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Giordano siberia CDS792802
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Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Siberia, three act opera (1903, revision 1927) [94:54]
Stephana – Sonya Yoncheva (soprano)
Vassili – Giorgi Sturua (tenor)
Gléby – George Petean (baritone)
Nikona – Caterina Piva (mezzo-soprano)
Prince Alexis – Giorgio Misseri (tenor)
Orchestra e Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. live, 7 July 2021, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Teatro del Maggio, Florence
Full Italian libretto with English translation
DYNAMIC CDS7928.02 [51:11 + 43:43]

In recent years, verismo opera has been experiencing something of a resurgence of fortunes with releases of a number of complete operas and solo aria collections. With the emergence of the Giovane Scuola (young school) of Italian composers, notably Puccini, Mascagni, Giordano, Cilèa and Leoncavallo, verismo, a rather short-lived art and cultural movement, came into vogue mainly in Italy towards the end of the nineteenth century. Encouraged by publishers Giulio Ricordi and Edoardo Sonzogno, verismo in opera seeks to portray ordinary people in gritty, real-life, contemporary scenes, warts and all, as exemplified by Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (prem. 1890) and Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci (prem. 1892).

Foggia born, in the south of Italy, Giordano wrote several verismo operas. Today, the Giordano work most likely to be encountered is his verismo opera André Chénier (prem. 1896, La Scala, Milan) a staging that I reported from in 2017 at Munich with Jonas Kaufman as Chénier. Occasionally staged, and more so in Italy, is another Giordano verismo opera, Fedora (prem. 1898), which I reviewed on video a 2015 Genoa staging with the late Daniela Dessì in the title role on Dynamic Blu-ray.

Here, the Dynamic label has released Giordano’s verismo opera Siberia - a veritable rarity in the opera house. I have heard a few arias and duets from Siberia in various aria collections, but this is my first full recording. An opera not previously staged in Florence, this live recording is conducted by Italian maestro Gianandrea Noseda in the acclaimed production by stage director Roberto Andò given on 7th July 2021 at Teatro Comunale. Dynamic label has also released a video of the same performance, available on DVD (37928) and Blu-ray (57928).

Giordano and librettist Luigi Illica received considerable acclaim for André Chénier the opera for which the composer became renowned. Illica also experienced great success with his collaborations with Catalani (La Wally) and Puccini (La bohème, Tosca). Giordano approached Illica was presented with Siberia an original libretto on a subject inspired by classic Russian literature, in vogue at the time. Illica had first offered the libretto to Puccini who turned had it down. Regarding the Russian-themed text of the libretto it is thought likely that Illica was at least aware of Dostoyevsky’s part-autobiographical novel ‘The House of the Dead’.

The premiere of Siberia was given at La Scala, Milan in December 1903. A celebrated cast had been assembled for another opera that wasn’t given and they stayed for the opening night of Siberia, which was favourably received. Later performances, with some cuts and alterations, given at Genoa and Paris in 1905, and a staging at the renowned Paris Opéra in 1911, were all highly praised. For a revival at La Scala in 1927 Giordano heavily revised the score yet Siberia could not secure a place in the repertory. Following those 1927 revisions, Sonzogno published a second edition which is the one Noseda has recorded here. Each of the three acts of Siberia has a title namely ‘The Woman’, ‘The Lover’ and ‘The Heroine’. What works well is how Giordano integrates his take on Russian themes into the opera, notably in Act Two the famous ‘Song of the Volga Boatmen’ sung by a chorus of prisoners and the national anthem of the Russian Empire ‘God Save the Tsar!’. In Act Three, Giordano evokes the sound of bells, so significant of the Russian Orthodox tradition and there is also a section for balalaikas, the traditional Russian folk instrument. Without doubt Siberia contains much lovely music, yet stand-alone arias are few.

Set in Russia during the first half of the nineteenth century, Siberia’s plot often stretches the imagination. There are three main characters, notably Stephana, the protagonist of Illica’s tragic libretto, a role once described as ‘a mixture between Puccini’s Tosca and Magda’ (La rondine). Prince Alexis’ courtesan, Stephana is in a ‘love triangle’ with two suitors Gléby and Vassili. Stephana falls in love with Vassili a young army lieutenant who is banished to a prison camp at the Transbaikal mines in Siberia for wounding Alexis in a duel, and she gives up her life of luxury to follow him to the camp. Stephana escapes with Vassili from the dreadful camp but their nemesis Gleby tips off the guards and she is shot and killed. In the booklet essay to this release, Caesar Orselli describes Siberia as ‘a story of love, suffering and moral redemption’.

