GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Maometto secondo—Darren Jeffery (Maometto), Paul Nilon (Erisso), Siân Davies (Anna), Caitlin Hulcup (Calbo), Christopher Diffey (Condulmiero), Richard Dowling (Selimo); Garsington Opera Chorus and Orchestra; David Parry, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during staged performance at Garsington Opera at Wormsley, Buckinghamshire, UK, during June and July 2013; Avie AV2312; 3CD, 168:17; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]
It has been frequently repeated during the past two centuries that the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa stated that when she wanted to hear opera performed at a suitably regal level she traded the heady atmosphere of Vienna for Haydn’s Eszterháza. If words to this effect were ever spoken at all, it almost certainly was not by Maria Theresa, but apocryphal attributions often travel more lightly on their feet than accurate ones. Were an opera-going sovereign to utter similar sentiments about her musical opportunities today, she might well say that, in order to hear good music performed with unflagging excellence, she packs her bags for Wormsley in Buckinghamshire, the home of Garsington Opera. Founded in Oxfordshire in 1989 by Leonard Ingrams, Garsington Opera supplements the cultural life of the home counties with summer seasons of an imaginative array of operas performed in their original languages. Their 2013 traversal of Gioachino Rossini’s Maometto secondo was the first Garsington production preserved for posterity on compact disc, and the resulting recording confirms that the musical monarch in search of memorable opera could find no better destination than the bucolic landscape of Wormsley Park.
Premièred at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in December 1820, Maometto secondo greeted the world with perhaps the finest cast that could have been convened for the occasion: Filippo Galli, creator of several of Rossini’s most demanding bass rôles and Enrico VIII in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, in the title rôle; Andrea Nozzari, Rossini’s first Leicester in Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra, Otello, Rinaldo in Armida, and Rodrigo in La donna del lago, as Erisso; the composer’s muse Isabella Colbran as Anna; and the acclaimed contralto Adelaide Comelli as Calbo. Astoundingly, the fickle Neapolitans were little impressed by the opera, so the ever-practical—which is to say unapologetically opportunistic—Rossini starting making revisions to the score almost immediately, incorporating a great deal of ‘new’ music into a version of the score that even included the celebrated rondo finale from La donna del lago, ‘Tanti affetti in tal momento.’ The 1822 Venice première of this revision brought Rossini greater success, followed in Paris in 1826 by the well-received first production of a considerably reworked French version, Le siège de Corinthe. Though the preference for Rossini’s first thoughts on the opera has often been put forth by musicologists for decades, the 1820 Neapolitan version of the score was not resurrected until 2012, when it was performed by Santa Fe Opera. The 2013 Garsington production recorded by Avie was the British première of the recently-completed critical edition of the 1820 ‘original’ score. In any of its incarnations, Maometto secondo contains some of Rossini’s most innovative and difficult music, and the opera’s singularity is apparent in this recording of Garsington’s production. Produced by Michael Haas and engineered by Jonathan Stokes, Neil Hutchinson, and Christopher Roberts, Avie’s recording presents the opera in generally well-balanced, spacious sound of a consistently high quality that belies Garsington’s open-air setting. Voices remain audible throughout the performance without ever sounding artificially enhanced, and details of Rossini’s imaginative orchestration are never obscured. Audience noises are virtually nonexistent and certainly never obtrusive, and the stage noises captured by the microphones give the physical drama of the opera an aural profile, enhancing the listener’s perception of the recording as a genuine theatrical experience.
