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An Eclectic Selection of Rossini Operas
A survey by Ralph Moore
I will admit to having had less and less time for Rossini’s operas as I have grown older. My disaffection began some years ago with a trip to Glyndebourne to see a perfectly pleasant performance of La centerentola which left me unmoved; that indifference was compounded by seeing an overlong (i.e. meticulously “complete”) production of Semiramide at Covent Garden in which I found the music repetitive and for the first time in my life I was bored at the opera. Having said that, I included the Callas-Gobbi Il barbiere di Siviglia in my survey of “untouchable” recordings and also surveyedGuglielmo Tell as I
judge both to be great works. I also prize certain other recordings, but perhaps increasingly consider them to be best served by home listening and they are not perhaps the operas which first spring to mind when we consider Rossini’s extensive oeuvre. There is no doubt that he sometimes churned out some formulaic, journeyman music and in any case did not always expect it to be taken too seriously or considered as ‘Great Art’ – yet there are still certain things in his work which are undeniably sublime – and many great artists have embraced his music in their repertoire and very often I derive most pleasure from arias treated as concert items, especially as his most florid music requires a voice of exceptional quality with a wide range, well-integrated registers and exceptional agility.
My favourite Rossini operas, the two famous works above apart, tend to be somewhat recherché, but I stand by them as highly recommendable to anyone who wishes to seek out the best in Rossini’s output. This little article in fact stems from the request of a friend to provide just such an introduction to anyone curious as to Rossini’s appeal.
I have accordingly selected below seven favourite recordings which, I maintain, represent the best of his operas. The choice is personal, of course, but as a long-time opera buff I find myself returning to them for good reason and they might serve as a good springboard for anyone embarking on a discovery of Rossini’s stageworks.
Elisabetta regina d'Inghilterra – 1975 (studio; stereo) Philips
London Symphony Orchestra/ Gian-Franco Masini
Elisabetta - Montserrat Caballé
Leicester - José Carreras
Matilde - Valerie Masterton
Enrico - Rosanne Creffield
Norfolk - Ugo Benelli
Guglielmo - Neil Jenkins
While it is tempting to recommend the more recent Opera Rara recording on the grounds of completeness and more modern performance practice, as is sadly and perhaps necessarily the case with Opera Rara issues, it is expensive and actually contains only a few more minutes' music for all the ballyhoo. Furthermore, it would be an odd opera fan who would complain about a cast that includes Caballé and Carreras in their prime plus two such accomplished and sweet-voiced singers as Valerie Masterson and Ugo Benelli.
It is an odd opera not only because of the Romantic absurdities of its plot but also because Rossini was constrained by the singers available to him in 1815 in Naples to present an opera with three sopranos, three tenors and no lower voices. True, Isabella Colbran had a phenomenal range - debate still ensues regarding exactly what voice category she was: a mezzo-falcon with an upper extension or a dramatic coloratura soprano or...whatever. Like Callas, she had both the upper extension and a trenchant lower register and like Callas she ran into vocal difficulties early but not before Rossini had written her some spectacular roles and married her (having pinched her off Domenico Barabaja, the Neapolitan impresario who sponsored him).
Caballé has nonetheless a surprisingly gutsy lower register and despite some edge in the tone delivers some extraordinary pyrotechnics. Her concluding "Bell'alme generose" is simply sublime. While Jennifer Larmore is very fine and perhaps innately better suited to the eponymous role by her voice type, no-one could begrudge Caballé her assumption of Elisabetta when her singing is as gorgeous as we hear in the duet with Masterson's Matilda in "Non bastan quelle lagrime" (track 3 CD 2), complete with stern, steady low A's. Gencer was also marvellous in this role but the 1970 live recording is in poor sound, the microphone placement favouring the orchestra with the singers very distant. This is a taut, swift, propulsive recording expertly directed by Gianfranco Masini performed by a company of utter professionals including the LSO and the ever-reliable Ambrosian Singers. Part of the fun is spotting the borrowings and anticipatory themes, especially recognisable from their inclusion in Il barbiere for Rome the following year. This music is much more adventurous and unbuttoned than the noble restraint and more classical ornamentations of Tancredi from only two years before and the singers here are up to it. Carreras is free and virile of tone, still flexible and agile with a great top C, contrasting with Benelli's tighter, neater sound. Valerie Masterson, beloved of ENO devotees and French audiences, was always under-recorded so I welcome the opportunity to own another of her too few recordings; she has a lovely, silvery soprano again ideally contrasted with Caballé's chestier sound.
