20 September 2009

CD REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti – PARISINA (C. Giannattasio, J. Bros, D. Solari, N. Ulivieri, A. Taylor; Opera Rara)

Donizetti: PARISINA (Opera Rara) GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Parisina – C. Giannattasio (Parisina), J. Bros (Ugo), D. Solari (Azzo), N. Ulivieri (Ernesto), A. Taylor (Imelda); Geoffrey Mitchell Choir; London Philharmonic Orchestra; David Parry [recorded in Henry Wood Hall, London, during December 2008; Opera Rara ORC40]

In his extensive liner notes accompanying this recording, typical of Opera Rara’s inimitably high standards of scholarship and presentation, Jeremy Commons suggests that Parisina’s failure to claim a permanent place in the international repertory can be attributed in part to ‘the fact that the great sopranos of the Donizetti revival, Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland [patroness of Opera Rara], did not include it in their repertories.’ For all her remarkable and unprecedented contributions to global understanding and acceptance of bel canto in general, Maria Callas’ exploration of the Donizetti canon was confined to three operas: Lucia di Lammermoor (hardly a forgotten score when Callas revitalized the dramatic profile of the title role), Anna Bolena (in which Callas was truly revelatory), and Poliuto. Dame Joan Sutherland took on a greater number of Donizetti heroines, but Parisina’s tessitura is slightly low to have been completely suitable for the Australian prima donna. Montserrat Caballé, Spain’s queen of bel canto, did sing Parisina, however, and her 1974 concert performance at Carnegie Hall is widely considered not only a great personal triumph but also one of the truly significant nights in the history of that venue. As Mr. Commons also notes in his article, Donizetti composed a number of meritorious scores that continue to slumber in obscurity, especially as the bel canto Renaissance has in the past two decades been mostly supplanted by a revival of interest in Baroque music. If, as Opera Rara strive to prove with this new studio recording, Parisina is an opera as satisfying and musically rewarding as, say, Partenope, the advocacy of an artist of Caballé’s ilk should have proved an important boost in the score’s fortunes. That Parisina remains largely unknown arouses curiosity about what has been missed – or, in a less flattering sense, what the opera itself is missing.

Despite having justly earned Donizetti’s exasperation with its long-delayed gestation, Felice Romani’s libretto for Parisina is among the finest of the bel canto period. Romani famously lamented that his verses for Parisina, the value of which he shrewdly sensed, were set by Donizetti rather than Bellini (for whom Romani provided seven libretti, including those for Norma and La Sonnambula). Opera Rara have provided Romani’s complete libretto, including passages that were not set by Donizetti. Reading the libretto both with and without Donizetti’s excisions, it is apparent that the composer’s judicious editing rendered Romani’s libretto both more dramatically effective and more ingratiatingly poetic. Metaphors likening human emotions to natural phenomena abound, providing Donizetti with ample and mostly creatively-seized opportunities for tone painting. In the scene in which Azzo (the aging, jealous husband who denounced a previous wife for imagined infidelity, with fatal consequences for the hapless bride) observes Parisina (Azzo’s current wife, faithful despite having loved another man since their shared youth) as she sleeps and hears her utter in the course of her dreams Ugo’s name (he being the requiting object of Parisina’s innocent passion), both Donizetti and Romani attained the zeniths of their respective arts. With music of thrilling tension and deceptive beauty, Donizetti fully revealed the brilliance of Romani’s verses and presaged the exhilarating and heart-wrenching final scene of Verdi’s Otello.

