08 June 2013

CD REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti—CATERINA CORNARO (C. Giannattasio, C. Lee, T. Cook, V. Mlinde, L. Félix; Opera Rara ORC48)

Gaetano Donizetti: CATERINA CORNARO [Opera Rara ORC48]

GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Caterina Cornaro—C. Giannattasio (Caterina Cornaro), C. Lee (Gerardo), T. Cook (Lusignano), G. Broadbent (Andrea Cornaro), V. Mlinde (Mocenigo), L. Félix (Strozzi, a Knight of the King), S. Bevan (Matilde); BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra; David Parry [Recorded in BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, November – December 2011; Opera Rara ORC48]

First performed under the supervision of Saverio Mercadante in Naples in January 1844, Caterina Cornaro was composed in 1842 and the summer of 1843, as the illness that would ultimately end Gaetano Donizetti’s life entered its final phase.  Whereas his Dom Sébastien had opened to near-universal acclaim in Paris two months earlier, Caterina Cornaro was hissed by the first-night audience, its melodramatic account of sensationalized events in the life of an historical queen of Cyprus having failed to engage the Neapolitan sensibilities that previously had embraced Lucia di Lammermoor, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux.  Donizetti himself, absent from rehearsals for the first production due to illness and other commitments, famously predicted the misfortune of Caterina Cornaro’s lack-luster reception, his misgivings about the cast and musical preparation inspiring a complete absence of confidence in the assembled participants’ ability to realize his intentions.  Like any score by the mature Donizetti, Caterina Cornaro contains much fine music, and it should not be overlooked that the score was composed, at least in part, between Linda di Chamounix and Don Pasquale, two of the composer’s most successful and melodically rich operas.  Since its founding in the early 1970s, no institution has been more instrumental in the bel canto revival than Opera Rara, upon whose founders and artists opera lovers have relied for the past forty years for impeccably-researched and fastidiously-prepared performances and recordings of forgotten or underappreciated operas by the best composers of bel canto.  This recording of Caterina Cornaro—the first studio recording of the opera—enters a sparse discography containing only unauthorized releases of recordings of live performances featuring Montserrat Caballé and Leyla Gencer and a commercial recording of a 1974 RAI broadcast with the under-recorded Margherita Rinaldi.  It is especially gratifying to hear the opera performed with the zeal for which Opera Rara recordings are celebrated, and both the recorded sound—engineered by Simon Hancock and Chris Rouse and edited by Michael Haas and Simon Hancock—and Jeremy Commons’s extensive introductory notes adhere to the standards of excellence consumers have come to expect from Opera Rara.

Composed over an uncharacteristically long period that contained bouts of work in 1842, when Donizetti hoped that the opera would follow the success of Linda di Chamounix at the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna, and in 1843, Caterina Cornaro’s complicated gestation was essentially a voyage without a destination.  Donizetti ultimately fulfilled his Viennese commission with Maria di Rohan, the subject of Caterina Cornaro having already received an outing in Vienna in a setting by another composer, and placed Caterina in the presumably capable custody of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples.  The extent to which Donizetti himself orchestrated the opera is uncertain, some of this work perhaps left to Mercadante, and it is known that particularly harsh actions by the Neapolitan censors necessitated revisions before the first night that almost certainly weakened Donizetti’s dramatic concept.  The final results are nonetheless unquestionably Donizettian and of excellent quality.  The BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra respond to the score with singing and playing of wondrous vitality.  The talented choristers are little bothered by the demands of Donizetti’s music, which takes them to the extremes of their ranges, and they sing with gusto whether portraying noblemen, ladies in waiting, commoners, or ‘cut-throat ruffians.’  The instrumentalists of the BBC Symphony offer playing both en masse and in solo passages that shames the efforts of many opera house pit bands, rising to the occasions of Donizetti’s musical climaxes with legitimately Italianate slancio.  Under the baton of David Parry, the performance plays out with unforced theatricality.  As in so many of Opera Rara’s productions, Maestro Parry conducts with ideal command of the Donizetti idiom, his instinctive understanding of the way in which the composer employs rhythmic patterns as the skeleton of his corpus musicæ shaping his approach to conducting Caterina CornaroTempi are carefully selected to ensure both maximum rhythmic precision and greatest possible comfort for the singers, and the fact that the tinta of the recording enables the listener to believe that the performance was given in an Italian opera house rather than a recording studio in Paddington is testimony to the idiomatic familiarity Maestro Parry has achieved in bel canto repertory and to his success in imparting this enthusiasm to the musicians and singers at hand.