If you like Rossini, you will particularly enjoy this, one of his more grandiose scores proleptic of the composer of large-scale opere serie he was fast maturing into.
Otello – 1978 (studio; stereo) Philips
Philharmonia Orchestra/ Jesús López Cobos
Otello - José Carreras
Desdemona - Frederica Von Stade
Iago - Gianfranco Pastine
Rodrigo - Salvatore Fisichella
Emilia - Nucci Condň
Elmiro - Samuel Ramey
Lucio - Keith Lewis
Doge - Alfonso Leoz
Bearing only a general resemblance to Shakespeare's play and hence Verdi's famous operatic version, this is nonetheless a superb example of the young Rossini's verve and melodic invention. It remains surprising that such a taut, dramatic and tuneful work should still be relatively neglected. It has received only two studio recordings and as much as I like Bruce Ford for Opera Rara his co-singers are not as starry a bunch as accompany Carreras here, recording in 1978 when his voice was as sappy, agile and luscious-toned as you will ever hear it.
This scenario reduces Iago to little more than a bit-part and certainly tones down his wickedness. It is the role of Rodrigo which is beefed up; he has essentially as much difficult music as Otello, including top D's and really florid passages, and Salvatore Fisichella, despite not having the juiciest sound, does extraordinarily well with his music, matching Carreras note for note. Frederica von Stade is a dreamy-voiced, immensely touching in her pre-death scene, her warm, vibrant, liquid mezzo ideally suited to her music. Supported by singers of the calibre of Samuel Ramey as a noble-voiced father and the excellent Nucci Condň, this line-up could not be bettered.
López-Cobos was conducting and recording a lot of Rossini in this era and has the complete measure of the score; the Philharmonia plays with all the lightness and spring you could wish. I have often returned to this set to play only Act III straight through; it is one of the best passages of Rossini I know. Von Stade is heart-breaking in her melancholy "Salice" aria (obviously a close cousin to the Verdi scene and the original play, despite other dissimilarities), delicately introduced and accompanied by an exquisite solo harp then sobbing flutes, and Carreras's tragic-heroic desperation is mightily impressive. If I were to do a presentation of how Shakespeare has been adapted by a variety of classical composers, this would feature very prominently.
Unfortunately, later issues have no libretto and although the download is reasonably priced, CD sets can be expensive so snap it up if you spot it available affordably.
L' italiana in Algeri – 1980 (studio; digital)
Solisti Veneti/ Claudio Scimone
Isabella - Marilyn Horne
Lindoro - Ernesto Palacio
Mustafŕ - Samuel Ramey
Taddeo - Domenico Trimarchi
Elvira - Kathleen Battle
Zulma - Clara Foti
Haly - Nicola Zaccaria
This is one of the most consistently inspired and musically inventive of Rossini's comic opera and under the fleet baton of Claudio Scimone, directing a full and updated edition of the score, the whole thing positively fizzes along, helped by a stellar cast headed by Marilyn Horne. The orchestra plays the Janissary (Turkish band) music with real verve and infuses proceedings with life and humour.
It is true that she is just a bit mature and stentorian in voice and manner to be the complete charmer and there is sometimes something a bit formidable about her characterisation but she is meant to be a kind of dominatrix and to be fair she is capable of singing the gentle introduction to "Per lui che adoro" with melting beauty. She has everything in her vocal armoury: trills, impeccably executed runs and turns, limitless breath for the cantilena passages - and she is also very funny in her inflection of asides like "Oh! che muso".
