Giovanni PACINI (1796-1867)
L’ultimo giorno di Pompei (1825) [152.21]
Raul Gimenez (tenor) - Appio Diomede, Iano Tamar (soprano) - Ottavia, Nicolas Revenq (baritone) - Sallustio, Gregory Bonfatti (tenor) - Pubblio, Sonia Lee (soprano) - Menenio, Riccardo Novaro (bass) - High Priest, Svetlana Sidorova (soprano) - Clodio, Emil Alekperov (tenor) - Fausto
Bratislava Chamber Choir, Orchestra of the Teatro Bellini Catania/Giuliano Capella
rec. Martina Franca Palazzo Ducale, 2-4 August 1996 (formerly issued in 1999)
DYNAMIC CDS 729/1-2 [76.46 + 75.35]
Giovanni Pacini was one of those Italian composers who had a degree of success in the early nineteenth century but who were eventually eclipsed by the greater talents of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and ultimately Verdi, and who thereafter disappeared from the repertory for a century or more. In fact Pacini disappeared during his own lifetime. After 1833 he, like Rossini, retired from the operatic stage; unlike Rossini, he then staged a ‘comeback’ in the 1840s with scores such as Saffo and Maria Regina d’Inghilterra, both of which have recently been revived and recorded and on which Pacini’s reputation (such as it is) nowadays largely rests. But by the 1840s his style had begun to seem old-fashioned, and his eclipse by the up-and-coming Verdi was this time total. He was apparently no musical technician - Rossini had said in one of his more waspish bon mots “God help us if he knew music, for then no one could resist him” - and his style indeed closely resembles that of the later Rossini opera grande such as William Tell and Moses. Actually L’ultimo giorno di Pompei was written before either of the Paris versions of these Rossini works, but his model was clearly Rossini’s earlier works in the same serious vein such as Ermione and Semiramide. There is the same delight in coloratura display for its own sake, but there is also a movement towards concerted numbers in which the various singers are set off one against another; and some of these passages have an impetus which can also be seen to anticipate early Verdi. Indeed, there is only one extended solo passage, the tenor aria (with chorus) Oh mi crudele affetto! (CD 2, tracks 11-13)where the sheer difficulty of the writing has almost certainly militated against any prospect of star Italian tenors performing it in recital.
The last days of Pompeii might be suspected of being based on Bulwer Lytton, whose historical novels also inspired Wagner’s Rienzi. No such luck. What we have here is a pretty well bog-standard story of love and betrayal with the historical setting almost an irrelevance until the volcano blows its top (quite spectacularly, in a passage which seems to have left its mark on Berlioz’s Troyens) at the very end. The leading tenor is the villain of the piece - Rossini had already set a precedent for this by casting Iago as a tenor in his setting of Otello - and when he is rejected by the wife of the local magistrate, he - with the aid of his accomplice, also a tenor - accuses her of adultery. She is condemned by her husband to be buried alive. There are echoes here of Spontini’s Vestale as well as an anticipation of Verdi’s Aida. When the conspirators rather unconvincingly have a fit of remorse brought on by the eruption of Vesuvius and confess their perjury, they are condemned to be buried alive in her place. She and her husband flee the city as “an enormous quantity of ashes and pumice” descends, leaving the rest of the citizens to fend for themselves. This rather dubiously ‘happy ending’ brings the opera to an abrupt close.
The main problem lies with the music itself, which is always expertly constructed and at times reminds the listener of Rossini, or Donizetti, or Bellini, or Spontini, or Berlioz, or early Verdi. But the imitations, good as they are, never quite achieve a profile of their own and one is left with an impression of a generic bel canto opera - although the same could be said of quite a few operas by Rossini, or Donizetti. There are some novel touches, including use of the harp to lend period colour, and the two villainous tenors have a brilliant duet (CD1, track 25) where the coloratura embellishments do not quite succeed in destroying the dramatic impact of their plot. There is a seemingly insatiable public appetite for obscure bel canto operas, so those who missed this recording on its initial issue will be delighted to snap it up now.
We are not likely ever to get a second recording of this opera, so it is excellent news that this one is so good. Pacini was born in Catania, and his home town does him proud. It is perhaps somewhat surprising that they had to import a chorus from Bratislava, but they sing very well and are almost certainly an improvement on what any local Italian opera chorus would have delivered. Gimenez and Tamar both cope superbly with the fiendishly difficult coloratura passages they have to negotiate; Bonfatti is a good foil for Gimenez in their duet passages, and Rivenq as the magistrate is suitably noble. Carella conducts with enthusiasm and a real feeling for the idiom; it is hardly his fault that the many conventional processional passages are so extended. The whole performance is indeed excellent, a considerable cut above many of the revivals of this repertory in Italian provincial opera houses which we more usually get served up on disc. It gives a good impression of Pacini’s style, with all its faults and all its felicities well portrayed and in focus.
The recording comes from a live performance, but there are not too many stage noises apart from the tramping noises during the procession scenes - although some of them, like the onstage squeaking of the scenery, are somewhat mysterious. The audience is generally very well-behaved. The booklet gives a full track-listing and some details about Pacini himself, but the curtailed plot synopsis is not very helpful. The libretto (in both Italian and English) is available online and is helpfully crammed onto a mere thirteen pages (although the typeface could be larger) together with CD cues. The translation itself is not a literary masterpiece - the final chorus beginning “Si fugga … e dove?” is rendered rather inelegantly as “Let us abscond … but where?” which makes the citizens of Pompeii sound as if they are doing a moonlight flit - but it conveys the sense of the action adequately.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
A good impression of Pacini with all faults and felicities well portrayed and in focus.