Despite many passages that are recognizably Donizetti at his finest and a duet for the lovers that resembles in structure, dramatic function, and thematic development Lucia’s and Edgardo’s ‘Verranno a te sull’aure,’ Parisina lacks the easily memorable tunes that have doubtlessly played a significant role in keeping Lucia di Lammermoor and L’Elisir d’Amore in the affections of audiences worldwide. Even if one loathes these scores and their heart-on-the-sleeve sentiments, melodies like the main themes of ‘Verranno a te,’ Lucia’s great Sextet, ‘Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali,’ and ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ are not easily expunged from the memory. Though possessing ensembles that rival the best in any of Donizetti’s scores and in ‘Sogno talor’ an aria as hauntingly beautiful as any solo number in nineteenth-century opera, Parisina ultimately impressed most with its grandiose but never vulgar drama and the dignity of its utterance. Parisina is a worthy sister to Anna Bolena, Lucia, and Maria Stuarda, her lines in some instances even more finely-crafted than theirs but wanting the melodic individuality that forever stamps the recollection of a character’s plight upon a listener’s mind.

Opera Rara make with this recording a persuasive case for Parisina, as indeed they do with virtually every score that they commit to disc. At the podium, David Parry adds another jewel to his crown of achievements in bel canto repertory, presiding over a performance that ideally blends grace with fire. Tempi are carefully judged with a masterful touch for shaping musical progression naturally, speeds in lyrical portions of the score expansive without languishing and those in the more overtly melodramatic passages wonderfully propulsive without leaving the singers gasping behind. Maestro Parry’s winning approach is magnificently abetted by the singers of the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, under the direction of Renato Balsadonna, and the players of the London Philharmonic. The choristers give little evidence of being Britons, and the integrated tone they bring to both intimate and boldly extroverted passages is ringing and impressive. The Philharmonic players execute their music on a level that matches the work of the world’s best orchestras, playing with dash when required and, following Maestro Parry’s lead, accompanying the soloists with subtlety and attention to detail. More so than in some of Donizetti’s more celebrated scores, the orchestra in Parisina have a significant part in developing the opera’s drama, and this is vigorously realized. Maestro Parry again proves his idiomatic suitability for bel canto repertory and surpasses by a considerable margin the current international standard for what is thought to be ‘stylish’ conducting of bel canto scores.

The only ‘small’ role in Parisina is that of Imelda (Parisina’s confidante), though even she makes significant contributions to the drama. The role is cast from strength in Opera Rara’s recording with mezzo-soprano Ann Taylor, a fine singer whose varied experience ranges from Händel and Gluck to contemporary music. In this performance, Miss Taylor discloses a pleasing voice and a technique capable of facing the modest hurdles Donizetti set for her; that is, modest but debilitating to many underprepared singers who might sign on expecting only a few lines in recitatives and doubling of the top lines in choruses. Dramatically, Miss Taylor enacts all of Imelda’s concern for her mistress through coloration of the voice, darkening her vowels in moments of stress to underline Imelda’s terror and foreboding. Remembering all the poor singing that can be heard on recordings and in staged performances in a crucial supporting role such as Alisa in Lucia di Lammermoor, it is of great solace to hear an artist of Miss Taylor’s accomplishments as Imelda.

Ernesto, Ugo’s adopted father (it is revealed in the course of the opera that Ugo is none other than the unknown son of Azzo and his cast-off wife, Matilde), is a bass role cut from the same cloth as Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor. Ernesto’s roles as the distressed father-figure and voice of reason and conscience are shared with Raimondo, and their vocal lines are likewise similar. Ernesto is sung in this performance by bass Nicola Ulivieri, and – as with the Azzo and Parisina – it is beneficial to hear a native Italian singer in the role. Mr. Ulivieri is attentive to the innate profundity of Ernesto’s pronouncements and sings throughout the performance with firm and pointed tone, producing a superb high note in the scene in which he reveals to Azzo that Ugo is his natural son. Mr. Ulivieri’s singing produces the suspicion that his vocal center of gravity is at the higher end of the bass spectrum, however, occasionally compromising Donizetti’s intended effects in Ernesto’s lower register. Only rarely does this impede the resolution of a phrase, and Mr. Ulivieri minimizes the impact of the relative weakness of his lowest notes by leaning into the text as his vocal lines descend, compensating for lack of sheer heft with closely-judged dramatic emphasis. In Mr. Ulivieri’s performance, Ernesto’s concern for his adopted son’s predicament is palpable, his singing shaped by alertness to the meaning of the text. On the whole, Ernesto is a more interesting character, musically and dramatically, than Lucia’s Raimondo, and he is admirably portrayed by Mr. Ulivieri.