Under the practiced baton of David Parry, the performance blossoms with true bel canto elegance. Throughout the performance, the Garsington Opera Orchestra and Chorus achieve standards of musical excellence that the Rossini aficionado would be pleased to encounter in London, Milan, or New York. It is apparent that the Garsington Orchestra players fully comprehend that, perhaps more so in Maometto secondo than in any of Rossini’s other Neapolitan operas, they participate in the performance rather than merely accompanying it. In this performance, their participation is never less than captivating. The instrumentalists acquit themselves winsomely, with especially wonderful showings by the brasses and woodwinds. The choristers hurl themselves into the drama, as well, and they manage to uphold the best of British choral traditions whilst also bringing convincingly Italianate slancio to their contributions to Maometto secondo. The choral singing is uniformly distinguished, but the Garsington ladies are very impressive in the lovely ‘Nume, cui ’l sole è trono’ in Act Two. His credentials as a master of bel canto having been established in a plethora of memorable performances and recordings, Maestro Parry has nothing to prove in this Maometto secondo, but his leadership is rewardingly elastic. Tempi are mostly ideal, and he is attentive to the challenges that the singers face. There are a few moments in which Maestro Parry presses ahead when it seems that the soloists would prefer to slow things down, but the conductor’s instincts for the tautness of Rossini’s dramatic pacing are in evidence in every scene. There is a lingering misconception that in bel canto the orchestra, chorus, and conductor are of secondary importance, and some performances make a strong case for this misapprehension. The Garsington Orchestra and Chorus and Maestro Parry give a rousing argument for the defense in this recording of Maometto secondo.
An exhibition of the touchstones of musicality to which Garsington Opera has climbed in its quarter-century history is created by the company’s fielding of a pair of gifted tenors in secondary rôles. As the Muslim nobleman Selimo, Richard Dowling sings richly, creating a strong character in recitative and filling his lines in ensembles with distinction. Christopher Diffey is an equally vivid presence as the Venetian general Condulmiero, especially in the opening scenes of Act One. Both gentlemen possess voices of top quality and make the most of every opportunity Rossini grants them.
In her performance as the Venetian general Calbo, Australian mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup fires volley after volley of blazing coloratura, seeming a fusion of Conchita Supervia and Marilyn Horne in their primes. Ms. Hulcup’s voice combines a robustness of timbre that enables her to credibly portray male characters with a bravura technique that firmly places her in the ranks of today’s best Rossini singers. Ms. Hulcup sings her lines in the terzettone ‘Ohimè! Qual fulmine’ in Act One—Rossini’s emblematic ‘big fat trio’—with stunning immediacy, her characterization of Calbo demanding the listener’s sympathy. In Act Two, her performance of the fervent aria ‘Non temer’ is shaped by dramatic intensity tempered by absolute mastery of bel canto technique. The peak of Ms. Hulcup’s performance is reached in the terzettino with Anna and Erisso in Act Two, ‘In questi estremi istanti,’ in which she unleashes the full power and poetry of her artistry. There are passages at the bottom and top of Calbo’s music that challenge Ms. Hulcup, but she copes with every requirement of her rôle with the confidence of a marathon runner who has the finish line in sight. Poor Calbo can get lost among the high-flying, frenzied exchanges between Anna and Erisso: Ms. Hulcup ensures that her character remains at the center of the drama from first note to last.
Interestingly, the resolute Venetian governor of Negroponte Erisso is characterized almost solely in ensembles, which is perhaps symbolic of the extent to which his destiny is so closely allied with those of his daughter, Calbo, and Maometto. West Yorkshire native Paul Nilon is a Rossini tenor to the manner born, and his security in Erisso’s very daunting music yields many breathtaking feats of virtuosity. Not surprisingly in a part created by Nozzari, Erisso’s vocal lines cover a great deal of ground in terms of tessitura, descending to baritonal lows and soaring with some frequency to the vicinity of top C. Mr. Nilon does not negotiate his rôle without strain, but he careens through the music with abandon that never ventures beyond the boundaries of bel canto tastefulness. In the grand trio with Anna and Calbo in Act One, Mr. Nilon pours out Erisso’s coloratura as though it were the most natural means of communication known to him, and his rhythmic crispness and poise at the top of the voice convey the character’s dignity. Mr. Nilon’s singing in ‘In questi estremi istanti’ in Act Two is a model of vocal strength and dramatic vitality. The range of emotions that Mr. Nilon conveys is extraordinary, but the principal joys of his performance are the finesse and unflappable technical acumen of his singing.
