04 May 2010

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini – L’ITALIANA IN ALGERI (M. Pizzolato, L. Brownlee, L. Regazzo, B. De Simone; NAXOS 8.660284-85)

Rossini - L'ITALIANA IN ALGERI (Pizzolato, Brownlee, Regazzo - NAXOS 8.660284-85)

GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): L’Italiana in Algeri – M. Pizzolato (Isabella), L. Brownlee (Lindoro), L. Regazzo (Mustafà), B. De Simone (Taddeo), R. Gonzalez (Elvira), E. Giannoulidou (Zulma), G. Mastrototaro (Haly); Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir, Cluj; Virtuosi Brunensis; Alberto Zedda [recorded ‘live’ at the Kursaal, Bad Wildbad, Germany, during the XXth Rossini in Wildbad Festival; 2, 3, & 5 July 2008; NAXOS 8.660284-85]

Though it premiered at Venice’s Teatro San Benedetto on 22 May 1813, when its composer was less than three months past his twenty-first birthday, L’Italiana in Algeri was Gioachino Rossini’s eleventh opera, following closely on the heels of the acclaimed premiere (also in Venice, at the famous Teatro La Fenice) of Tancredi.  The role of the barnstorming Isabella was first sung by Italian contralto Marietta Marcolini, who with her participation in the L’Italiana premiere created the fourth of five roles that the young Rossini composed for her.  Also present in the first-night cast of L’Italiana was the celebrated bass Filippo Galli, a talented and versatile singer for whom Rossini composed several of his most demanding basso roles and who also created the role of Enrico (Henry VIII) in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena in 1830.

Musically, L’Italiana in Algeri is enlivened by the clever way in which its young composer employed traditional aspects of Classically-inspired opera seria, a then-rapidly-declining genre with a pedigree extending back to the Italian operas of Händel, within the confines of the dramma giocoso (a categorization that it shares with Mozart’s Don Giovanni) he was creating to the libretto of Angelo Anelli.  The frenetic pace and famous crescendo of Rossini’s maturity are already present in L’Italiana in Algeri, but the score benefits from a melodic preciosity that is remarkable even among Rossini’s operas.  The two cavatinas for Lindoro, ‘Languir per una bella’ in the First Act and ‘Oh come il cor di giubilo’ in the Second, possess beautiful melodic lines that are as reminiscent of Mozart as of Italian bel canto.  Here, however, a measure of uncertainty creeps in: it is well known that the secco recitatives and Haly’s famous aria ‘Le femmine d’Italia’ were not composed by Rossini but by an anonymous collaborator (whether the collaboration was necessitated by the speed of the opera’s creation, which required less than a month at most, by details of the first production that are lost to history, or by other circumstances remains a matter for debate), perhaps the Italian composer Luigi Mosca, an older contemporary of Rossini whose own setting of Anelli’s libretto for L’Italiana in Algeri was first performed in Milan in 1808.  Bolstered by the fact that Rossini composed the virtuosic aria ‘Concedi, amor pietoso’ to replace 'Oh come il cor di giubilo’ for a later production of L’Italiana in which the original Lindoro, Serafino Gentili, reprised his part, modern scholarship suggests that the lovely original aria may also have been composed by someone other than Rossini.  [Despite its dubious authorship, ‘Oh come il cor di giubilo’ is preferred in the present performance.  Performances of ‘Concedi, amor pietoso’ are available as an appendix to Jesús López-Cobos’ recording of L’Italiana in Algeri, on which it is sung by tenor Raúl Giménez, and on recital discs, notably the DECCA collection of Rossini Arias sung by Juan Diego Flórez.]  There is not in ‘Oh come il cor di giubilo’ the obvious falling-off in quality apparent in the numbers composed for La Cenerentola by Luca Agolini, so its composer – whether Rossini, Mosca, or a forgotten third party – took pains to match the aria in both style and musical integrity with the rest of the score.  A testimony to the genius of the young composer, L’Italiana in Algeri is the rare early bel canto comic opera that is both filled from beginning (in this case, a rollicking Overture that remains a concert favorite) to end with first-rate music and, in a good performance, can prove genuinely funny.

