Umberto Giordano (1861-1948)
Stephana - Sonya Yoncheva
Vassili - Giorgi Sturua
Gléby - George Petean
Orchestra e Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. live, 7 July 2021, Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Italy
DYNAMIC CDS7928.02 [2 CDs: 95]
It is strange how, with the exception of Puccini, almost all the verismo composers are remembered for only one of their operas. The most unfair example of this seems to me to be Mascagni; I’ve long thought Cavalleria Rusticana among the least typical and least musically interesting of his 15 operas, but a couple of others (Iris and L’amico Fritz) have managed to keep a toehold in the repertoire, at least in Italy. Giordano is similar in that there is one opera (Andrea Chénier) which has maintained a repertoire place (though not to anywhere near the same extent as Cav) and one which has managed a peripheral presence still (Fedora). The two composers were almost exact contemporaries, and Giordano’s Marina came sixth in the famous one-act opera competition held by Sonzogno in 1890 which was won by Cavalleria Rusticana. They also wrote almost the same number of operas, though it is tricky to give a simple number for Giordano, as Mala Vita was revised as Il Voto and his final opera La Festa del Nilo was left unfinished at his death.
Siberia came directly after Il Voto, being premiered at La Scala with a spectacular cast in 1903. The principal cast members of that premiere, Rosina Storchio, Giovanni Zenatello and Giuseppe de Luca, made a series of recordings from it for The Gramophone and Typewriter Company shortly after the premiere which are among the rarest and most sought-after of all 78 records. After a period of a fashion for Japanese settings, Siberia was part of a minor vogue for Russian ones, including Giordano’s Fedora and Alfano’s Risurrezione.
The present recording follows today’s standard procedure of being a recording of a stage performance which is also available as a DVD and Blu-ray (I have not seen either of these). The CD booklet is very vague on the matter, but under the title are printed the words “Second Edition”, so presumably this is the version which Giordano revised for performances at La Scala in 1927.
The cast of this Maggio Musicale Fiorentino performance is generally good. The Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva has achieved considerable fame over the last decade. She was born in 1981, won the Domingo Operalia Competition in 2010 and has appeared in many of the world’s leading houses since. She has appeared quite regularly at Covent Garden, and I have seen her there in an Operalia Winners concert in 2012, Boheme, Faust, Carmen, Norma and Tales of Hoffmann. She has been impressive in all of them, if without ever managing that “something special” which marks out one of the greats. Her performance of Stephana is good, with a solid tone, though this can spread slightly at the top, and a good legato, but her response to the text is merely generalised. Her Act 1 aria “Nel suo amore rianimata” where she explains to Nikona how Vassili has transformed her life and reawakened her conscience passes by as a pleasant little ditty but Yoncheva lacks any real sense of understanding of the immense gift that Stephana feels she has been given by Vassili. It is not helped at all by her mediocre diction; many of the consonants are swallowed into a dreamy legato, so the singing lacks any specificity.
The otherwise very good booklet follows something of a tendency nowadays to say absolutely nothing about the performers. An internet search finally revealed that the tenor Giorgi Sturua is Georgian (in the former-Soviet rather than the deep-south-American sense), made his solo debut with the Balanchivadze Opera Theatre in Kutaisi in 2014 (his roles included Canio!) before moving on to the Bolshoi Theatre Young Artists Opera Program in 2016. It was only during this research that I realised that I had heard (and been impressed by) him at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2019 when Chelsea Opera performed Rubinstein’s The Demon. He sang Sinodal when Andrei Kymach sang the title part about three days after winning the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. It must be said that the Slavonic repertoire suits his voice much better than the Italian. The voice is rather throaty with a somewhat constricted top and his style tends towards the lugubrious with too much sliding up into notes. I think you will see what I mean if you listen to “Orride steppe” in Act 1, the nearest thing Vassili gets to an aria. As with Yoncheva, he needs a much more specific response to the words, but it is by no means a bad performance. Both of them are at their best in the duets in Act 3 (tracks 3 and 11), where considerable excitement is generated. The third of the principal parts, Gléby, is sung by Romanian baritone George Petean (it is somewhat depressing to see that an Italian festival has to rely on three eastern European singers to put on what is a purely Italian opera, even if it is set in Russia). He is probably the best of the singers in purely vocal terms, though he has the fewest opportunities to shine and is rather under-characterised. At least the conductor is Italian, and Noseda’s conducting is the most consistently satisfying aspect of the performance. He is both passionate and refined and makes the most of the score. There are a large number of other named parts (12 in the cast list), but almost all are of the “cough and spit” variety. All are done perfectly satisfactorily.
Despite my irritation at the lack of any performer biographies, the booklet must be commended. It has the inestimable advantage of having a full libretto with parallel English translation, so there is no need to sit with your laptop on your knee to follow it online. Cesare Orselli’s article is valuable, though I can’t help wondering whether it was translated into English by computer software, as it is bizarrely phrased at times. The translation of the libretto is much better in this respect. It also seems very odd to include Prokofiev’s War and Peace in a list of early “stories with Russian characters to be staged in opera”.
Even a lover of verismo such as I am would be hard-pressed to claim that this is other than a mediocre piece; it doesn’t even approach the quality of Andrea Chénier, which, as far as I am concerned, is a minor masterpiece. How Giordani could have considered Siberia his favourite of his operas is beyond comprehension. I’m pleased to have a modern recording with a full libretto, and the performance is far from being without merit, but just don’t buy it the expectation of a revelation.
Previous reviews: Ralph Moore ~ Michael Cookson
Other members of the production
Nikona - Caterina Piva
Il Principe Alexis - Giorgio Misseri
Ivan - Antonio Garés
Il Banchiere Miskinsky - Francesco Verna
Walinoff - Emanuele Cordaro
Il Capitano - Francesco Samuele Venuti
Il Sergente - Joseph Dahdah
Il Cosacco - Allonso Zambuto
Il Governatore - Adolfo Corrado
L'Invalido - Davide Piva
L'Ispettore - Amin Ahangaran
La Fanciulla - Caterina Meldolesi
Chorus Master - Lorenzo Fratini
Chorus Soloist - Alfio Vacanti
Recording, Editing and Post-production: MASClassica Audio Recording