29 July 2013

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini—SEMIRAMIDE (A. Penda, M. Pizzolato, L. Ragazzo, J. Osborn; NAXOS 8.660340-42)

Gioachino Rossini: SEMIRAMIDE (NAXOS 8.660340-42)

GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Semiramide—A. Penda (Semiramide), M. Pizzolato (Arsace), L. Ragazzo (Assur), J. Osborn (Idreno), A. Mastroni (Oroe), M. Jokovic (Azema), V. Kavayas (Mitrane), R. Facciolà (L’ombra di Nino); Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań; Virtuosi Brunensis; Antonino Fogliani [Recorded ‘live’ at the Trinkhalle, Bad Wildbad, Germany, during the XXIV ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival; 18, 19, 22 July 2012; NAXOS 8.660340-42; 3CD, 3:41:44]

While most opera companies and record labels celebrate the Bicentennials of Verdi and Wagner and the Centennial of Britten, the reliably adventurous NAXOS label is offering lovers of bel canto a veritable Rossini Extravaganza with the recently-released recording of Le siège de Corinthe and this new recording of the Sage of Pesaro’s final opera in Italian, Semiramide.  Even in comparison with the high standards of Rossini’s other serious operas, Semiramide is a remarkable work.  It is particularly astonishing to recall that, when Semiramide—as noted, his last new opera in Italian—was first performed in Venice in February 1823, the composer had not yet reached his thirty-first birthday.  Creativity and depth of musical characterization of the sort displayed in Semiramide belie the composer’s youth but are hardly surprising in the work of the mind that, at the age of twenty-two, produced Il barbiere di Siviglia.  Like most of Rossini’s operas, interest in Semiramide waned as the age of bel canto ended.  Rare performances of the opera like those at the Metropolitan Opera in 1892, 1894, and 1895, starring Adelina Patti and Dame Nellie Melba, confirmed that the opera’s fortunes desperately rely upon the presence of singers with the requisite techniques to command the music.  The great Semiramide of the 20th Century, Dame Joan Sutherland, recorded the rôle at the peak of her career and enjoyed triumphs in the opera in Europe but never in New York: after 1895, Semiramide was absent from the MET stage until 1990, when a new production mounted as a showcase for the Arsace of Marilyn Horne featured June Anderson and Lella Cuberli in the name part.  Though the operas of Rossini have enjoyed a Renaissance during the past quarter-century, the extraordinary technical demands of the music in Semiramide have limited opportunities for new productions and revivals.  Befitting its special place in Rossini’s œuvre, good performances of Semiramide are legitimate occasions that deserve to be recorded for posterity.  Continuing the path charted with top-quality recordings of Il barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola, La donna del lago, L’Italiana in Algeri, Otello, Le siège de Corinthe, and Tancredi, NAXOS’s executives and engineers honor Rossini by preserving this superb production, a presentation by the ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival based upon the critical edition of the opera prepared by Philip Gossett and Alberto Zedda.

Though recorded during three performances in Bad Wildbad’s Trinkhalle, the sound quality of this recording is excellent, producer Siegbert Ernest, engineers Norbert Vossen and Siggi Mehne, and editor Dr. Annette Sidhu-Ingenhoff having captured the vibrancy of the hall’s acoustics and successfully minimized the intrusions of stage and audience noises.  The choristers of the Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań, sing with blessedly sure intonation and careful blending of timbres, but the sounds that they produce are sometimes too reticent for the pseudo-Gothic melodrama of Semiramide.  Though the singing of the ladies in the scene in the Hanging Gardens during which Semiramide sings the opera’s most famous aria, ‘Bel raggio lusinghier,’ is very beautiful, it is the sound of a church choir singing Lutheran hymns rather than that of a group of ladies-in-waiting attempting to raise their mistress’s spirits.  There are plentiful moments in which the understated singing of the chorus produces arresting effects, however.  The players of the Virtuosi Brunensis have presented their impressive credentials on several of NAXOS’s bel canto recordings, and they again prove both individually and collectively to be sensitive, idiomatic interpreters of the music of Rossini.  Maestro Antonino Fogliani builds upon the reputation he has fostered through previous Rossini recordings for NAXOS with alert, assertive, but never disruptive leadership of this performance of Semiramide.  The soloists receive from Maestro Fogliani ideal support, and his attention to the niceties of Rossini’s orchestration and often inspired phrasing is engaging.  Semiramide is a long opera that benefits greatly from Maestro Fogliani’s propulsive but unhurried pacing.