Fortunately for listeners, a good performance is precisely what the opera receives in this recording, derived from three performances at the Twentieth Rossini in Wildbad Festival in Germany during July 2008.  Orchestral playing by the Virtuosi Brunensis, the ensemble with which NAXOS recorded their splendid account of Rossini’s Tancredi with Ewa Podleś and Sumi Jo, is excellent, benefiting from the fine-tuning of period-instrument practice but very much adapting their approach to Rossini’s idiom.  The singing from the members of the Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir – variously portraying eunuchs, pirates, and slaves – is similarly impressive, precise but also conveying a grand sense of fun (and, when appropriate, of dread and mock heroics).  Presiding over the performance is Italian maestro Alberto Zedda, a tireless advocate of the music of Rossini as its composer intended it to be performed who celebrated his eightieth birthday six months to the day before the first performance that contributed to this recording.  Like the performances of Karl Böhm, Otto Klemperer, and Tullio Serafin at similar ages, Maestro Zedda’s spirited leadership of this recording of L’Italiana in Algeri suggests the work of a man trying to prove his vitality.  After a career that has yielded many worthy performances of Rossini operas (including the aforementioned NAXOS Tancredi), no proof of Maestro Zedda’s mastery of the repertory is required, but this recording proves anew that few conductors active today share the same idiomatic grasp of Rossini’s music that Maestro Zedda has at his command.  Maestro Zedda knows instinctively when his influence is required to keep things moving and when the music flows without manipulation.  The singers are given support consistently sensitive to their own needs and the requirements of the music.  As in most of Maestro Zedda’s performances, interpolated top notes at the ends of numbers are mostly eschewed in favor of presumably more authentic flourishes on high within the internal ornamentation of arias and ensembles.  Maestro Zedda understands how Rossini worked as a composer, and his leadership ensures that this performance of L’Italiana in Algeri ‘works’ both musically and theatrically.

Unlike many productions of bel canto operas, this Rossini in Wildbad production enjoyed the work of uniformly good singers in secondary roles.  As Elvira, wife of the philandering Mustafà, Tenerife-born soprano Ruth Gonzalez sings with secure tone and pointed diction, managing to convey exasperation without seeming an annoying shrew.  Zulma, Elvira’s slave and confidante, receives a performance of charm from Greek mezzo-soprano Elsa Giannoulidou, her contributions to ensembles inspiring the wish that Rossini – or, considering the troublesome provenance of L’Italiana in Algeri, someone – had graced her role with an aria.  Italian bass Giulio Mastrototaro ideally captures the spirit of Haly’s (but not Rossini’s) aria in praise of the wily women of Italy, ‘Le femmine d’Italia,’ and elsewhere adds delightfully to ensembles.

Italian bass Bruno De Simone has made a specialty of basso buffo roles in bel canto operas and has sung Taddeo in L’Italiana in Algeri throughout Europe, including at the prestigious festival devoted to the operas of Rossini in his hometown of Pesaro.  This experience is evident in Mr. De Simone’s wonderful comic timing, exercised to maximum effect in ensembles and in a well-sung account of Taddeo’s aria, ‘Ho un gran peso sulla testa.’  If Mr. De Simone’s tone is no longer rock-solid, his performance never falters.

Mustafà is one of those roles that if played for laughs can seem unbearably insipid and if played as an humorless tyrant quickly becomes insufferable.  It is the sort of part that, like Verdi’s (or Salieri’s, Balfe’s, or Nicolai’s) Falstaff, requires both comedy and dignity in order to prove wholly effective.  Italian bass Lorenzo Regazzo is faItalian bass Lorenzo Regazzomiliar with the traditional roles of basses as tyrants and villains in Italian opera from his considerable work in Baroque music.  Mr. Regazzo’s Mustafà is a relatively straightforward performance with none of the foolishness that mars many performances of the role.  On balance, Mr. Regazzo’s Mustafà may be too straight-laced for those listeners who prefer Rossini’s buffo roles enacted on a broader scale, but there can be few complaints about Mr. Regazzo’s singing.  Mr. Regazzo is admittedly stronger in the role’s bravura passages than in roaring and bawling, but his tone is secure throughout the range.  He knows his way round the role, and his command of Rossini’s tricky coloratura is several notches above what most of his rivals achieve (the incomparable Samuel Ramey excepted).  This Mustafà’s beylik may be somewhat tame, but it is on sound musical footing.

