22 June 2013

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini—LE SIÈGE DE CORINTHE (L. Regazzo, M. Cullagh, M. Sala, M. Spyres; NAXOS 8.660329-30)

Gioachino Rossini: LE SIÈGE DE CORINTHE [NAXOS 8.660329-30]

GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Le siège de Corinthe—L. Regazzo (Mahomet II), M. Cullagh (Pamyra), M. Sala (Cléomène), M. Spyres (Néoclès), M. Lécroart (Hiéros), G. Quaresma Ramos (Adraste), M. F. Romano (Omar), S. Beltrami (Ismène); Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań; Virtuosi Brunensis; Jean-Luc Tingaud [Recorded ‘live’ at the Trinkhalle, Bad Wildbad, Germany, during the XXII ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival; 18, 20, and 23 July 2010; NAXOS 8.660329-30; 2CD, 2:32:19]

Few shifts of focus in operatic history have been as significant to the development of the genre as Gioachino Rossini’s relocation to France and his subsequent writing for Parisian stages that produced Guillaume Tell, with which he concluded his career as a composer of operas.  The first staging of Guillaume Tell in 1829 initiated a Golden Age of Grand Opera that, in France, would culminate in the spectacular works of Auber, Halévy, and Meyerbeer and, farther afield, cultivated the fields of creativity that would produce the operas of Verdi and Wagner.  Three years before the première of Guillaume Tell, Rossini offered Paris his first opera in French, Le siège de Corinthe, a thorough reworking of his 1820 Maometto secondo.  Surprisingly for a score by the doyen of Italian opera in his prime, Maometto secondo—now acknowledged as one of Rossini’s most inventive works—was largely unsuccessful at its Naples première.  Taking advantage of the vogue for all things Greek that swept Europe in the wake of the 1821 – 1829 Greek War for Independence, Rossini uprooted Maometto secondo from its original setting in the Venetian colony of Negroponte and grafted all the fittings of an authentic Parisian opéra with a new setting in Greece onto the musical trunk as Le siège de Corinthe.  Substantially augmented with newly-composed music and the obligatory ballet sequences, Le siège de Corinthe enjoyed in Paris the success that eluded Maometto secondo in Italy.  Ironically, the French opera, translated back into Italian as L’assedio di Corinto, won the appreciation of Italian audiences and critics.  It is a disservice to Rossini to suggest, as many writers have done, that Le siège de Corinthe is merely the ‘French version’ of Maometto secondo: despite sharing music and the same principal characters, they are vastly different operas.  Benefiting from the scholarship of the conductor, Jean-Luc Tingaud, and a new edition prepared especially for the ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival by Florian Bauer, this NAXOS recording offers the listener an opportunity to assess Le siège di Corinthe on its own terms, without transpositions, interpolations, or condescension to its Grand Opera aspirations.

As in most of their recordings of Rossini operas from Wildbad, the NAXOS engineers—Norbert Vossen and Siggi Mehn for this recording—have done the composer proud.  Some of Rossini’s most innovative orchestration is lavished on the score of Le siège de Corinthe, which continues the imaginative use of woodwinds so eloquently begun in La donna del lago.  The recorded sound possesses depth and clarity atypical of performances recorded under ‘live’ conditions, the myriad colorations of Rossini’s orchestration given prominence without disturbing the balance between stage and pit or overwhelming the soloists.  The harp accompaniments of the choral ‘Prière’ and Pamyra’s aria in Act Three are particularly well-recorded.  The sound produced by the Camerata Bach Choir is perhaps slightly ‘ecclesiastical,’ but the rounded tone and commitment of their singing is persuasive, their performance shaped by the careful preparation of Chorus Master and Assistant Conductor Iñaki Encina Oyón.  The playing of the Virtuosi Brunensis is indeed virtuosic, the critical obbligato parts played superbly.  Rossini employs the orchestra for far more than mere accompaniment in Le siège de Corinthe, and the Virtuosi Brunensis collectively rise to every challenge with boundless energy and technical mastery.  The famous Overture receives a bracingly martial, authentically Rossinian performance.  Maestro Jean-Luc Tingaud’s command of the dramatic undulations of Rossini’s score is impressive, his taut conducting ensuring precision in the rapid-fire music of the opera’s more extroverted passages but also allowing lovely expansion in moments of repose.  The tempo adopted for the Act Three trio for Pamyra, Cléomène, and Néoclès is an excellent example of Maestro Tingaud’s well-judged pacing of the performance as a whole: seeming slow at first, the inherent rightness of Maestro Tingaud’s choice becomes apparent as the dramatic import of the scene unfolds and the singers have the time required to shape their passages of filigree, place the critical top notes, and genuinely respond to one another.  In this last consideration, this recording is a splendid example of the gains in dramatic impact that can be achieved from recording live performances, even those given in concert: the emotional directness and responsiveness with which the ensemble—soloists, chorus, orchestra, and conductor—deliver the music are dazzling.

