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A Bel Canto Explosion
by Joel Kasow

Lyon, 20 August 1998 - Midway in the course of Rossini's Neapolitan productions that featured Isabella Colbran, Ricciardo e Zoraide has never enjoyed the favor granted the other works of that period. Often written off by commentators who knew the work only from the printed page, in practice we are struck by the composer's continuing search for new sonorities, new combinations, all within a formulaic structure. The two leading tenor roles are quite distinct, as were the tenors themselves, while the emergence of a true Rossinian contralto in the person of Rosmunda Pisaroni initiated a new vocal type. As with certain other works of the same period, we must adjust to a larger time frame to accompany all of Rossini's innovations. At the same time, we are moderately aware of Colbran's diminishing resources as there is no entrance aria, only a closing aria followed by a vaudeville trio. What is needed today to bring these works back to life is a committed cast, and that is certainly the case here. Both Bruce Ford and William Matteuzzi participated in the 1990 Pesaro performances: it is perhaps easier to appreciate Ford's virile approach than the namby-pambiness of Matteuzzi, a defect which might easily be remedied by a sturdier rhythmic impulse. But he certainly gets those high notes. Nelly Miricioiu's intelligence more than compensates for a voice sometimes lacking in velvet, but that comment might apply to certain other of our favorite singers of the last half century. Only Della Jones as Zomira shows occasional discomfort, but once more her know-how gets her and us over the hurdles. Conductor David Parry has been part of the team for the last several recordings issued by Opera Rara and is one of the stalwarts, his enthusiasm and control forming the skeleton which the performers are able to flesh out with much panache.

Rossini: Ricciaro e Zoraide
Nelly Miricioiu (Zoraide); Della Jones (Zomira); Carol Smith (Fatima); Alice Coote (Elmira); Bruce Ford (Agorante); William Matteuzzi (Ricciardo); Paul Nilon (Ernesto); Toby Spence (Zamorre); Alastair Miles (Ircano)
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
David Parry, conductor
Opera Rara ORC 14 (3 cds)
Texts and translation in English and Italian, essay only in English

Rossini - Ricciaro e Zoraide

Demetrio e Polibio was Rossini's first opera, though not the first to be presented. It has some of the facility of a student work, to the extent that his string sonatas do. Martina Franca's courageous revival in 1992 was only released in 1996 by Dyanmic, with a mixed cast of experienced singers and a debutante. We can already see the casting pattern of the early tragedies, with soprano heroine, contralto hero, tenor father and bass father of lesser importance musically. Newcomer Sara Mingardo in the trouser role may very well have been making one of her first appearances, full of promise which we now know to be well on the way to fulfillment. The lush, even sound can be dramatic when required. Christine Weidinger's Lisinga is some of the best work we've heard from her, firing off salvos of coloratura and filling out long lyric lines in alternation. Dalmacio Gonzales as the "bad" father who'll do anything to regain his lost son, including killing his daugher-in-law, has difficult music which lies easily for him. Only Giorgio Surjan skates through his music, cutting corners all the way. In both of these works, the composer requires a solid technique of his basses but does not really offer an opportunity to shine. Massimiliano Carraro retains a firm hand over the Graz Symphonic Orchestra which more than rises to the occasion with obbligato playing of finesse.

Rossini: Demetrio e Polibio
Christine Weidinger (Lisinga); Sara Mingardo (Siveno); Anna Laura Longo (Olmira); Dalmacio Gonzales (Demetrio/Eumene); Giorgio Surjan (Polibio); Martino Fullone (Onao)
Orchestra Sinfonica di Graz and the Sluk Chamber Chorus of Bratislava
Massimiliano Carraro, conductor
Dynamic CDS 171/1-2 (2 cds)
Texts and translations in English and Italian, essay also in German and French

Rossini - Demetrio e Polibio

Why has Donizetti's Rosmonda languished? Is it the lack of one of those moments like the "Sextet" from Lucia or one of the other grand concertato sections as in Maria Stuarda, Poliuto or Anna Bolena? Rosmonda's first act aria was for many years appropriated by French Lucies and a concert item during the coloratura revival initiated by Joan Sutherland. Let us not forget that soprano-soprano confrontations are among the most dramatic conceivable, an occasion which brings out the best in Donizetti. Like Ricciardo e Zoraide, we are perhaps dealing with a work interesting to the connoisseur for what it tells us about the composer's development but which somehow never made itself part of the collective conscience. This is no reason to explain its continued neglect, but that remark might also apply to a great many more operas in Donizetti's neglected body of work. I had a great time listening, what with Renée Fleming in the title role and her unique combination of limpid tone and amazing coloratura facility, Nelly Miricioiu as the villainess offering a starkly contrasting sound, their duet a high point. Add Bruce Ford in a tenor role written for Duprez, Diana Montague as a page and Alastair Miles as Clifford and you have a volatile mix which is in the able hands of David Parry. This is a recording I have been waiting for since I heard the work at its first 20th century performances in London over twenty years ago.

Donizetti: Rosmonda d'Inghilterra
Renée Fleming (Rosmonda); Nelly Miricioiu (Lenora di Guienna); Diana Montague (Arturo); Bruce Ford (Enrico II); Alastair Miles (Clifford)
Philharmonia Orchestra and the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
David Parry, conductor
Opera Rara ORC 13 (2 cds)
Texts and translation in English and Italian, essay only in English

Donizetti - Rosmonda d'Inghilterra

Going back earlier in time, Piccini's Americano may be one of the longest divertissements written, clocking in at almost two and a half hours, with only four characters. Conductor Eric Hull also prepared the edition of the score and his research is at the service of a flexible baton. Patrizia Ciofi and Simon Edwards as the low-born pair both outsing Giovanna Donadini and Domenico Colaianni as the nobles, in an occasionally endless-seeming succession of arias, almost no duets or ensembles. This is nonetheless the sort of recording we welcome, its contribution to our familiarity with the byways of the canonical repertory a relief after the 100th recording of a standard work with a substandard cast.

Piccinni: L'Americano
Patriczia Ciofi (Silvia); Giovanna Donadini (Donna Aurora); Simon Edwards (Villotto); Domenico Colaianni (Lisandro)
Orchestra Internazionale d'Italia
Eric Hull, conductor
Dynamic CDS 177/1-2 (2 cds)
Texts and translations in English and Italian, essay also in German and French

I don't deny that early nineteenth century opera is something I enjoy more than many other types of music, and presumably it is for just such an audience of music-lovers that Opera Rara went into business, offering works that had hitherto been neglected in the opera house or the studio. Opera Rara's productions have always been noted for the sumptuous accompanying material, and Ricciardo and Rosmonda are no exception, with the by-now customary in-depth analyses by Jeremy Commons, and, in the case of the Rossini, a detailed list of casts by Thomas Kaufman from the premiere up to the 20th century revival at Pesaro in 1990. Dynamic seems eager to join in the exploration of this much neglected terrain, using performances from various festivals to broaden their offerings. Both the Piccini and Demetrio are live recordings from the Festival at Martina France, leading to the only word of caution I might have for Dynamic: please try and do something with the microphone placement so that we are not submerged in distracting stage noises.

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