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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Ricciardo e Zoraide (1818)
Pretty Yende (Zoraide), Juan Diego Flórez (Ricciardo), Sergei Romanovsky (Agorante), Nicola Ulivieri (Ircano), Victoria Yarovaya (Zomira), Xabier Anduaga (Ernesto), Sofia Mchedlishvili (Fatima), Martiniana Antonie (Elmira), Ruzil Gatin (Zamorre)
Coro del Teatro Ventidio Basso/Giovanni Farina
Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI/Giacomo Sagripanti
Stage director: Marshall Pynkoski
Set designer: Gerard Gauci
Costume designer: Michael Gianfrancesco
Lighting designer: Michelle Ramsay
Choreographer: Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg
rec. 2018, Adriatic Arena, Pesaro
C MAJOR 752608 DVD [2 DVDs: 176 mins]

So what went wrong with Ricciardo e Zoraide? Composed in Naples at around the same time as hits like Otello, Mosé in Egitto and La donna del lago, it was performed throughout Europe for some twenty years. But it disappeared from stages after the mid 1840s, and had to wait for resurrection until 1990 at the Rossini Opera Festival in the composer’s birthplace, Pesaro.

I blame the librettist, Francesco Berio di Salsa, apparently a bit of a dilettante. His text is based on Il Ricciardetto, written by Niccolò Forteguerri, who must also share some of the blame; he is current holder of the world speed record for writing epic poems (overnight!)

This present DVD dates from the 2018 staging in Pesaro by Marshall Pyonkoski, on the 150th anniversary of Rossini’s death and the 200th anniversary of the opera’s première. The cast is dressed in 18thC costumes with a touch of the oriental. There are big, vague sets (check out that dungeon).

There’s quite a bit of ballet, some of which works in the context and some of which doesn’t (there’s a cringeworthy sort of dancing execution going on towards the end) and there’s a balcony which doubles as castle walls to increase interest. But you wouldn’t want to watch this for the staging. What it does demonstrate is what a world-class cast of singing actors can do for a rather mediocre work.

The problem seems to me to be that while the name appearing in the title (and in the photo on the front of the DVD) is that of the Christian knight Ricciardo, the key personality on stage is the King of Nubia, Agorante – particularly when performed as here by the larger-than-life, glowering and bare-chested Sergey Romanovsky. His baritenor singing, like his acting, is vibrant and powerful; it’s a great performance.

Ricciardo doesn’t appear until well into the action, though when he does, it’s worth waiting for. Ricciardo is Juan Diego Flórez, his fine tenor ringing out like a bell, soaring up to those spectacular high notes. And you get two for the price of one; his right hand man, Ernesto, is Xabier Anduaga, whose powerful and flexible tenor is capable of matching Florez. Why, though, is he dressed as a cardinal when he’s in charge of the army which (spoiler alert) rescues Ricciardo?

Pretty Yende as Zoraide, Ricciardo’s kidnapped wife, is terrific, singing like an angel as she becomes the target of Agorante’s unwanted affection. Her soprano is pure and clear, secure and bright. It’s not her fault that one never feels she is actually threatened, even when she’s in the deepest, darkest dungeon (as she is).

Again, this staging has strength in depth, with a strongly sung performance by Victoria Yarovaya as Agorante’s wife Zomira, understandably miffed at his penchant for Zoraide. Nicola Ulivieri is an imposing figure with a deep, dark voice as Zoraide’s father Ircano, though I failed to understand quite why Ricciardo ends up fighting him.

“How confusing” sings Agorante at one point, and he’s not wrong. Everything ends in a sudden rush in the last quarter of an hour, with a lot of plot and to-ing and fro-ing.

Musically, the performance is a triumph. Giacomo Sagripanti and the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI seem to know this music intimately, in spite of its patchy performance history, and it’s brilliantly paced. The off-stage orchestra, here used by Rossini for the first time, makes its points clearly, thanks to Sagripanti’s control. The recording is fine, though the orchestra is very much in the background; but then, this performance is all about the singing.

Music lovers would all be very much the poorer if we missed out on moments like the six-part a capella ensemble during the scene with Ircano or the four-part canon at the end of Act I, not to mention one or two moving duets.

Chris Ramsden

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