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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797 -1848)
Caterina Cornaro - Lyric tragedy in a prologue and two acts (1844)
Caterina Cornaro - Carmen Giannattasio (soprano); Andrea Cornaro, Caterina’s father - Graeme Broadbent (bass); Gerardo, a young Frenchman (in the prologue betrothed to Caterina) - Colin Lee (tenor); Lusignano, King of Cyprus - Troy Cook (baritone); Mocenigo, Venetian ambassador to Cyprus - Vuyani Mlinde (bass); Strozzi, leader of a band of cut-throats - Loïc Félix (tenor); Matilde, Caterina’s confidante - Sophie Bevan (soprano)
BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Orchestra/David Parry
rec. BBC Maida Vale Studios, London. November and December 2011
OPERA RARA ORC 48 [61.36 + 54.24]

A press release accompanied my review copy of which more anon. Reading this I had cause to reflect on when and how I became a devotee of Donizetti’s operas. It perhaps came about incidentally to my own changed circumstances as my peripatetic writing and lecturing regularly took me to London providing opportunity to see outstanding performances of bel canto. This broadened my erstwhile monotheistic view of opera as being Verdi with a smattering of French and Russian works and Puccini’s populist trio. Central to my experience had been standing to see Norma with Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne and then the former as Lucia with an unknown young Italian tenor called Pavarotti. I knew that in the strict sense bel canto meant beautiful singing, but found it incomprehensible that after the death of the eponymous tragic heroine that night, and much launching of flowers onto the stage, large swathes of people left and missed the young tenor’s sublime rendition of Eduardo’s double aria in the final scene.
My learning curve accelerated in the 1970s with Decca’s series of Donizetti operas featuring Sutherland and also La Favorita, usually with the, by then, famous tenor. Getting under the skin of Maria Stuarda and Lucrezia Borgia, and adding Don Pasquale on a DG recording, my Donizetti ran into the buffers, particularly as I could not tolerate the sound of pirate recordings. It was at that stage I discovered Opera Rara and their recordings of Donizetti operas of which twenty or so now form the core of my collection of the composer’s operatic works. Most of those boxed or sleeved sets carry the imprimatur of support by the Peter Moores Foundation. That support has now ceased and Opera Rara have set about maintaining their adventurous programme of the bel canto repertoire via other means. As well as appeals to opera lovers, other strategies have been adopted. For the first three months after its issue, this recording was only available direct from Opera Rara. Also, it is now possible to purchase, via a down-load from the Opera Rara website, in high resolution 24 bit master sound quality the most recent recordings. In addition, the whole catalogue, including titles currently out of stock on CD is also available for down-load in MP3 (Lossy), ALAC (Apple) and FLAC (free Lossless) formats. When items are purchased in this format PDFs of the nearly unique high quality booklets associated with Opera Rara come free of charge when full albums are purchased.
Whilst previous recording have included live performances from the likes of the Edinburgh Festival and Covent Garden, this issue presages change: an association with the BBC. As well as the recording taking place in a BBC studio with the house orchestra and singers, pre-issue performances seem to be the order of the day as the recent Thursday afternoon broadcast of Donizetti’s Belisario with Sir Mark Elder on the rostrum exemplifies. That has left me yearning for the accompanying informative booklet that is de rigueur with Opera Rara releases and has helped my understanding of the evolution of Donizetti’s oeuvre.
An early hallmark of the Opera Rara releases was their policy of developing a group of singers committed to the cause. They were capable of realising the music and were not contracted to the big name recording companies. Opera Rara’s capacity to spot talent and future stars in that period is best illustrated by the presence of Renée Fleming on the 1994 recording of Donizetti’s Rosmonda d’Inghilterra alongside in-house names such as Bruce Ford, Nelly Miracioiu, Diana Montague and Alastair Miles (see review). In the last ten years or so new names have been added to an extended line-up of singers interested and capable of meeting Opera Rara’s demanding standards in this repertoire. This recording includes names that will readily be recognised from earlier releases from the company as well as in the rosters of some of the great opera houses where bel canto works are rapidly becoming more common. A good example is that of Colin Lee. Many, like me, will have seen and heard him in the transmission to cinemas on 27 May 2013 of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago where he went note for note with the king of the high tenors, Juan Diego Florez, much as he had done in Paris in the same opera. At times he has taken the second half of performance production runs in other works featuring the Peruvian who is himself a Patron of Opera Rara.
Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro, like Maria Stuarda, recounts a semi-fictionalised story involving a real person and her joys and travails. It was the last of the composer’s operas to be premiered in his lifetime. Likewise it is the last of Donizetti’s late operas to receive a studio recording. I did once listen to the last act of a pirate recording and was bowled over by the dramatic thrust. I lived in hope, aided by a couple of brief conversations, that Andrew Greenwood would programme it during his tenure as Artistic Director of the Buxton Festival as he had done with Roberto Devereux, (see review), Lucrezia Borgia (see review) and Maria di Rohan (see review). That was not to be. What I can say without equivocation is that this issue realises everything that I hoped in respect of being able to hear the whole work in good recording circumstances, albeit there are a couple of places where the recessed voices are overcome. Much of my earlier feeling that act three is dramatically superior to the earlier acts is confirmed whilst the stream of duets in the prologue and act one ravish the ear in true bel canto fashion, especially with the singers featured here. Much of the musical performance quality is at the behest of David Parry on the rostrum. This performance, and his conducting of Rossini’s Maometto Secondo at Garsington in 2013 (see review) re-affirm my belief that he is a master of the genre. Loyal Mancunian that I am, I still hope that Mark Elder’s increasing role at Opera Rara does not preclude Parry conducting for the company in future recordings.
The singing might not boast many starry names but it is without weakness. In the title role Carmen Giannattasio’s dramatic qualities are to the fore. Colin Lee as Gerardo sings with good tone and encompasses any high tessitura with ease whilst portraying the inherent drama. Troy Cook as Lusignano sings with smooth sonority. The two basses, Graeme Broadbent and the young South African Vuyani Mlinde are nicely contrasted in timbre whilst singing with feeling alongside steady sonority. In the minor roles Loïc Félix and Sophie Bevan confirm earlier promise on record or in the theatre. 

The 2 CD set is accompanied by a complete libretto with an English translation. Most important for my understanding of the work, and others in the genre issued by Opera Rara, is the scholarly essay and background to performances that is always included. This is particularly welcome when it is by the meticulous and superbly informed scholar, Jeremy Commons.
Robert J Farr