Azzo shares many similarities with Alfonso in Donizetti’s Lucrezia di Borgia (not least that both of them are Dukes of Ferrara) and Verdi’s Conte di Luna. A deeply insecure man whose almost psychotically jealous nature has already resulted in the repudiation of his first wife (Ugo’s mother), Azzo is consumed at the start of Parisina with suspicions of his current wife’s presumed infidelity. These suspicions are the dramatic core of the opera, and tragedy is precipitated by the reality that the devotion between Parisina and Ugo is born of a pure love, the product of their shared childhood. His unyielding menace notwithstanding, Azzo is the most vividly-drawn character in the opera, and Donizetti shaped the role with music of impressive range and vitality. That vitality is brought to the fore by the committed singing of Italian baritone Dario Solari. Mr. Solari reveals in this performance a solid voice of middle weight, the timbre dark without jeopardizing vowel placement or the clarity of his diction. In terms of vocal weight, Azzo is a step further than Lucia’s Enrico towards the towering baritone roles of middle-period Verdi. It is easy to suspect that a successful Rigoletto would likewise prove an effective Azzo. Combining a thoughtful but voracious approach to the role with a voice on good form, Mr. Solari is a thoroughly successful Azzo. If it is more difficult to imagine him proving a completely effective Rigoletto, this can be attributed in part to Mr. Solari’s possession of a good baritone voice of the modern sort; vowels open and on the breath and consonants rounded to minimize impact on legato. Dramatically, Mr. Solari convinces as a relentlessly threatening character whose few moments of lyricism are undermined by doubts. In a sense, the final scene in which Azzo has his son murdered and heartlessly reveals the corpse to Parisina represents a pre-Freudian psychotic break, and Mr. Solari rises to the challenges of both this scene and that in which Azzo overhears his sleeping wife utter Ugo’s name. Listeners familiar with Caballé’s Carnegie Hall concert performance of Parisina may have been spoiled by hearing the wonderful Québécois baritone Louis Quilico (a justifiably famous Rigoletto) as Azzo, but Mr. Solari brings off the full measure of the role on his own scale.

Ugo, the object of Parisina’s innocent affection, is sung by Catalan tenor and bel canto specialist José Bros. Mr. Bros has to his credit an impressive array of successes in bel canto in the world’s opera houses and on records, not least in the title role of Opera Rara’s recording (taken from a pair of concert performances at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. Though heavier than some bel canto tenor roles, Ugo was composed for Gilbert-Louis Duprez, the first tenor known to have taken top C’s from the chest (and who, five years after the premiere of Parisina, created the role of Benvenuto Cellini for Berlioz), ensuring the role’s prominence and high tessitura. Ugo indeed has much distinguished music despite the lack of a set piece of the unforgettable impact of Edgardo’s Tomb Scene in Lucia or Roberto’s Prison Scene in Roberto Devereux. In theory, it could be argued that Mr. Bros possesses a voice that bears distinct similarities to contemporary accounts of Duprez’s. During the past few years, the bright patina of Mr. Bros’ voice has dimmed somewhat, but he retains an attractive, slender tone that can take on a metallic, somewhat nasal edge as he ascends into his highest register. As Ugo, he sings with no shortage of involvement and sensitivity to the text (though words containing the letter ‘z’ often receive a decidedly Castilian rather than a idiomatically Italian pronunciation). As ever, the reach and technical accomplishment of Mr. Bros’ singing are impressive, and there are many moments of beauty in Ugo’s lyrical passages. Ugo’s expressions of confusion with his adopted father, frustration and defiance with Azzo, and tenderness with Parisina are meaningfully contrasted. Mr. Bros endeavors manfully to avoid placing the voice under pressure unduly, raising the suspicion (as elsewhere among the cast) that a slightly larger voice would be more apt for the role, but he cleverly puts instances of stress to dramatic use. These qualities contribute to a sense that Mr. Bros has the role well in hand, and he easily outclasses his only recorded rivals in Ugo’s music.

