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Marina Rebeka (soprano), Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Massimo di Palermo / Jader Bignamini
rec. 2018, Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Italy
Sung texts available for free download online

Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka has, since her breakthrough in 2009 under Riccardo Muti, been one of the leading sopranos on the international circuit of opera singers, and has made her mark, not least as a marvellous Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata. Last year I reviewed a recording of Verdi’s Luisa Miller, a sadly under-recorded opera, which should be heard more often in the opera houses around the world. She sang the title role with such greatness that I unhesitatingly awarded her the palm for being the best Luisa on any recording I’ve heard. In the beginning of 2019 I had two issues with Rebeka: a complete La clemenza di Tito (review), and a disc with live excerpts from the Vienna State Opera with the late lamented Dmitri Hvorostovsky, review where one of the most recent was the confrontation between Violetta and Giorgio Germont in the second act of La traviata. That was a wholly engrossing experience which confirmed that she is certainly in the forefront of today’s leading sopranos in the Italian repertoire.

On the present disc she focuses on the bel canto repertoire, and this is not just another run-through of a handful arias out of context but carefully chosen longer scenes that bring the listeners into the core of the drama. But her ambitions went further than that. In order to get as close as possible to the composers’ initial wishes she travelled the world to find the original manuscripts (a photo in the booklet shows her in the Biblioteca Braindense in Milan, examining Donizetti’s manuscript of Anna Bolena). She has also, in line with what was common in the early 19th century, composed her own embellishments where needed, thus allowing scope for her own personality while still obeying the style of the composers. The choice of operas is also interesting. Norma, Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena today belong to the standard repertoire but Bellini’s Il pirate is a rare bird and Spontini’s La vestale even rarer.

That she opens the recital with Norma is no coincidence: it was the first opera she ever heard, when she was thirteen and, as she writes in the booklet: “This seemingly small event catalysed the driving force to become an opera singer and to perform this music – music that has a beating heart and a spirit.” Casta Diva is in a way the quintessence of bel canto, with its long legato phrases, heart-warming melodies and expressive nuances. Marina Rebeka has all the attributes to do full justice to the music: one of the most beautiful voices now before the public, effortless delivery, a slightly vibrant warm tone, impeccable legato, power when needed in the dramatic cabaletta and a rich pallet of nuances – the diminuendo at the end of the aria proper is something to return to forever. And, needless to say, her coloratura just pours forth like a bird’s trill.

Il pirata, though a great success at the premiere in Milan in 1827 and for several years in the rest of Europe and North America, has been played only occasionally in recent years. Callas did it, Caballé did it and other singers have also essayed it but it never got a real foothold. Marina Rebeka’s reading of the final scene makes us regret that it isn’t heard more often. Bellini’s melodic gift is just as tangible here as in his more well-known operas. Just listen to the beautiful prelude. And then her intensity and, in the aria Col sorriso d’innocenza, her marvellous pianissimi. This is what bel canto is all about. In the excerpt from Maria Stuarda we also meet some of the other role characters, some better than the others. Ms Rebeka is totally involved and the role in itself is one of the most interesting of Donizetti’s heroines. She is totally involved, and the final long held note is thrilling indeed. The fate of Anna Bolena is profoundly touching and here she catches the gloom to perfection. I only regret that her lamentation sung on the melody Home, Sweet Home is cut.

Spontini’s La vestale was a tremendous success in 1807 when it was premiered in Paris and the popularity remained for many years. Composers like Berlioz and Wagner admired Spontini, but in present time his music is rarely heard. The excerpt here certainly wets the appetite for more. Not least his orchestration is admirable. And Marina Rebeka amply demonstrates that the vocal music is on a high level as well.

This is a splendid album, for the repertoire as well as for the singing. The forces of the Teatro Massimo in Palermo do a good job under Jader Bignamini and the recording is excellent. Bel canto freaks are to be congratulated. Here they can wallow in the juiciest scenes from five great operas from the early 19th century and the glorious singing of Marina Rebeka. More of this, Prima Classics!

Göran Forsling

Vincenzo BELLINI (1801 – 1835)
1. Casta Diva ... Fine al rito [9:01]
2. Ah! Bello a me ritorna ... [4:54]
Il pirata:
3. Scena [3:41]
4. Oh! S’io potessi ... [4:40]
5. Col sorisso d’innocenza ... Qual suono ferale [5:12]
6. Oh! Sole! Ti vela di tenebre oscure [3:01]
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848)
Maria Stuarda:
7. Io vi rivedo alfin! [3:36]
8. Deh! Tu di un umile preghiera ... Oh colpo! [5:16]
9. Di un cor che muore ... Giunge il conte [5:33]
10. Ah! Se un giorno da queste ritorte ... [5:10]
Anna Bolena:
11. Piangete voi? ... [4:49]
12. Al dolce guidami ... Che mai sento [6:25]
13. Coppia iniqua [3:28]
Gaspare SPONTINI (1774 – 1851)
La vestale:
14. Ô des infortunés ... [2:22]
15. Toi, que j’implore avec effroi [5:27]
16. Sur cet autel sacré ... [2:58]
17. Impitoyables dieux [2:15]


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