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By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 18 July 2005

Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini
Patrizia Ciofi (Teresa); Joyce di Donato (Ascanio); Gregory Kunde (Cellini); Jean-François Lapointe (Fieramosca); Laurent Naouri (Balducci); Renaud Delaigue (Pope); Eric Salha (Francesco); Marc Mauillon (Bernardino); Eric Huchet (Cabaretier); Roman Nédélec (Pompeo)
Orchestre National de France
Chorus of Radio France
John Nelson, conductor

Virgin Classics  7243 5 45706 2 9 (3 CDs; notes in English, French and German, text and translation in French and English)

This is only the second commercial recording of Benvenuto Cellini, with almost a half hour more of music than the Colin Davis recording for Philips some thirty years ago. John Nelson’s Berliozian credentials are of long standing and we have no reason to be disappointed. The composer is working on a large scale here, with extensive finales, startling ensembles and his customary brilliant orchestration. Nelson is in full control for this is not the first time he has conducted the coruscating work. Gregory Kunde surprises in the title role, a last-minute replacement for the originally scheduled Roberto Alagna. Kunde’s experience of the role helps him surmount the many difficulties while Patrizia Ciofi’s lyric soprano is a delight as Teresa. Joyce di Donato’s Ascanio charms throughout, while Jean-François Lapointe shows that a lyric baritone is just right for the role of Fieramosca rather than the voiceless buffo too often encountered in staged performances. Laurent Naouri’s explosive utterances are part of his characterization of the irascible Balducci while Renaud Delaigue’s bass may in fact be too soft-grained for the authoritative Pope. But it is the pleasure of hearing the opera as first conceived, including some of the early revisions as John Nelson explains in the accompanying notes; some may consider it too long, but it is certainly preferable to the long-current Weimar version which omits some of the composer’s most original touches.

Donizetti: Elvida
Annick Massis (Elvida); Jennifer Larmore (Zeidar); Anne-Marie Gibbons (Zulma); Bruce Ford (Alfonso); Pietro Spagnoli (Amur); Ashley Catling (Ramiro)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
Antonello Allemandi, conductor

Opera Rara ORC 29 (one CD; notes in English only; text and translation in English and Italian)

Donizetti’s extensive catalogue includes several one-act operas, most of them written prior to his first major success, Anna Bolena. Elvida was a pièce d’occasion to celebrate the birthday in 1826 of Queen Maria Isabella of Naples. The work received only four performances before lapsing into oblivion, and it is easy to see why. Despite the composer’s care in terms of orchestration and larger-scale ensembles, the silly plot—Spanish girl (soprano) falls into the hands of Arab chief (bass) whose son (mezzo) falls in love with her but who ultimately withdraws in favor of her Spanish lover (tenor) who comes to defeat the Moors—works against the music. Rarely did the composer write such florid music as that of Elvida, and the cast on this recordings is perhaps one of the best that could be assembled today. Annick Massis in the title role has the customary aria di sortita and shares the "duetto finaletto" with Bruce Ford who has already been stretched by his entrance aria. This duet is every bit as virtuosic as the customary rondo finale, except that both singers are simultaneously put through their paces. Jennifer Larmore’s closed vowel sounds occasionally interfere with our pleasure, but Pietro Spagnoli’s baritone hits the lower notes of his bass role with relative ease. Antonello Allemandi offers a dynamic reading of the score with the London Philharmonic Orchestra but it is ultimately easy to understand why oblivion has been Elvida’s fate.

Donizetti: Francesca de Foix
Annick Massis (Francesca); Jennifer Larmore (Page); Bruce Ford (Duke); Pietro Spagnoli (King); Alfonso Antoniozzi (Count)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
Antonello Allemandi, conductor

Opera Rara ORC 28 (one CD; notes in English only; text and translation in English and Italian)

Francesca di Foix is another in the list of Donizetti’s one-acters, but this time he had the good  fortune to have a decent librettist who has taken a slight tale and made it come alive. Francesca (soprano) is kept locked up by her jealous husband the Count (buffo) so that no one will know how attractive she is. Francesca’s cousin, the page Edmondo (mezzo), has stolen the key to her domain and had it duplicated so that she can get out into the world where she meets the Duke (tenor) and attends a tournament in which the King (baritone) is victor and awards her the trophy. The Count is perhaps deceived for a time by his wife hiding herself under a veil, but all is revealed at the end and he promises not to be a jealous fool. Recounted in this fashion, it is as silly as many other opera plots, but the language is suitable and the music comes to life. The arias for each of the soloists are nicely varied, from the Count’s simple scena and the Page’s rollicking Cansonetta, to the Duke’s Cavatina culminating in bipartite numbers for the King and Francesca. The rondo finale is divided into an aria for the King and a flashy cabaletta for the soprano.
 While the composer often disparaged this particular work, it has a lightness and charm that are inescapable. There are also themes that turn up later in Elisir d’Amore and Lucrezia Borgia—to name only works familiar to opera-goers today – which might explain the composer’s reluctance to have audiences discover his mother lode. The work has been performed only twice since its creation, in London in 1982 (in English) and a few months later in a different reconstruction in Zaandam (Netherlands), this time in Italian. Opera Rara once again pulls out the stops to convince us of a work’s viability. Annick Massis is all quicksilver in the title role, the coloratura flowing naturally. Bruce Ford’s Duke allows him to spin a honeyed line in his aria, while he is fully up to the comedy in his duets with the Page and Francesca. Pietro Spagnoli’s King once again demonstrates that Donizetti need not be brayed but can be sung to great advantage, his technical mastery allowing him to articulate the small notes with which his role is strewn. Alfonso Antoniozzi is one of today’s leading buffo singers, but I am uncertain if his pronunciation of the letter r is truly funny. Jennifer Larmore lacks the lightness of tone and spirit that should emanate from the Page, but as a whole this recording is yet another worthy contribution to uncovering Donizetti’s monumental legacy. Antonello Allemandi and the London Philharmonic Orchestra once again offer buoyant support.