Donizetti conceived the title role of Parisina for Caroline Ungher, the Austrian singer who was the contralto soloist in the first performances of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and Ninth Symphony (and who, tradition would have it, performed the sad duty of turning the deaf composer to face the frenzied applause of the audience at the Symphony’s end). In addition to Donizetti’s Parisina and the aforementioned Beethoven parts, Ungher also created the roles of Isoletta in Bellini’s La Straniera, Antonina in Donizetti’s Belisario, and the title role in Donizetti’s Maria de Rudenz. The variety of these roles suggests that Ungher was, like her nineteenth-century counterparts Giuditta Pasta and Maria Malibran (and, in the twentieth century, Maria Callas), an artist whose voice could not be accurately assigned to any one Fach. In Parisina, she faced music of wide range, coloratura complexity, and lyrical richness. In twenty-first century performances, roles such as those composed for Ungher present casting challenges in that the tessitura is frequently too low for coloratura sopranos (as in the case of Dame Joan Sutherland, noted at the start) and uncomfortably high for modern mezzo-sopranos. In this regard, Opera Rara cast Parisina with a gifted singer whose voice is a seamless compromise between mezzo-soprano and soprano ranges, the Italian soprano Carmen Giannattasio (who also made a significant impression as Elena, a role with similarly uncertain tessitura, in Opera Rara’s concert-performance recording of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago). The timbre of Miss Giannattasio’s voice is not immediately identifiable, at least not in the manner in which a listener instantly recognizes the voice of Callas or Sutherland, but hers is a lovely, shimmering voice that survives Parisina’s music without audible distress. In moments of greatest emotional anguish, Miss Giannattasio covers the tone slightly, tempering the voice’s natural sheen without decreasing its beauty or purity. From the perspective of technique, Miss Giannattasio is a much better singer than many of the sopranos singing similar repertory throughout the world, and she makes a fascinating effect in Parisina’s great aria ‘Sogno talor di correre.’ Central to her dramatic suitability for the role, Miss Giannattasio displays the admirable acumen to convey the tragic maturity and weight of Parsinia’s sorrow while retaining an obviously youthful vocal profile. The incensed terror of her responses to Azzo’s eavesdropping on her slumbering utterance of Ugo’s name heighten the foreshadowing of the related scene in Verdi’s Otello and prove thrilling in the context of Parisina. Miss Giannattasio’s contributions to the final scene, in which she collapses in the arms of her ladies-in-waiting after being shown the corpse of the murdered Ugo, are wrenching, the tone both ethereal and febrile. In this performance, Miss Giannattasio proves – despite a less-imposing voice – a legitimate rival to Caballé as Parisina and gives further evidence of what seems a very promising career in bel canto.

Perhaps the single finest collective achievement of the cast (including chorus, orchestra, and conductor) of this recording of Parisina is that, in the long-standing tradition of Opera Rara, there is not even the faintest suggestion of condescension to what is, by twenty-first century standards, a blood-and-thunder melodrama ripe for parody. Every participant in this performance gives every appearance of complete dedication, not to a task but to the presentation of a neglected masterwork. Parisina deserves this luxury treatment far more than most of the Baroque and bel canto works unearthed during the past three decades, and Opera Rara have lavished on the score the resources and commitment major labels brought to the mainstream Verdi and Wagner operas a generation or two ago. Bel canto endures because its emphasis is (or should be) pure beauty: this recording of Parisina, preserving fine work from all its contributors, reveals that Opera Rara understand this as fully now as when their first recording was released thirty-two years ago.