It is doubtful that anyone has ever condemned a Lucia di Lammermoor because of a poor Alisa or Normanno, but it is remarkable to note how greatly fine singing of comprimario rôles can influence the overall impression made by a performance.  Bel canto scores abound with confidantes, courtiers, and the like, and Opera Rara recordings have consistently featured promising young singers in secondary rôles.  This Caterina Cornaro continues that trend, with the part of Caterina’s confidante Matilde sung with lovely tone and obvious concern for her mistress by British soprano Sophie Bevan.  Gratefully heard as both Strozzi, the leader of a band of mercenaries, and the Knight of the King, tenor Loïc Félix sings delightfully, his light voice flowing like sunshine through his music.  South African bass-baritone Vuyani Mlinde exudes menace as Mocenigo, the erstwhile villain in an opera with characters whose loyalties are moving targets.  Mr. Mlinde’s dark, slightly coarse tone rings out impressively, especially in declamatory passages: he is an artist to watch.  Bass Graeme Broadbent, a veteran of several Opera Rara productions, bracingly applies his resonant voice to Donizetti’s limited opportunities for Andrea, Caterina’s father.

Lusignano, the embattled King of Cyprus, is sung by American baritone Troy Cook.  Lusignano is one of those lovably quintessential operatic characters who is cruel enough to have married Caterina against her will but has the good manners to conveniently and nobly die when she is reunited with the man she truly loves.  Mr. Cook possesses a strong, manly voice that he unleashes with wonderful relish in this performance, but he also displays an ability to maintain a tremendously effective bel canto line in Lusignano’s beautiful death scene in the second version of the Act Two finale, ‘Piangi, sì, piangi, o misera.’  [As in previous recordings, Opera Rara’s performance provides both versions of the opera’s final scene.]  This is perhaps Lusignano’s only moment of genuine tenderness, and Mr. Cook takes full advantage of it, giving the hardened warrior an unexpectedly soft heart.  His somewhat abrupt phrasing suggests that Mr. Cook is happiest in later repertory, but it is good to hear a baritone with such a fine, well-constructed voice who does not tip-toe through bel canto music.

The rôle of Gerardo is surprisingly small for that of a lover and, more significantly, a tenor in a bel canto opera.  Nevertheless, he contributes vitally to three important duets, and Act Two is launched by an aria and cabaletta that are the Donizettian equivalents of Manrico’s ‘Ah sì, ben mio coll’essere’ and ‘Di quella pira’ in Verdi’s Il trovatore.  South African tenor Colin Lee, a frequent but still under-appreciated presence in the ranks of the world’s finest bel canto singers, provides a masterclass in the art of bel canto singing with every note that he sings in this recording.  Mr. Lee’s voice is not of grandiose proportions, and his singing of a rôle originated by the tenor who first sang the title rôle in Verdi’s Stiffelio and Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera might be viewed as a cause for concern.  Like Carlo Bergonzi, however, Mr. Lee proves that, among the most talented and well-trained singers, the amplitude of a voice is not as important as the skill with which it is produced and projected.  The complete lack of strain with which Mr. Lee ascends into his upper register is exceptional, and he achieves a clutch of top notes in this performance that would be the envy of the best tenors in the world, past and present.  Indeed, his excursion above top C in the coda of the aforementioned cabaletta in Act Two, ‘Morte, morte! Fur troppi gl’insulti,’ has to be heard to be believed.  More impressive still is the way in which Mr. Lee manages to be very moving in a rôle that, despite certain felicities, is neither in music nor in drama a particular credit to its composer.  The depth of feeling that Mr. Lee evokes in Gerardo’s interactions with Caterina is touching, and the melting lyricism of his singing of the extended melodic lines Gerardo is given in duets utterly overwhelms any qualms about their musical distinction.  This performance inspires a longing to hear Mr. Lee in rôles that give him opportunities to fully explore the obviously rich trove of nuances in his artistry and engage his compact, exquisitely-supported voice on the highest possible level.  It is remarkable that, as Gerardo, Mr. Lee does so much with so little.  This is, in short, the finest bel canto tenor singing committed to disc in many years.