Samuel Ramey is marvellous as the smitten Mustafŕ, grave and pompous then suitably absurd, curling his beautiful, sonorous bass around the ornamentation effortlessly and producing some terrific top F's, G flats and even top G's on "Pappataci Mustafŕ" in the hilarious induction scene. Palacio's tenor can turn a little hard and nasal in forte passages but he is also nuanced and flexible as a Rossini tenor must be. Kathleen Battle is sweet and alluring as the wronged and patient Elvira, crowning the typically Rossinian "choo-choo-train" conclusion to Act 1 with soaring top C's. This is a great scena including some delectable changes of mood signalled by some delectable key changes and extending over ten minutes to the kind of climax only Rossini can could engineer.
The whole opera is a swiftly paced delight and unlikely to be superseded by any other recording; although I do like both Jennifer Larmore and Lucia Valentini Terrani in their recordings, their Mustafŕs are not as beguiling as Ramey. (Be warned: the original, aptly named "Libretto" edition from Erato contained at least the Italian text; the newer Warner bargain issue does not.)
Mosč in Egitto - 1981(studio; digital) Philips
Philharmonia Orchestra/ Claudio Scimone
Ambrosian Opera Chorus
Mosč - Ruggero Raimondi
Elcěa - June Anderson
Amaltea - Zehava Gal
Amenosi - Sandra Browne
Aronne - Salvatore Fisichella
Osiride - Ernesto Palacio
Mambre - Keith Lewis
Faraone - Siegmund Nimsgern
This is the 1819 score (revised after the 1818 fiasco) of Rossini's biblical epic rather than the French adaptation Moďse made for the 1827 Paris premiere, which was itself later re-translated back into Italian and as such gradually replaced the version we have here. It is to my mind dramatically and musically superior, not least in that it opens with one of the most effective introductions to any opera rather than postponing it to Act 2 as the French version does. Over a muttering ostinato, the Egyptians lament how the Pharaoh's obstinacy in refusing to release the Israelites has caused God to deprive them of light - and it's a really arresting opening, culminating in Pharaoh summoning Moses to whom he confesses his folly and repentance.
There is a parallel between Mosč and Aida beyond the obvious setting in that like Verdi Rossini succeeds in balancing the personal trials of his characters against the demands of narrating an epic tale: there are touching and melodious duets for Osiride with his beloved and then with his father - only for him to be despatched by a thunderbolt for trying yet again to top Moses. However, the strength of the piece lies in the big set pieces such as that introduction, the various quartets ("Mi manca la voce") quintets ("Celeste man placata") and ensembles, and of course the famous "Preghiera" at the conclusion. Rossini had by this time moved away from opera buffa more towards opera seria and ultimately his Grand Opera masterpiece
Guillaume Tell. He really knew by this stage how to handle the big scene without sacrificing the tender, plangent melodic vein we hear in arias such as Elcěa's "Porgi la destra amata", sung with big, supple tone by June Anderson. There are in fact very few arias in this opera and the sole example for Mosč is in fact rather nondescript.
I readily admit that the cast features singers not usually amongst my favourites, although they are all accomplished Rossinians. Raimondi is imposing but lugubrious; Nimsgern impassioned but constantly afflicted by an incipient little break in the tone which drives me nuts; Palacio agile and flexible but very metallic of voice; June Anderson has a large, blowsy voice which hardens very easily as she ascends - yet all transcend these vocal limitations to produce satisfying, dramatically committed performances and they are complemented by a supporting cast of quality, including Zehava Gal's strong Amaltea.
Rossini specialist Claudio Scimone's conducting is expert and we have the standard professional back-up from the Philharmonic and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus. Philips' sound is typically excellent for the era.
There aren't too many recordings of this opera to choose from and most are live performances of the later version offering indifferent sonics, so this one from 1981 is the one to get if you want the better arrangement expertly sung in studio sound.
