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Giordano siberia CDS792802
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Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Stephana - Sonya Yoncheva (soprano)
Vassili - Giorgi Sturua (tenor)
Gléby - George Petean (baritone)
Nikona - Caterina Piva (mezzo-soprano)
Il principe Alexis - Giorgio Misseri (tenor)
Ivan - Antonio Gares (tenor)
Il banchiere Miskinsky - Francesco Verna (baritone)
Walinoff - Emanuele Cordaro (bass)
Il capitano - Francesco Samuele Venuti (bass)
Il sergente - Joseph Dahdah (tenor)
Il Cossaco - Alfonso Zambuto (tenor)
Il governatore - Adolfo Corrado (bass)
L’invalido - Davide Piva (baritone)
L’ispettore - Amin Ahangaran (bass)
La fanciulla - Caterina Meldolesi (soprano)
Coro e Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. live, 7 July 2021, Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
DYNAMIC CDS7928.02 [51:11 + 43:43]

As far as I know, there is no studio recording of Siberia and otherwise there are only three, complete, live recordings in the catalogue, two from the Wexford and Martina Franca festivals and a 1974 live radio broadcast from RAI Milano, which is how I came to know the opera. Despite an illustrious cast for its premiere in 1903 - Storchio, Zenatello, De Luca and Pini-Corsi! - and Giordano professing it to be his favourite work, it never achieved anything like the success of Andrea Chénier or even Fedora, which was initially well-received and had no less a singer than Enrico Caruso starring in its premiere and its introduction to the Met, but nonetheless soon faded. Otherwise, Giordano’s seven other works have fallen into desuetude, becoming the province of buffs, critics and completists; indeed, as far as the opera-going public is concerned he is another one-work-composer. Despite several attempts to revive Siberia, including a revision by Giordano of the score in 1927, it has never found a place in the repertoire. Having said that, those live recordings were critically well received and the view has been expressed that the opera deserves both greater exposure and rehabilitation.

Its plot appears to be an original concept, although it bears passing resemblances to Franco Alfano’s contemporaneous opera Risurrezione, also set in St Petersburg and Siberia, and was probably derived from Tolstoy’s novel, mingled with elements of Dostoevsky’s subject matter and Weltanschauung as depicted in his Memoirs from the House of the Dead.

Its failure is partly explained by the relative weakness of the libretto by Luigi Illica, the otherwise highly successful librettist to Puccini, Mascagni and Catalani. Unfortunately, when working alone, Illica lacked the poetic and dramaturgical gifts of his librettist-collaborator Giuseppe Giacosa; initially much too long, on Giordano’s insistence the libretto had to be severely cut such that the opera runs to a compact 95 minutes, but the proliferation of excessively long stage directions remains, indicating Illicia’s subconscious realisation that he needed somehow to compensate for the inadequacy of his text in conveying sufficient both character and depth of feeling. It is packed with Russian tropes such as mukiks (peasants), balalaikas, folk songs and labour camps, and one wonders if Giordano was at all familiar with Mussorgsky’s depiction of crowd scenes.

The enterprising label Dynamic was responsible for the 2003 issue of the Martina Franca performance and here again, twenty years later, issues a live recording of a performance made last year in the Teatro Maggio Musicale, Florence. The cast is promising, comprising of a trio of Eastern European singers in Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, Georgian tenor Giorgi Sturua, and Romanian baritone George Petean and a distinguished conductor in Gianandrea Noseda. Indeed, the standard of singing is generally agreeable, not just from the three strong-voiced principals but also from Giorgio Misseri as a sweet-voiced Prince Alexis, but the soprano portraying “the girl” has too much of a beat in her tone, making her sound too mature and less vulnerable and innocent than she should and there is something of a beat and an element of constriction in Giorgi Sturua’s strenuous tenor, too; his account of “Orride steppe” – one of the more individual and memorable items in the score - is passionately sung, but his hoarse, pulsing sound does not fall very gratefully on the ear and his top notes wail somewhat. Yoncheva’s powerful soprano tends to overpower him when they duet and she also tends to exhibit a beat on loud, high notes; it seems to be the curse of modern singing. Nonetheless, her power and passion in her Act 3 outburst “Un giorno ebbe l’amor pietà di me” are impressive. Baritone George Petean exhibits the steadiest, most pleasing voice here but his demeanour is too noble to portray the odious low-life Gléby wholly successfully; Walter Monachesi is much more villainous-sounding. An additional demerit lies in the fact that Noseda’s spirited conducting is marred by his being in danger of becoming one of those “incontinent grunter” conductors about whom I have been complaining in recent reviews; his emphatic contributions can be very obtrusive, especially on headphones.

Musically, the opera is pleasing and workmanlike but only intermittently inspired and lacking in really memorable Big Tunes. The score is generally through-composed without the set-piece arias of Giordano’s earlier works; the arias as such are more like integrated interludes and after the comparative cheerfulness of the opening of Act 1, with its cynical aubade to a supposedly sleeping Stephana - who has in fact been enjoying a tryst with Vassili – and the brief lyricism of Stephana’s love song “Nel suo amore rianimata”, the overall tone of the opera is prevailingly grim and pessimistic in typical verismo fashion - apart from the brief Easter Saturday women prisoners’ chorus opening Act 3. To compensate, there is then a rapturous love duet and the spectacle of the culmination of Stephana’s spiritual evolution through the three Acts, from “La donna”, to “L’amante” and finally “l’eroina”, when she finally experiences redemption through love. In that regard, she has more in common with Verdi’s “fallen woman” Violetta and her equivalent in Russian novels then coming into vogue in Italy, such as Anna Karenina. The prelude to Act 2 consists of some atmospheric “snow-scene” music and introduces the “Volga Boatmen” theme which Giordano picked up from a book of Russian folk-songs and which he over-works, as it recurs at least half a dozen times. It is reprised for the choruses concluding both Acts 2 and 3, when offstage an approaching “catena-vivante” (living chain) of miserable convicts intone it in a quiet, haunting manner.

The full Italian libretto and notes with parallel English translations are provided both in the booklet and as a download – a rare luxury these days.

Ultimately, this is a convincing, if flawed, performance of a neglected work which offers much of interest, making for an enjoyable hour and a half of verismo listening yet remaining oddly unmemorable. The older recording available on the Opera d’Oro, Bongiovanni and Gala labels is considerably better sung – Amedeo Zambon, in particular, is a far more impressive tenor - even if obviously its sound is nowhere near as good.

Ralph Moore

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