contribution to the Inflammatus (tr. 8) and duet with Joyce DiDonato (tr.3) are less than ideal to my ears.

Unlike Netrebko, Joyce DiDonato is very familiar with Rossini’s music. She features in two of my Recordings of the Year (see review). Yet in this performance she seems inhibited. Whilst it is true that she lacks the strength in the lower voice of Lucia Valentini Terrani for Giulini, I had expected better from her in the duet with her female colleague Qui est homo (tr.3) and her solo cavatina Fac, ut portem, Christ mortem as His mother asks that she might share the death and Passion of Christ (tr.7).

The best news in this performance comes with the male soloists, Lawrence Brownlee and Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, along with the superb Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and its chorus. In the Giulini performance, as well as the somewhat overblown singing of the soprano, the tenor is seriously strained in the Cujus animam. The very best news in this performance is the singing of Brownlee in that first aria (tr.2) along with his contributions in the quartets when his appealing tenor soars freely. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo is musical, sonorous and particularly expressive in his aria Pro peccatis suae gentis (tr.4), in the recitative of the Eja, Mater (tr.5) and in the quartets. As well as his own strong vocal qualities, D’Arcangelo is far superior in his approach to notes to Raimondi for Giulini.

I have referred to the dramatic thrust and wide dynamic sound-range of Pappano’s version. The photograph of the recording session shows the singers between the conductor and orchestra. This is not what I hear on the recording. The orchestra is significantly forward of the voices with the wide dynamic range that Pappano promotes from the orchestra given prominence. This is to the detriment of the soloists and to overall appreciation of Rossini’s music. In days gone by, recording in the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia was considered problematic with the resultant sound being somewhat constricted and lacking in space. This is not so here, indicating either improvements in the acoustic properties of the venue or balancing by the engineers.

If one finds that Pappano’s dramatic dynamism and wide range enhance Rossini’s music, then this version will have appeal. The sound balance mitigates the vocal limitations I find with some of the soloists.

Robert J. Farr

I strongly suggest this is a case of try before you buy.

see also review by Simon Thompson (November 2010 Recording of the Month)