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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Maometto II - melodramma eroico in two acts (1820)
Maometto - Darren Jeffrey (bass); Calbo, a Venetian general - Caitlin Hulcup (mezzo); Anna Erisso - Siân Davies (mezzo); Paolo Erisso, her father - Paul Nilon (tenor); Condulmiero, another Venetian general - Christopher Diffey (bass); Selimo, Maometto's confidant - Richard Dowling (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of Garsington Opera/David Parry
Director: Edward Dick
Designer: Robert Innes Hopkins
rec. live. June and July 2013, Garsington Opera at Wormsley
AVIE AV2312 [3 CDs: 60.42 + 53.26 + 54.09]

In my dozen or so years of reviewing for Musicweb International, and its adjunct Seen and Heard, this performance comes as a first in being one that I actually saw live in a fully staged production (review). Like Armida in 2010, this Garsington Maometto II represented a first production in Britain, a very worthy record for a small country house opera working without subsidy. This was given in the latest critical edition edited by Hans Schellevis.

Rossini’s original version of Maometto II was premiered at the mighty San Carlo Opera in Naples on 3 December 1820. It was the composer’s 31st opera and the eighth, and arguably the most radical, of the nine opera seria that he wrote for the city. The Garsington performance was fully staged in the purpose-built pavilion on the Getty estate at Wormsley, its home since moving from Garsington Manor after the 2010 season. The pavilion seats around five hundred and fifty.

It was a formidable achievement to assemble a cast to meet the vocal demands of Rossini’s music. In the story the two male leads represent the Christian-Islamic dichotomy of standards and values. The two singers in this production share a common lineage as alumni of Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music, albeit with nearly twenty years between. I first heard Paul Nilon as Almaviva in a college production of Il Barbiere in 1984. He shared the role with another coloratura tenor, Barry Banks, who sang one of the coloratura roles in Armida at the American premiere at the Met in 2010. The second alumnus featured in this production is Darren Jeffrey in the eponymous role. He was showcased as Falstaff around 2001. Nearly unbelievable for a young man, his singing and acting brought rave reviews and led to his early promotion to Covent Garden as part of the Jet Parker Young Artist Programme.

First things first, David Parry keeps his orchestra forces alert to Rossini’s melodies and dramatic music with well-paced tempi allowing his singers every opportunity for phrasing and appropriate vocal display. Paul Nilon, as Erisso, Governor of threatened Venice, is at the forefront of the vocal demands of the first scenes. Portrayed as a man nearly broken and having to partake of a regular tipple, his flexible, strong voice was well up to the demands of Rossini’s writing, originally provided for Andrea Nozzari. Nilon's slightly baritonal coloratura tenor is not the most tonally mellifluous but is more than adequately flexible. In updated costumes the vibrant chorus of supposed defenders were unable to fight off the invading troops of Maometto who were more appropriately costumed and armed but equally vocally apt. With scimitars as well as rifles they really looked the part, as did their leader when he appeared. Darren Jeffrey, a big man, towered physically over the entire cast except Anna, Erisso’s daughter. He sings with good strong flexible tone if a little weak at his lowest range which brings that touch of unsteadiness that I noted in the live performance (CD 1. tr.20). His vocal characterisation is good albeit a little more bass bite to the voice would not have gone amiss especially when Maometto threatens death and destruction at various stages.

In the travesty role of Calbo, the Venetian General who has to oppose the invading forces, the Australian mezzo Caitlin Hulcup comes over as more a Cherubino than a fighter. Whilst she lacks some resonant lower tones her vocal purity, excellent phrasing and good diction in dealing with Rossini’s vocal demands are formidable. From her gleaming top to the bottom of her mezzo range her vocal prowess would, I suggest, have more than satisfied the composer himself. Her singing of the act two aria Non temer; d’un basso affetto (CD3. Tr.2) and the stretta, Der periglio, was as good as any heard on this recording. The audience recognised her quality and achievement enthusiastically on the first night. The American soprano Siân Davies as Anna Erisso, the role taken at the premiere by Rossini’s mistress, and later wife, Isabella Colbran, never seemed to overcome the physical side of her interpretation on stage with her light-toned voice. She is not entirely comfortable throughout her wide vocal range but manages poignancy for Anna’s sacrifice at the end of the opera as Anna stabs herself to enable her father and Calbo to escape (CD3. trs.12-13).

This recording was made with the financial support of Sir Peter Moores CBE whose Foundation was recently wound up after supporting many opera performances, recordings and singers The CDs are presented in rigid-backed booklet form with a synopsis and an essay by Richard Osborne in English and French. There is also a full libretto with English translation.

For those wanting to pursue this opera further there is a DVD of the Venice version available on the Dynamic label (review). Also recently issued is a bargain priced CD set of Le Siège de Corinthe, the radical revision of the score Rossini presented at the Paris Opera in 1827, more in the French musical style rather than Italian bel canto (review).

Robert J Farr

Appendix: Rossini’s Naples Opera Seria

Rossini’s Maometto II was the eighth, and arguably the most radical of the nine reform operas that the composer wrote for performance at that theatre. The sequence started with Elisabetta, premiered at the San Carlo in 1815. These works were 'reform' in the sense that, distanced from the populist clamour of Rome and Venice, Rossini was able to move away from static stage scenes and simplistic orchestral forms such as crescendos. At Naples he had the benefit of an outstanding professional orchestra and an unequalled roster of star singers contracted by the impresario Barbaja. Unlike his comic operas, so admired by Beethoven, Rossini’s opera seria fell into neglect. However, starting in 1975 the Philips record label recorded four of Rossini’s Neapolitan operas with star studied international soloists. This series concluded with Maometto II in 1983. That recording featuring Samuel Ramey as Maometto and June Anderson as Anna and is now available at mid-price. Meanwhile the Naples opera seria have figured in both the audio and video record catalogues as well as entering the repertoire of leading operatic addresses worldwide often in recent Critical Editions, as is the case here. Examples have been the American premiere of Armida at the New York’s Met in 2010 (review) and its British premiere a couple of months later at Garsington (review). This realisation has also been facilitated by the emergence of singers capable of the vocal demands that were common practice in Rossini’s time, but which fell away as the move to bigger voices came to the fore.

Naxos claimed a World Premiere Recording for its issue of a performance from Bad Wildbad (see review). This derives from the performing practice in the 19th century when the composer was only paid by the commissioning theatre and for subsequent productions elsewhere that he personally supervised. Consequently, composers tried to restrict dissemination of orchestral and vocal scores. Despite Rossini’s efforts an appropriated and bowdlerised version of Maometto was presented at Venice’s small San Benedetto theatre on 21 September 1822. However, Rossini was scheduled to present an opera for the opening night at La Fenice, Venice’s premiere theatre, later that year. The contract stipulated that the work had to be new to the theatre. Maometto with its plot harking back to Venice’s historical past was ideal. However, Venice was not sophisticated Naples and Rossini needed to adapt the score to more simplistic forms and supply a happy ending, de rigueur in Northern Italy where such a conclusion was even demanded for his Otello (Naples, 1816). Similarly, the contracted soloists, whilst of appropriate vocal range, were not of the quality of those at Naples. The upshot was Rossini made radical revisions to the score and reduced the burden on the soloists by the removal of several solo items. The revisions are outlined in detail in the booklet accompanying the Naxos issue, as is a brief mention of the radical rewrite the composer carried out when the work was presented in Paris in 1826 as Le Siège de Corinthe. The Venice version is shorter than the Naples version recorded by Philips and the Critical Edition performed here.