Vocally, this recording of Le siège de Corinthe is the most consistently and excitingly cast of any of NAXOS’s recordings of Rossini repertory, with even secondary roles filled by excellent artists.  Ismène, Pamyra’s confidante (every bel canto heroine requires a confidante, after all), is sung vivaciously by mezzo-soprano Silvia Beltrami, whose fruity voice perfectly complements that of her mistress and produces a fine account of her Ballade, ‘L’hymen lui donne une couronne.’  Omar, Mahomet’s confidant (villains, too, need someone to share their secrets), receives from baritone Marco Filippo Romano a suitably manly, ringing performance.  Adraste, companion of Cléomène, is sung with bright, attractive tone by young Brazilian tenor Gustavo Quaresma Ramos.  Bass Matthieu Lécroart is enjoyably resonant as Hiéros, the custodian of the catacombs, his pronouncement of the final stand of the Corinthians against the Turks resoundingly sung and only his lowest notes lacking power.

Cléomène, the embattled Governor of Corinth, is sung by Catalonian tenor Marc Sala, an engaging young artist with a voice possessing a flickering vibrato that is somewhat reminiscent of his fellow Spaniard Miguel Fleta.  Though he displays an awareness from the start of the almost certain futility of the Corinthian resistance against the Turkish invaders, Cléomène valiantly rallies the Greeks while also sorting out his ambitions for his daughter’s marriage and responding to her perceived betrayal.  Mr. Sala copes excellently with an expectedly high tessitura, Cléomène having been composed for Louis Nourrit, an acclaimed tenor in his own right and the father of the celebrated Adolphe Nourrit.  Both the timbre and vibrato of Mr. Sala’s voice make him immediately distinguishable and lend his lines an exhilarating vibrancy.  Mr. Sala’s is the first solo voice heard, and he launches the opera awesomely.  Thereafter, his every contribution to the performance is marked by singing of distinction.

Néoclès, perhaps most familiar to listeners in his reincarnation as a mezzo-soprano travesti role in L’assedio di Corinto famously ‘owned’ in the Twentieth Century by the incomparable Shirley Verrett but also sensationally sung in a Baltimore Opera production by Vivica Genaux, was created by Adolphe Nourrit, whose working range in chest voice is known to have extended to top D.  Rossini made full use of Nourrit’s wide tessitura in his music for Néoclès, which is magnificently sung in this performance by Missouri-born tenor Michael Spyres.  Already having sung a very fine account of Rossini’s Otello on a NAXOS recording from Wildbad, Mr. Spyres here proves himself a Rossini tenor worthy of comparison with Juan Diego Flórez, Lawrence Brownlee, and Colin Lee, the lean, sappy timbre of his voice and his world-class bravura technique making easy work of Rossini’s most demanding passages.  Mr. Spyres is at his dramatic best in the trios with Cléomène and Pamyra in Acts One and Three, Néoclès’s emotions convincingly conveyed by Mr. Spyres’s poised, lyrically luxurious singing.  Néoclès’s Act Thee aria, ‘Grand Dieu, faut-il qu’un peuple’ is a daunting number in the vein of Arnold’s ‘Asile héréditaire’ in Guillaume Tell, the Rossini tenor’s equivalent of Manrico’s ‘Di quella pira.’  Mr. Spyres sings the aria with a stimulating combination of lovely tone and formidable technique, his top Cs and Ds secure, unerringly on pitch, and fired off like rockets.  Throughout the performance, Mr. Spyres’s singing offers a masterclass in the art of Rossini singing.