Singers of secondary rôles in Rossini operas often face first-rate challenges, and poor singing among their ranks can undermine the effectiveness of a performance.  In this performance, there are no disappointments.  Baritone Raffaele Facciolà is nicely other-worldly in the dramatically critical rôle of the ghost of Nino, his voice conveying the authority that his appearance conjures.  Bass Andrea Mastroni also impresses as Oroe, the High Priest of the Magi who has the misfortune of knowing the will of the gods.  Soprano Marija Jokovic sings beautifully as the princess Azema, relishing every opportunity that Rossini granted her to unfurl ribbons of silvery sound.  An emerging talent with gifts of ingratiating tone and strong dramatic instincts that mark him as an artist to watch, tenor Vassilis Kavayas sings boldly as Mitrane, captain of the Royal Guard, his honeyed timbre making his every utterance in the opera enjoyable.

Rossini composed the rôle of Assur for Filippo Galli, the celebrated singer who created several of Rossini’s most dramatically compelling bass rôles in addition to having been the first Enrico in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.  Unusually, Rossini composed for Assur what is essentially a bel canto mad scene of the type familiar from Lucia di Lammermoor, and though conceived along traditional lines the scene remains one of Rossini’s most grippingly original creations.  Unhinged but eloquent even in madness, bass Lorenzo Ragazzo once again triumphantly defends his title as one of today’s most capable Rossini singers.  As his career progresses, Mr. Ragazzo’s tone seems to deepen and darken without any loss of power in the upper register or damage to his florid technique.  The arrogance in Mr. Ragazzo’s voicing of Assur’s lines in his duet with Arsace, ‘D’un tenero amore,’ is palpable, and his oiliness in the duet in which he attempts to bend Semiramide to his will through blackmail—‘Se la vita ancor t’è cara’—is marvelously conveyed.  The dissolution of Assur’s mental capacities when he is confronted by the ghost of Nino is hauntingly portrayed by Mr. Ragazzo, whose draining of color from his voice imparts the character’s terror.  Throughout the performance, Mr. Ragazzo meets every demand of his music with absolute confidence, rising to the coloratura challenges unhesitatingly, and he creates a character who is ultimately a towering force in the drama rather than merely a nasty stock villain.

The Indian king Idreno has a less significant part in the drama than tenors play in many of Rossini’s operas, but he has in ‘Ah dov’è, dov’è il cimento’ one of the most staggeringly difficult arias in the Rossini canon.  The ease with which American tenor John Osborn scales the heights of the aria’s terrifyingly stratospheric tessitura seems almost insouciant.  The brilliance of his coloratura is fantastic, but there is an element of caution in his performance that suggests that he may not have been on his best form during this production.  Mr. Osborn nonetheless turns in a performance of wondrous virtuosity.  The astonishing breadth of his technique enables him to venture some very ambitious ornamentation which occasionally distorts the shape of Rossini’s carefully-considered melodic lines.  His singing of Idreno’s ‘La speranza più soave’ is both extremely lovely and thoroughly stylish, however, and his contributions to ensembles are unfailingly sovereign in security, intonation, and dramatic attitude.  Mr. Osborn’s basic timbre is warmer, darker, and less metallic than the voices of several of the current generation’s most celebrated Rossini tenors, uniquely qualifying him for the notoriously difficult rôles that Rossini composed for Andrea Nozzari.  Idreno was first sung by John Sinclair, about whom little is known, but Rossini’s music for the part discloses that he was an exceptionally accomplished singer.  Rossini himself may not have imagined that Idreno’s music could be sung as well as Mr. Osborn sings it on this recording.  There is no dearth of exciting Rossini tenor singing today, but Mr. Osborn on slightly less than optimal form is superior to many of his colleagues.  His ringingly confident performance of Idreno on this recording is rivaled only by the wonderful account of the rôle by Frank Lopardo on the earlier Deutsche Grammophon recording, and Mr. Osborn is by a considerable margin the more authentically stylish vocalist.

