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Nino ROTA (1911-1979)
I due timidi (1950) [64 mins]
La notte di un nevrastenico (1960) [41 mins]
Giorgio Celenza (baritone)
Daniele Adriani (tenor)
Sabrina Cortese (soprano)
Reate Festival Orchestra/Gabriele Bonolis
rec. live, 30 September and 1 October 2017, Teatro Flavio Vespasiano, Rieti, Italy
DYNAMIC 57830 Blu-ray [105 mins]

Rota is known nowadays principally as a composer of film music. He was responsible for two of the greatest tunes ever to figure in scores composed specifically for the cinema: the love theme for Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet, and his 1949 romantic semi-concerto for The Legend of the Glass Mountain. That is quite apart from his later celebrated work with directors of the stature of Fellini and Coppola. In the years since his death, his long-overshadowed concert and operatic music has also begun to establish a reputation. We have here two one-act operas – not composed specifically as a double bill, but nonetheless making up a sensible unit with their semi-comic plots.

Or are they semi-comic? Both have at their heart a sense of tragic destiny. One centres around the doomed love affair between two people separated by circumstance and by their own lack of honesty both with each other and the people around them. The other focuses on a single lonely man in a hotel room, incapable of living with himself (let alone the other people who make his life a misery). Rota supplies his singers with moments of real romantic passion – expressed in Puccini-like efflorescence both in voices and orchestra – which speak both of love and heartbreak in equal measure. The result is uneasy, the extensive stretches of near-unaccompanied recitative seemingly stranded between the comic and the tragic; the low-key response of the audience, barely even raising a chuckle at fairly evidently farcical moments, does not serve to spark much in the way of atmosphere. And is the undeniably tragic ending of the “night of a neurotic”, as the long-suffering hotel guest deliberately shoots the page who brings him his morning cup of coffee, really an appropriate reaction in these circumstances? One assumes, of course, that this was actually what the composer and his librettist intended should happen. There is no audible evidence of such an event in the Bongiovanni set recorded in Rovigo in 2005 (GB2367/68).

Both operas might perhaps have made a stronger impression had more experienced singers been employed. There is an undeniable sense here of a college production, with artists who are clearly freshly graduated from the academy. This is more serious where the men are concerned, since both the tenors find themselves over-stretched by some of their more lyrical moments. Of the women, only Chiara Osella as the ageing and sexually voracious landlady really commands much in the way of dramatic involvement. Giorgio Celenza gives a good account of himself as the hotel guest driven to distraction by his neighbours, but he cannot do much with his music in I due timidi: he is reduced to the role of an intrusive narrator who sets the scene in a way that should have been unnecessary if the motivation of the characters had been made clearer by the staging. The work was originally conceived as a radio play. The very ending of the more substantial earlier opera is probably the strongest section musically – the joint wedding between the two nervous would-be lovers and their respective new spouses is laden with repressed passion – but the small-scale orchestra hardly begins to rise to the occasion, and the missing element of grief is palpable. The sound on the 2005 Bongiovanni recording is infinitely preferable.

The music, with its long stretches of parlando writing, is aided immeasurably by the presence of video surtitles, well placed and translated. The production itself – both operas are placed in a unit set which works better as a representation of tenement blocks in I due timidi than as rather oddly-proportioned hotel rooms in La notte di un nevrastenico – seems fairly basic, although the director has the good taste not to interpose any levels of psycho-analytical exegesis onto the plot (the shooting of the unfortunate hotel waiter possibly excepted). Indeed, although I note that the recording is also available on CD in an audio-only format, the involvement of the visual element makes the video more desirable for those wishing to make the acquaintance of these scores. The surtitles are supplied in the original Italian, English, French, German, Korean and Japanese.

We have, as mentioned above, already had a coupling of these two operas on CD. The Bongiovanni set enshrines considerably more red-blooded performances even, though I cannot find that the issue ever garnered much critical attention. There are also a couple of YouTube performances mainly in fairly execrable sound (although with better-upholstered orchestral textures), and a 2004 performance of I due timidi from the Teatro Colon which also features more substantial singers. I do not suppose we are likely to encounter a rival video version of the double bill for some time, although this does not preclude the possibility that such a rival might make out a better case for Rota’s music. I am not sure that much could be done to make the disconcerting plots more palatable, although here the two lovers in the hotel room next door to the neurotic guest reveal plenty of flesh in the best Fellinian tradition. The many fans of Rota’s music need not hesitate. Those who wish to make an initial acquaintance with these operas will certainly find the Bongiovanni set of CDs more enticing.

Paul Corfield Godfrey
I due timidi
Giorgio Celenza, baritone – Narrator
Daniele Adriani, tenor - Raimondo
Sabrina Cortese, soprano – Mariucca
Antonio Sapio, tenor – Dr Sinisgalli
Chiara Osella, mezzo-soprano – Mrs Giudotti
Mariangela de Vita, mezzo-soprano – Mariucca’s mother
Giacomo Nanni, baritone – Vittorio, A guest
Lucia Filaci, soprano – Lucia
Maria Rita Combattelli, soprano – Maria
Siri Kval Ødegård, mezzo-soprano – Lisa

La notte di un nevrastenico
Giorgio Celenza, baritone – The neurotic
Carlo Feola, baritone – The concierge
Daniele Adriani, tenor – The commendatore
Sabrina Cortese, soprano – She
Antonio Sapio, tenor – He
Mariangela de Vita, mezzo-soprano – Maid
Lucia Filaci, soprano – Maid
Maria Rita Combattelli, soprano – Maid
Siri Kval Ødegård, mezzo-soprano – Maid
Vincenzo Carni, tenor – A floor boy

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