With two fine arias and engaging contributions to ensembles to his credit, the role of Lindoro is a gift to a leggiero tenor with the bravura technique required for Rossini.  Most modern exponents of Rossini’s tenor roles are essentially lyric tenors who, through careful study, have cultivated coloratura ability: the true tenore di grazia, noted as much for a firm grasp of the lowest notes of the tenor range as for comfort in the vocal stratosphere, is virtually a musical unicorn in the sense that there are people who believe that they have encountered them but closer inspection reveals that what they actually witnessed were rather more ordinary equines with some extraordinary qualities.  Even in a field prominently populated by a world-renowned singer, American tenor Lawrence Brownlee is anything but ordinary.  With an ever-increasing repertory of Rossini roles in his vocal arsenal (including Rinaldo in the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere production of Armida by Mary Zimmerman), Mr. Brownlee has emerged during the past American tenor Lawrence Brownlee [Photo by Marty Umans]five years as one of the finest  Rossini tenors of his generation – and, as his performance as Lindoro in this recording attests, rightfully so.  Mr. Brownlee’s voice is warm but bright and seemingly produced with liquid ease that defies the difficulty of the music he sings.  In Lindoro’s music, Mr. Brownlee’s voice fizzes with idiomatic authority in coloratura passages, reaching formidable heights of virtuosity that never detract from the natural attractiveness of his tone.  Dramatically, Mr. Brownlee’s Lindoro is filled with touching longing for freedom and love but avoids sentimentality: he wears his heart on his sleeve, to be sure, but he is content in his big moments to thrust his hands into his pockets and let his music do the emotional heavy lifting.  This sort of thoughtful restraint is always welcome in Rossini’s comic operas, but it is Mr. Brownlee’s vocalism that demands one’s attention and ultimately wins one’s affection.  Both of Lindoro’s arias receive exceptionally poised, fleet-footed performances (though it is a pity that a very well-recorded cough mars the beginning of ‘Languir per una bella’), setting a new standard in the music.  This is exceptionally fine Rossini singing that rivals even the best singing of Mr. Brownlee’s competitors in bel canto repertory.

Musically and dramatically, the climax of L’Italiana in Algeri is the heroine Isabella’s second-act rondo, ‘Pensa alla patria,’ an exhortation to Mustafà’s Italian slaves to think of their fatherland and trust in Isabella’s commitment to deliver them from their servitude.  This description might give the impression of an ostentatiously grand utterance, something more appropriate to Fidelio than to a Rossini dramma giocoso.  Isabella’s rondo is an instance of Rossini’s use of an overtly opera seria style, but the wit of Rossini’s deployment of coloratura reveals the aria to be a worthy sister to Rosina’s ‘Una voce poco fa’ in Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Angelina’s ‘Non più mesta’ in La Cenerentola.  When one first hears Mr. Brownlee’s Lindoro, a nagging doubt that any performance could likewise offer an IsItalian mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolatoabella to match him arises.  From her first note, Italian mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolato – also a superb Malcolm in NAXOS’ live-from-Wildbad recording of La Donna del Lago (indeed, the finest aspect of that recording) – erases that doubt with a performance that meets the standard of Mr. Brownlee’s Lindoro note for thrilling note.  Like Mr. Regazzo, Ms. Pizzolato has extensive experience in Baroque music, but she also participated in masterclasses given by Anita Cerquetti and Magda Olivero, from whom she surely learned much about adapting one’s singing to the varying styles of different repertories.  Ms. Pizzolato has proved very fine indeed in Cavalli and Händel on disc, but she proves anew in this performance that Rossini’s idiom poses no challenges that are too much for her.  Her voice is dark-hued but ideally mobile, dealing expertly with the fearsome coloratura of her arias.  She is careful to articulate every note in her roulades, an effort that contributes to her nuanced reading of the text without seeming pedantic.  Her singing of the great rondo is commanding, the culmination of a performance that is, quite simply, Rossini singing of the highest quality.  When will the world’s most important opera companies realize, as NAXOS did from their inception, that the very famous singers are in many cases not the very best?

Aside from the cough that accompanies the opening strains of Lindoro’s ‘Languir per una bella,’ a few of its cousins from the throats of audience members and perhaps musicians, and occasional bumps, the sound engineered by NAXOS is excellent, even in passages of secco recitative.  It is also in secco recitatives that the balance seems most noticeably artificial, however: the continuo harpsichord, played very capably by Gianni Fabbrini, comes at the listener from an acoustical perspective identical to that in which the singers are framed, as if the singers were positioned around the harpsichord for a recital.  Balances are otherwise carefully-engineered to keep all of the singers front and center, with the orchestra and chorus given equal but never undue prominence, the final product suggesting a concert more than a staged performance with the typical changing perspectives imposed by theatrical blocking.  Editing has also been expertly done, which is to say that one is not aware that it has been done at all.  Despite occasional too-close perspectives, there is enough space around the voices to suggest their natural resonance.  All things considered, it is an admirably-rendered recording of live performances, another example that the lower prices of NAXOS recordings do not indicate lower production values.

L’Italiana in Algeri has not been recorded as frequently as some of Rossini’s other operas, especially Il Barbiere di Siviglia, but has been more fortunate than most of them in accumulating a small discography of recordings that are all competitive.  It is difficult to chose among Simionato with Valletti, Berganza with Alva, Valentini Terrani with either Benelli or Araiza, Horne with Palacio, Baltsa with Lopardo, and Larmore with Giménez.  NAXOS’ recording enters a field that is not crowded but is unusually distinguished, and it is wonderful (because it is so atypical) that – thanks to the singing of Marianna Pizzolato and Lawrence Brownlee – a recording made in the Twenty-First Century can more than hold its own.