Arsace is perhaps Rossini’s most daunting contralto travesti rôle.  In the 20th Century, the rôle was veritably ‘owned’ by Marilyn Horne, who recorded the part opposite Dame Joan Sutherland for DECCA and appeared in almost every production of the opera mounted between 1960 and the time of her retirement from the stage.  In recent years, Jennifer Larmore, Daniela Barcellona, Ewa Podleś, and Vivica Genaux have staked claims to the part, and in this recording Marianna Pizzolato emphatically announces her candidacy.  An impeccably-prepared singer for whom the art of bel canto is second nature, Ms. Pizzolato is blessed with a voice with which it seems that she can accomplish anything on which she focuses her attention.  It was as Rossini’s Tancredi that Ms. Pizzolato made her operatic début, so the composer’s music has been integral to her career since its inception.  That experience is evident in every note that she sings in this performance of Semiramide.  Arsace’s opening cavatina, ‘Ah! quel giorno,’ inspires Ms. Pizzolato to rapturously beautiful singing, the shading of tone adapted to the heartfelt emotions expressed by the text.  Arsace’s aria ‘In sì barbara sciagura’ reveals Rossini’s genius at its most inspired, the drama of the scene enhanced by the opportunities for vocal display.  Arsace’s music is centered on ensembles: duets with Assur (‘D’un tenero amore’) and Semiramide (‘Serbami ognor sì fido’ and ‘Giordo d’orror!…e di contento’) and the Act finales, the crowning glory of the second of which is the trio ‘L’usato ardir’ for Arsace, Assur, and Semiramide.  All of the ensembles in Semiramide are of markedly high quality, and Ms. Pizzolato’s singing in those ensembles in which she participates elevates the performance to a striking level of achievement.  The walnut colorations of Ms. Pizzolato’s lower register make her portrayal of a male character quite credible, and she sings with the assurance and dignity of a warrior prince.  Her delivery of coloratura passages, some of which border on the torturous, is astonishingly accurate, but she succeeds in making even the showiest passagework dramatically viable.  Ms. Pizzolato is neither as bold in her ornamentation nor as liberal with interpolated top notes as was Marilyn Horne, but it is the younger singer whose voice is likely of dimensions that are closest to what Rossini intended for Arsace’s music.  Ms. Pizzolato is a fine singer with a number of successful recordings to her credit, but her Arsace in this recording is the sort of performance that sets standards for generations to come.

Bulgarian soprano Alex Penda—née Alexandrina Pendatchanska—is a musical and dramatic firebrand whose performances almost never leave neutral impressions.  Like Ms. Pizzolato, Ms. Penda is a seasoned bel canto singer, her experience with Semiramide including a much-lauded assumption of the title rôle in Paris in 2006.  It has been suggested that appreciation of Ms. Penda’s vocalism is an acquired taste, but her singing in this performance confirms that it is a taste that any lover of Rossini’s operas should pursue.  It can hardly be surprising that Rossini’s music for the title character in Semiramide is sublime when it is recalled that the part was written for Isabella Colbran, who assured her top billing and musical prominence by marrying the composer.  There is still debate about the nature of Colbran’s voice and her true Fach, with most modern scholars at least tenuously agreeing that she was likely a soprano sfogato; in short, a mezzo-soprano with a meticulously-refined technique and an upper register with greater power than a lyric soprano but a shorter range than a coloratura soprano.  It is impossible to conjecture how Ms. Penda’s voice might actually compare to Colbran’s, but there is no doubt that she is a natural successor to a rôle like Semiramide.  The slight ‘shudder’ in Ms. Penda’s vibrato as recorded lends the sound of her voice an immediacy that serves the drama hardily.  Dramatically, Ms. Penda thrusts herself into the performance with an appetite for fire that makes her colleagues seem somewhat tame by comparison.  If her account of the familiar ‘Bel raggio lusinghier’—the aria for which most of the audience are waiting in any performance of Semiramide—is not as poised or clean of line as it could be, it wants for nothing in terms of passion.  Ms. Penda is a monumental presence in the opera, often burning and melting within the space of a single phrase and making bold choices with employment of chest resonance.  The buzzing strength of the singer’s lower register is put to great use, and excursions to and above top C are accomplished with panache.  Ms. Penda’s individual articulation of coloratura occasionally brings to mind the vocal method of Cristina Deutkom; so, too, does the fearlessness with which Ms. Penda approaches Semiramide’s music.  In many performances, Semiramide ultimately seems to be a game girl who sings some smashing tunes and otherwise is merely along for the ride, so to speak.  Ms. Penda’s performance leaves no doubt that Semiramide is the opera’s title character by right.  The glowing zeal of her singing makes the opera’s dénouement plausibly moving, and her ardor shapes a Semiramide who is a credible tragic heroine.

A performance of Rossini’s Semiramide is an experience that many singers might well be content merely to survive.  Rossini bade farewell to the Italian stage when his inspiration remained prodigious with a score that made use of the full arsenal of musical and dramatic weapons that he had amassed during his triumphant career as the world’s most celebrated opera composer.  Thankfully, attitudes towards Semiramide have changed drastically since 1894, when an unidentified critic wrote of the opera in the New York Times that ‘it is a string of display pieces which give the singers abundant opportunity to exhibit the agility of their vocal organs.  The music has no connection with the plot, which is very imperfectly explained even by the libretto, and which, indeed, is better left unexplained.’  After hearing this vivacious performance recorded by NAXOS, it seems impossible that any listener could regard Semiramide as anything other than a milestone in the ever-changing evolution of Italian opera.