It is welcome to have the excellent bass Lorenzo Regazzo in a serious role.  The most surprising aspect of Mr. Regazzo’s performance as Mahomet is how uncannily his voice resembles that of the young Samuel Ramey, especially in coloratura passages.  Mr. Ramey was a towering presence in the Rossini revival, of course, and the title role in Maometto secondo was a part in which he triumphed.  The success of Mr. Regazzo’s singing in this performance of Le siège de Corinthe rivals Mr. Ramey’s portrayal of Maometto.  Mahomet’s entrance aria, ‘Chef d’un peuple indomptable,’ receives from Mr. Regazzo a performance of tremendous energy and cavernous tone.  Mahomet is one of Rossini’s most complex, fully human bass roles, his dramatic profile torn between that of a conventional operatic villain—the invading foreigner—and a more nuanced man who is unlucky in love.  Mr. Regazzo rages compellingly, but the warmth and compassion that he brings to Mahomet’s scenes with Pamyra are charming.  Mr. Regazzo sings boldly but stylishly, his voice taking on the honeyed radiance of a bassoon in his lower register.  There is at the heart of Mr. Regazzo’s performance a sense of Mahomet’s ultimate victory over the Corinthians coming at too great a cost, and rather than imposing on the character any modern sensibilities related to the conflicts between East and West he fully explores the emotional subtexts with which Rossini lined his score.

Pamyra, the role that—in its Italian incarnation—introduced Beverly Sills to La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera, is sung in this performance by Irish soprano Majella Cullagh, the belle of several recorded Opera Rara bel canto balls.  Singing the part without Ms. Sills’s legendary interpolations and embellishments, Ms. Cullagh allows the listener to appreciate the often extraordinary quality of Rossini’s invention.  There are cantilena passages in both trios in which she participates, in her Act Two aria and duet with Mahomet, and in all three finales that rival the music of Bellini in sheer beauty.  It is in these passages, in which both orchestration and dramatic situations require less pressure on the voice, that Ms. Cullagh’s singing is at its most exquisite.  Instances of coloratura display are somewhat less in Le siège de Corinthe and Rossini’s other French operas, Le comte Ory excepted, than in his Italian scores, but Ms. Cullagh nonetheless has ample opportunities for whizzing up and down the two octaves of her music’s tessitura.  Ms. Cullagh’s voice occasionally turns shrill in the most difficult passages and in ascents into the extreme upper register that do not offer adequate time for placement of the tone, but her intonation is faultless and her timbre attractive even when under attack by Rossini’s most stringent demands.  Above all, Ms. Cullagh’s performance meaningfully embodies the character of a noble young woman, her loyalties torn by dedication to her father and home and her love for a man who is revealed to be the enemy of her people.  Why Ms. Cullagh remains a stranger to many of the world’s most important opera houses is a mystery only further confounded by the quality of her singing on this recording of Le siège de Corinthe.  Beverly Sills’s MET début as Pamira earned her an eighteen-minute ovation from the audience: Ms. Cullagh here gives a performances that deserves equal adulation.

With the dearth of voices suitable for the operas of Verdi and Wagner, the operas of Rossini have increasingly crept to the center of many opera companies’ repertories.  Armida and Le comte Ory have recently joined Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola in the MET repertory, and a production of La donna del lago that promises to be a display of great Rossini singing will grace the MET’s 2014 – 2015 season.  When Beverly Sills débuted at the MET as Pamira in 1975, Le siège de Corinthe was a virtually unknown piece, regarded by many critics as a vehicle selected for Ms. Sills’s La Scala and MET débuts in order to avoid comparison and conflict with Dame Joan Sutherland as Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani, long discussed as the role for Ms. Sills’s introduction to the MET.  In 2013, Le siège de Corinthe remains on the fringe of the Rossini canon.  Perhaps this NAXOS recording will convince the intendants of some of the world’s important opera houses that the opera deserves performances beyond Pesaro and Wildbad.  If opera composers of old had distributed ‘concept albums’ to the managers of opera companies in the way that composers of musical theatre pieces peddled their works in the past half-century, Rossini might well have selected this recording to advocate for his Le siège de Corinthe.  This is among the handful of recordings of Rossini operas that leave absolutely nothing to be desired.