Singing the rôle of Erisso’s daughter and the disguised Maometto’s lover Anna, American soprano Siân Davies is a marvelous discovery. Garsington’s production of Maometto secondo provided her with the vehicle for her European début, and this recording introduces her to the fabulous, often fickle world of recorded opera. It is a propitious introduction. In Anna’s cavatina in Act One, ‘Ah! che invan su questo ciglio,’ Ms. Davies revels in Rossini’s ravishing cantilena lines, and the evenness of the voice across the full range of the music enables her to make ascents into the upper register dramatically as well as musically satisfying. Her lines in ‘Ohimè! Qual fulmine’ set the bar very high for her colleagues, and here, too, the diamond-bright sheen of her top notes is glorious. The quiet grace of her singing of Anna’s preghiera, ‘Giusto cielo,’ contrasts awesomely with her spit-fire coloratura in the terzettone, and the technical command that she displays in the duet with Maometto in Act Two, ‘Anna, tu piangi,’ and ‘Alfin compita è la metà dell’opra’ is admirable. Like Ms. Hulcup, Ms. Davies saves the best for last: the radiance of her voicing of the andantino in the opera’s finale, ‘Madre, a te che sull’Empiro,’ is heartening and quite moving. Ms. Davies possesses a voice with a soft-grained, lusciously feminine timbre, and her technique proves equal to Rossini’s music. In this performance, she interacts with her colleagues with the naturalness of a gifted actress. Ms. Davies makes her mark with aplomb: in a world in which first impressions are invaluable, this young artist creates memories that herald the start of a great international career.
A Maometto secondo with a weak Maometto is like a Tosca with a lounge singer rather than a bona fide diva in the title rôle. Taking as his inspiration what was then known of the historical Ottoman sultan Mehmet II, Rossini created a dynamic character tortured by the conflict between duty and desire. English bass-baritone Darren Jeffery takes this performance by the collar at his first entrance and never loosens his grip. In his opening scene, Mr. Jeffery reveals all of the strengths of his artistry: excellent diction, a rousingly masculine timbre, dramatic potency, and technical acumen. In Maometto’s Act One cavatina, ‘Duce di tanti eroi,’ he immediately unveils a charismatic portrait of the troubled sultan, and his singing exudes sincerity even in the most ferocious coloratura. Mr. Jeffery’s voicing of Maometto’s pained interview with Anna in Act Two is stirring, and his singing of the aria ‘All’invito generoso’ simmers with all of the suppressed emotions provoked by Maometto’s situation. Dramatically, Mr. Jeffery depicts an imposing but unmistakably human Maometto, and the uncompromising nobility of his performance disables the uncomfortable stereotypes that can afflict portrayals of Islamic characters in Western art. Mr. Jeffery finds the kernels of Maometto’s complexity in Rossini’s music and allows them to take root in his performance. As recorded, there is a measure of unsteadiness in Mr. Jeffery’s singing, but his is the sort of burly, burnished voice that needs space in which to resonate. He gives an electrifying performance, and his Maometto emerges as both the villain and the victim of a clash between two vastly different but maddeningly like cultures.
With so many fine Rossini singers active today, there is no use in putting on a Rossini opera if it cannot be put on with panache. Panache is what fizzes in every moment of this recording of Garsington Opera’s 2013 production of Maometto secondo. A better cast for this watershed score could hardly have been assembled, and Avie give the production the outstanding presentation that it deserves. Each operatic performance is an unique artistic creation, and this can complicate the process of compiling a recording from several performances. The unfluctuating merit of this recording further validates the viability of recording opera in performance, however. The success of this inaugural venture is manifested in the fact that it induces both total enjoyment of this performance of Maometto secondo and great anticipation for the next Garsington Opera production to appear on disc.
BEL CANTO AT THE BRINK: Mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup (left) as Calbo and tenor Paul Nilon (right) as Erisso in Rossini’s Maometto secondo at Garsington Opera, June/July 2013 [Photo by Mike Hoban, © Garsington Opera]