Wolf-Ferrari:  La vedova scaltra
Anne-Lise Sollied (Rosaura); Henriette Bonde-Hansen (Marionette); Francesco Piccoli (Il conte di Bosco Nero); Giorgio Trucco (Monsieur Le Bleau); Franck Leguérinel (Milord Runebif); Jonathan Veira (Don Alvaro); Evgueniy Alexiev (Arlecchino)
Orchestre National  de Montpellier
Choeur de l’Opéra National de Montpellier
Enrique Mazzola, conductor

Accord 476 2675 (2 CDs; texts and translations in English, French and German)

Once again René Koering and the Montpellier forces come to the rescue with—to the best of my knowledge—a premiere on disc. Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s operas have largely been neglected, other than perhaps Il segreto di Susanna, which only requires two singers and one actor. La vedova scaltra (The Wily Widow), like so many of the composer’s operas, is based on a Goldoni play, the plot in this case being quite simple. The widow in question has four suitors of different nationalities, whose national idiosyncrasies are brought to the fore. Arlecchino plays various roles, mixes up the recipients of two letters, but all ends well. Anne-Lise Sollied is a vibrant Rosaura, with Henriette Bonde-Hansen the pert French maid. Evgueniy Alexiev is a wonderful Arlecchino, encompassing the Venetian dialect with no trouble, so that he becomes the second principal. That particular task is made even easier as the four suitors are unevenly cast, the two lower-voiced lovers (Leguérinel and Viera) with matching vocal and histrionic ability. The two tenors are overparted, neither possessing the vocal warmth or ease to be convincing, particularly Piccoli as the accepted lover. Enrique Mazzola leads the high jinks with gusto, finding the right touch somewhere between Léhar and Puccini for this hybrid work that is nonetheless of interest to a wide public.

Vivaldi: Bajazet
Patrizia Ciofi (Idaspe); Marijana Mijanović (Asteria); Vivica Genaux (Irene); Elina Garanča (Andronico); David Daniels (Tamerlano); Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (Bajazet)
Europa Galante
Fabio Biondi (conductor)

Virgin Classics 7243 5 45676 2 9 (2 CDs; texts and translations in English, French and Italian; supplementary DVD with arias by each of the singers)

Vivaldi is definitely hot these days. While Naïve is working its way through the Turin manuscripts, here we have a rival company putting its best foot forward for what is in effect a pasticcio, an opera using material by other composers in addition to the author’s reuse of his own compositions. While a common practice in the 18th century, we tend to look down on this sort of compilation as not being an "original" work. But that is our problem. What Vivaldi has wrought bears our full consideration. Frédéric Delaméa’s thorough notes (he is also involved in the rival project) point out that Vivaldi has carefully positioned all his material and given a great deal of thought to the recitatives, the two accompagnati being memorable. Fabio Biondi has prepared the edition, which required finding music for three arias for which text was provided, but this is also what Jean-Claude Malgoire did several years ago for Montezuma. What you, of course, want to know is whether you should acquire the recording and the answer is a rousing affirmative. The singing is amazing, from pure pyrotechnics to sustained pathos, and everyone is more than equal to the task. Vivica Genaux repeats an aria from her Farinelli album, which is already an indication of the capabilities of Vivaldi’s singers, but shows that she can also keep us in the palm of her hand with "Sposa, son disprezzata". Marijana Mijanović may not have the most feminine of timbres for the role of Asteria but she is alive to the dramatic nuances. Elina Garanča’s more feminine timbre as the lover, Andronico, causes confusion in a few scenes, but her singing shows greater involvement than an aria album recorded in 2000. David Daniels’s cruel tyrant is effective, while Patrizia Ciofi’s confidant, Idaspe, neatly dispatches her two arias. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo in the title role occasionally overpowers the music, but makes the most of his pre-suicide speech. Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante are no strangers to the music of Vivaldi and are always at the service of the drama. And there is a 30-minute DVD from the recording sessions, each of the singers performing an aria that offers much of interest to those trying to dissect vocal techniques.

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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