Donizetti unsparingly expressed his dismay about Fanny Goldberg, the singer to whom the title rôle was entrusted in the première of Caterina Cornaro, writing to his brother-in-law that he composed the part for a soprano but was given a mezzo-soprano by the Teatro San Carlo.  It would be enlightening to have Donizetti’s thoughts on Carmen Giannattasio, the Italian soprano who sings Caterina in this performance.  What is evident from her first note is that Ms. Giannattasio’s voice is infused with genuine Italian morbidezza, a quality that can be described but not taught: it is the sort of trait that is either in a voice or is not.  Ms. Giannattasio is certainly a soprano rather than a mezzo-soprano, but the voice is slightly ungainly throughout her range: the highest notes are not graceful but generally have considerable impact.  It is likely that the close recording of studio microphones accentuates a slight beat in the voice that would be less or not at all evident in the more expansive sonic space of an opera house.  As recorded, Ms. Giannattasio’s voice is powerful and handsome but not beautiful.  She is an artful singer, however, and in an instance in which a singer with native Italian diction is cast as a bel canto heroine the battle for respectable phrasing is half-won before it is begun.  Ms. Giannattasio’s Caterina is a tough lady, as history suggests the real Caterina was as well, the character’s determination meaningfully depicted in an almost ferocious delivery of the words in recitatives.  There is an audible shift in Ms. Giannattasio’s approach from detachment with Lusignano to passion with Gerardo, and Caterina’s horror at Mocenigo’s unfettered villainy is palpable.  Ms. Giannattasio is at her best in the duets with Mr. Lee’s Gerardo, in which the cooperation and vocal shading between the two singers is incendiary.  Her singing of Caterina’s cavatina in the Prologue is shapely but slightly lacking in ardor.  Surprisingly, this is Caterina’s only concerted solo number in the opera, and this is perhaps to Ms. Giannattasio’s benefit: she is at her best when interactions with her colleagues in ensembles inspire her to dramatically taut singing.  When the emotional temperature of her singing rises, so does the level of her musicality.  Caterina is a more static character than many of Donizetti’s heroines, but Ms. Giannattasio gives the part a distinct dramatic profile.  Hers is not a flawless performance, but it is an effective, satisfying account of a very challenging rôle.

Caterina Cornaro is the sort of opera that is not the equal of its composer’s best work but is nonetheless a far better score than its obscurity might suggest.  The music of Caterina Cornaro does not represent Donizetti at his most inspired, and even the nature of the plot and the composer’s setting of it reflect the uncertainty that troubled its creation.  Opera Rara recordings have an uncanny tendency to make lesser works sound like smashing artistic triumphs, however, and this recording is no exception.  This performance is a gallant reintroduction to Caterina Cornaro and—perhaps most rewardingly—an opportunity to hear stupendous singing from one of opera’s greatest tenor voices.

For the first three months of its international release, this recording of Caterina Cornaro will be available exclusively for order directly from Opera Rara.  Please support the dedicated people of Opera Rara and the fantastic work that they do by clicking here to visit the Opera Rara website to purchase Caterina Cornaro on CD or in digital download format.