Il viaggio a Reims - 1984 (live composite; digital) DG
The Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Claudio Abbado
Prague Philharmonic Chorus
Corinna - Cecilia Gasdia
Marchesa Melibea - Lucia Valentini-Terrani
Contessa di Folleville - Lella Cuberli
Madame Cortese - Katia Ricciarelli
Cavalier Belfiore - Eduardo Giménez
Conte di Libenskof - Francisco Araiza
Lord Sidney - Samuel Ramey
Don Profondo - Ruggero Raimondi
Baron di Trombonok - Enzo Dara
Don Alvaro - Leo Nucci
Don Prudenzio - Giorgio Surjan
Don Luigino - Oslavio Di Credico
Maddalena - Raquel Pierotti
Delia - Antonella Bandelli
Modestina - Bernadette Manca Di Nissa
Antonio - Luigi De Corato
Zefirino - Ernesto Gavazzi
Gelosimo - William Matteuzzi
Abbado liked this opera so much he staged and recorded the live performance twice within eight years. Once thought lost and the music only partly salvaged by Rossini having adapted about half of it for his later opera Le Comte Ory it was successfully reconstructed 150 years after its last performance for the coronation of Charles X and discovered to be a joyful comic masterpiece to rival Die Fledermaus or Orpheus in the Underworld. The plot is wholly inconsequential; it's just an operatic spoof employing the same device as the Canterbury Tales whereby a disparate bunch of travellers bicker, intrigue, flirt and entertain each other with a "party scene" as the finale.
There can surely never have been such a concatenation of effervescent musical invention as Rossini provides here; one sparkling number succeeds another. All you need to do it justice, to paraphrase Caruso, is not four but the ten greatest singers in the world. Neither version quite provides that but I don't think the choice is as straightforward as some other reviewers claim. First of all, if you had either it would not be worth jettisoning it to acquire the other as both are superb. Secondly, although the difference in sound might favour the later Berlin performance, the live Pesaro version is just fine with the singers virtually always in focus and very few distracting stage noises. Thirdly, and more controversially, some claim that the Berlin Philharmonic is markedly superior to the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. It is true that individual Berlin instrumentalists such as the flautist might be better but I think them too refined compared with the gusto of the COE. However, in the end, this being a showcase for superlative Rossini singing it is for me the cast which tips the balance in favour of the earlier recording.
Naked nymphomaniacs waving bundles of negotiable currency could not induce me to prefer William Matteuzzi over Francisco Araiza as the Conte di Libenskof. I have never understood how anyone tolerated his wretchedly weedy tenorino in any music let alone bravura Rossini and thankfully in the Pesaro version he is relegated to a single utterance in the minor role of Gelsomino. While I am no great fan of Araiza's rather constricted tone and aspirated divisions, I see him as a god compared with Matteuzzi. Other great advantages are the casting of Katia Ricciarelli still in creamiest voice as Madama Cortese and Cecilia Gasdia rather than Sylvia McNair as Corinna (although both are excellent). Lella Cuberli is definitely preferable to Luciana Serra as the Contessa. However, I concede that Argentinean tenor Raul Gimenez is a more refined and pleasing of voice than his Spanish counterpart and namesake Edoardo and as Leo Nucci as Don Alvaro was already beginning to sound rocky in 1984 Lucio Gallo might be preferable in 1992.
Otherwise, the cast for both performances has five big names in common and although Raimondi might by 1992 have introduced yet more subtlety into his tour de force patter-song it is already hilarious in 1984. Samuel Ramey's beautiful, flexible basso cantante is a joy in both, as are Valentini Terrani's agile oboe tones; Enzo Dara is the seasoned comic in both sets. The highlight must be the "Gran pezzo concertato a 14 voci" but Raimondi and Ricciarelli in the Tirolese yodelling song (!) are sheer, unadulterated joy.
My preference thus remains for the earlier version but you cannot go wrong with either - if you can endure Mr Matteuzzi...