Bulgarian lyric soprano Sonya Yoncheva first sang the role of heroine Stephana in a concert version of Siberia conducted by her husband Domingo Hindoyan in 2017 at the Radio France Occitanie Montpellier Festival. In this Florence performance, Yoncheva is in splendid form, suitably energised, displaying a powerful and expressive voice. With telling effect, Yoncheva fulfils the complex emotional demands of the role that switch between resolutely dramatic and heartbreakingly tragic. Standing out in Act One is Stephana’s entrance aria Nel suo amore rianimata, in which the heroine expresses her anguish that her lover Vassili will discover that she lived as a courtesan in St. Petersburg. Displaying her dusky edged tone, Yoncheva sings gloriously and with utmost sincerity. In her Act Three aria Infinito dolore! Stephana tells Gléby how he brings back unwanted memories of her past life as a courtesan, that now shame her. She explains how in poverty she has found true love with Vassili. Yoncheva holds long notes impressively and generates blistering drama. My only regret concerning Stephana’s arias is they are over too soon.

In the role of Vassili and a new name to me is Georgian tenor Giorgi Sturua who acquits himself well throughout. Compared to Stephana, the young army officer is inexperienced in love and I sense this markedly in Sturua’s performance. In Vassili’s Act Two aria Orride steppe, torrida l'estate! he tries to dissuade Stephana from accompanying him to the Siberian work camp, singing of the wretched conditions they will face, communicating believable emotional pain. Following this aria is their love duet E’ qui con te, one of the highlights of the opera where Stephana declares that it is her destiny is to be with him and Vassili responds by describing how his heart rejoices at it. Elated by the glory of their love, Sturua and Yoncheva sing movingly, squeezing out every last ounce of emotion.

Experienced Romanian baritone George Petean reliably sings the role of the unsavoury criminal character Gléby, Stephana’s former pimp. The highlight of the role is his Act Three aria Si, Gléby! Now a convict in the camp Gléby approaches Stephana, saying that fate has led them to each other, that destiny will unite them and suggesting a scheme to escape together. In mature voice, Petean emits a fine, firm sound although at crucial times I wished he could bring more menace to his characterisation. In Act One, there are modest contributions from Caterina Piva as Nikona and Giorgio Misseri as Prince Alexis, together with ten comprimario roles all making satisfying contributions to the success of the production.

This is a live recording and predictably the performances and sound are by no means perfect. In verismo the searing passion generated by the principal singers in live performance usually comes at the expense of some steadiness and focus, and I try to make reasonable allowance. Overall, there is nothing to detract me from the overall level of performance. With conductor Gianandrea Noseda at the helm, the Orchestra e Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino are on splendid form, and one senses their appetite for what is probably an unfamiliar score.

Recorded at the Teatro del Maggio, Florence the sound quality is most acceptable for a live performance. Compared to the solo singers the orchestra sound slightly set back in the mix, but this is nothing at all to worry about. At times some audience and stage noise is discernible, although it does not especially bother me; also, at the end of each act, the applause has been retained. The presentation is first-class; the booklet provides cast and track listings, a helpful essay ‘Siberia in brief’ by Cesare Orselli, a synopsis, and the full Italian libretto with an English translation.   

Alternative accounts of Siberia that I am aware of seem to be live recordings from conductors Pietro Argento (excerpts, 1951), Danilo Belardinelli from a RAI broadcast (1974) and Daniele Callegari (Wexford Festival 1999). Prior to this new account of Siberia Dynamic already has in its catalogue a live recording of Siberia conducted by Benzi Manlio from the 2003 Valle d'Itria Festival at Martina Franca.

This was my first encounter with Siberia and this recording certainly piqued my curiosity. With subsequent playings, I was hooked by the terrific performance of this compelling verismo opera. Opera lovers like me who relish both the verismo tradition and exploring rarely recorded opera, should savour this new set from Dynamic.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Ralph Moore

Cast List: 
Stephana – Sonya Yoncheva (soprano)
Vassili – Giorgi Sturua (tenor)
Gléby – George Petean (baritone)
Nikona – Caterina Piva (mezzo-soprano)
Prince Alexis – Giorgio Misseri (tenor)
Ivan – Antonio Garès (tenor)
Banker Miskinsky – Francesco Verna (baritone)
Walinoff – Emanuele Cordaro (bass)
Captain – Francesco Samuele Venuti (bass)
Sergeant – Joseph Dahdah (tenor)
Cossack – Alfonso Zambuto (tenor)
Governor – Adolfo Corrado (bass)
Invalid – Davide Piva (baritone)
Inspector – Amin Ahangaran (bass)
Girl – Caterina Meldolesi (soprano)

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