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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Maometto II (1820)
Maometto II – Mirco Palazzi (bass)
Paolo Erisso – Mart Süngü (tenor)
Anna Erisso – Elisa Balbo (soprano)
Calbo – Victoria Yarovaya (mezzo-soprano)
Condulmiero / Selimo – Patrick Kabongo Mubenga (tenor)
Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań, Virtuosi Brunenses/Antonino Fogliani
rec. 2017, Trinkhalle, Bad Wildbad, Germany
The Italian libretto may be accessed online
NAXOS 8.660444-46 [3 CDs: 175:18]

Maometto II has claims to be the best of Rossini’s Neapolitan operas and also his most ambitious opera. He has come a long way away from the recitative – aria – recitative structure and landed in a basically through-composed concept with few arias but long scenes with ensembles of various make-up. Premiered in 1820 it wasn’t well received and went through several revisions, for a Venice production in 1822 and for a Paris production in 1826, then titled Le siege de Corinth. In recent years a new critical edition of the original.

The story is loosely based on historical facts and takes place in 1470 during the war between the Turks and the Venetians. Sultan Maometto II and his troops are beleaguering the Venetian town of Negroponte and Maometto is threatening to storm the town if the gates are not opened. Governor Paolo Erisso realises that the situation is hopeless but Calbo, a nobleman, convinces those present to fight to the bitter end. Erisso then talks to Calbo about his daughter Anna. Since Calbo is in love with Anna, Erisso wants him to marry her so someone can protect her if Erisso falls in battle. They visit Anna in her chamber but she declares that she is already in love with Uberto whom she met in Corinth, but Erisso explains that Uberto at that time was with him in Venice. Anna is appalled that her lover obviously is a liar. Suddenly a cannon-shot is heard and in the main square women tell Anna that a traitor has opened the gates to the Muslim invaders. The men prepare to fight and Anna wants to right with them. Erisso gives her a dagger so she can kill herself before falling into the hands of the Muslims. The next morning Maometto’s troops go into the city. Erisso and Calbo are taken prisoners and brought before Maometto, who has told his confidant that he once was in the city he now is capturing under a false identity. When he hears Erisso’s name he asks whether he has children and offers to spare the Venetians if they will order the soldiers in the city to give in. Erisso refuses and Maometto decides that the prisoners be tortured. At that very moment Anna rushes in and begs Maometto to spare them. The Sultan recognises her as the woman he was in love with and Anna realises that this is the man she thought was Uberto. She issues an ultimatum: either her father and Calbo who she presents as her brother, are freed or she will kill herself. Maometto gives in and the two men are set free. That’s the end of act I.

In the beginning of act II Maometto begs Anna to be his wife, but Anna admits that she loved Uberto but despises him for lying to her. Maometto persists and gives her a ring with the imperial seal which gives her authority to save herself, her father and her brother, the condition being that when he returns from the coming battle she has to accept him. He leaves and Anna decides that she will be faithful to her father and her fatherland. With the ring Erisso and Calbo can get back to the Venetian troops and encouraged by their arrival the troops get new courage and put the enemy to flight. When Maometto returns he is furious and demands the ring back, but Anna just scorns him and before his eyes she stabs herself on her mother’s tomb. The Sultan, his soldiers and the Venetian women all lament her death.

On this dramatically cohesive libretto Rossini lavished some of his most expressive music. It is a long work, lasting in this recording almost three hours, which makes this his longest opera – bar Guillaume Tell, which in Gardelli’s legendary EMI recording starring Caballé, Gedda and Bacquier runs to almost 4 hours. But the length is no obstacle to enjoy it. The music is inventive as few others of Rossini’s works and with singing of a calibre one can’t take for granted in a present-day recording, time just whizzes along. It is a true nail-biter.

As I intimated above the structure is quite un-Rossinian with few arias but lots of through-composed ensemble scenes, some of them very extended. His Mosč in Egitto is a kind of parallel but that opera is rather oratorio-like, this one is anything but. But you recognise Rossini anyway, the orchestration is as always inventive and there is space for coloratura. There is no overture – for the Venice version 1822 Rossini added an overture – just a short orchestral introduction followed by a long choral section with solos. Anna makes her mark with a rather long cavatina, Ah! Che invan su questo ciglio (CD 1 tr. 3). Young soprano Elisa Balbo has a grand voice but she never overdoes anything. The technical demands are heavy – the role was written for Isabella Colbran, one of the greatest prima donnas of her and any time – and throughout the work she gives ample proof that here is a singer with enormous potential. She is lavishly featured in the following Scena e Terzettone (a unique notation, meaning “big fat trio”) (CD 1 tr. 5 – 11), richly contrasted with a little soprano solo with chorus and harp (tr. 9), exquisitely sung. This scene definitely points forward to Verdi.

It is followed by a scene where the Muslims invade the town, noisy and hard-hitting, and then Maometto appears, an acceptably monumental ruler, not quite in the Samuel Ramey perhaps, but his cavatina (CD 1 tr. 13) is delivered with élan, Mirco Palazzi certainly has the full measure of the coloratura and he is awarded a round of applause – the first sign of the evening that there is an audience present.

In the second act one can savour the long duet between Maometto and Anna (CD 2 tr. 5). It is definitely another highlight. She is magnificent and he is very sensitive. I should also mention the second tenor, Petrick Kabongo Mubenga, who doubles as Condulmiero in the first act and Selimo in the second act. Both roles are small but the singer is excellent. I hope to hear him in a meatier role before long. Maometto’s aria (CD 2 tr. 8) is also a fine piece. Then follows a scene with Erisso and Calbo (CD 3 tr. 1) opening with a long clarinet solo, certainly a real treat for the soloist. Mert Süngü, Erisso, is also excellent and he sings his long solo with deep feeling, whereupon Victoria Yarovaya tosses off what is one of the greatest of Rossini’s virtuoso arias, Calbo’s Non temer; d’un basso affetto (CD 3 tr. 2). I have long had a special affection for Eva Podles’s recording of this piece, on a Naxos recital from the 1990s. Ms Yarovaya challenges her which is a real feat. The terzettino (CD 3 tr. 4) with Anna, Calbo and Erisso is again Rossini at his best – Anna’s solo in particular. The next scene finds Anna alone, among the graves, the chorus praying with harp accompaniment. The Finale II (CD 3 tr. 8 – 13) is again Anna with chorus, leading to her prayer on her mother’s grave before she stabs herself.

It is a pleasure indeed to have enjoyed this recording wholeheartedly. The opera is itself highly attractive and the singing surpasses anything I could have expected.

Göran Forsling

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