Tancredi – 1994 (studio; digital) Naxos
Collegium Instrumentale Brugense/ Alberto Zedda
Tancredi - Ewa Podles
Argirio - Stanford Olsen
Amenaide - Sumi Jo
Isaura - Anna Maria di Micco
Orbazzano - Pietro Spagnoli
Roggiero - Lucrezia Lendi
This was the set that many years ago first tipped me off regarding the quality of the best of the Naxos issues and also alerted me to the supremacy of Ewa Podles amongst true contraltos - of which there are progressively fewer and fewer. Her smoky alto is ideal for conveying masculinity, just as was Marilyn Horne's voice in her day.
On revisiting it, a number of very positive features strike me afresh: the quality of the recording is exemplary; the playing of the small, minor orchestra from Bruges is fleet, light and sensitive; Zedda's direction is propulsive and flexible. But above all, it's the cast which delights. Sumi Jo was rarely out of the recording studio in the early 90's before the market for new classical recordings imploded and once you hear the silvery beauty of her lirico-leggiero soprano entwining with the rich, agile, chocolaty tones of Podles you realise why. Stanford Olsen is another Rossini specialist with a lovely light tenor and Pietro Spagnoli has a firm, virile baritone. There are no basses and two of the parts (Tancredi and Roggiero, his follower) are female "trouser-roles". The supporting cast is uniformly pleasing.
Written in 1813 for Venice when Rossini was only twenty, this is a relatively conventional opera requiring voice, voice and more voice; apart from the lively choruses which comment upon and punctuate the action, most numbers are arias and duets rather than the concerted, complex, accelerating ensembles for which Rossini later became celebrated - although he obliges us with one of those "choo-choo-train" stretti to conclude Act 1. The vital thing is that the singer establish an "affetto" which engages the listener in the emotional mode of the aria. Podles is especially good at doing this and makes the most of her set pieces, combining vocal pyrotechnics with Romantic feeling.
This remains a great bargain and the most recommendable recording of this opera, just as many might opt for the Naxos Il barbiere as the best bargain performance. Good notes, a synopsis and an Italian-only libretto are provided.
Bianco e Falliero – 2000 (studio; digital) Opera Rara
London Philharmonic Orchestra/ David Parry
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
Bianca - Majella Cullagh
Falliero - Jennifer Larmore
Contareno - Barry Banks
Capellio - Ildebrando d' Arcangelo
Priuli - Simon Bailey
Costanza - Gabriella Colecchia
Pisani - Ryland Davies
Uffiziale - Dominic Natoli
The LPO under David Parry are exemplary here, playing with real fizz and attack; from the very first repeated, pounding discord which constitutes the main musical idea of the opening scene you know you are in for some vintage Rossini and that it will be given really energetic advocacy by the performers here. The star singer is Jennifer Larmore, virtually flawless in the execution of her fiendishly difficult travestito role although some might be disconcerted by her occasional delving in to a slightly strange, "cupped" and veiled sound in the lower reaches of her voice - something Callas used to do, too, incidentally. Otherwise, she is stunning in her virtuosity. She is well-matched with the feminine, febrile Bianca of Majella Cullagh, whose voice is occasionally just a little small and lacking body in alt but who articulates her words beautifully and makes light of some very difficult music. Barry Banks' neat, smooth-toned tenor is ideal for depicting the archetypical mean father Contareno in that he manages to sound petty and vicious while at the same time negotiating his runs and high notes effortlessly. Ildebrando d'Arcangelo doesn't have a great deal to do other than ultimately generously cede his claim to Bianca to the demands of her true love for Falliero but his is lovely, teak bass and his contribution to the ensembles is important in grounding the harmonies.
My favourite number in the whole opera is the Act II quartet ''Cielo, il mio labbro inspira'' - vintage Rossini, with a wonderful, surprisingly insistent figure from the orchestral accompaniment.
The surprise at the close of the opera is that we hear Bianca sing an aria more familiar from La donna del lago and Cullagh does it very well. The real strength of this set under review is that it has studio sound without sacrificing drama - and a roster of superb singers.