26 May 2015

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini – LA GAZZA LADRA (M.J. Moreno, K. Tarver, L. Islam-Ali-Zade, B. Praticò, L. Regazzo, M. Rewerski, G. Mastrototaro, S. Cifolelli, P. Cameselle, M. Lo Piccolo, D. Whiteley; NAXOS 8.660369-71)

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini - LA GAZZA LADRA (NAXOS 8.660369-71)GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): La gazza ladraGiulio Mastrototaro (Fabrizio Vingradito), Luisa Islam-Ali-Zade (Lucia), Kenneth Tarver (Giannetto), María José Moreno (Ninetta), Bruno Praticò (Fernando Villabella), Lorenzo Regazzo (Gottardo), Mariana Rewerski (Pippo), Stefan Cifolelli (Isacco), Pablo Cameselle (Antonio), Maurizio Lo Piccolo (Giorgio), Damian Whiteley (Il pretore del villaggio); Classica Chamber Choir, Brno; Virtuosi Brunensis; Alberto Zedda, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in the Kurhaus Bad Wildbad, Germany, during the XXI ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival, 1 – 2 and 4 July 2009; NAXOS 8.660369-71; 3 CDs, 180:12; Available from ClassicsOnlineHD, Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Opera is an art that defies the mandates of reason. It is often said that lightning does not strike twice in the same place, which of course is not true, but that faulty conventional wisdom is circumvented by the fact that Guillaume Tell is not the only one of Gioachino Rossini’s operas remembered almost solely for its frequently-played Overture. Though his opera semiseria La gazza ladra was heard throughout Italy and beyond in the decade following its 1817 première at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, all but the work’s Overture, known for its exciting use of percussion and its distinctive woodwind subject, disappeared from the repertory after the middle of the Nineteenth Century. Hearing a performance of the complete score as delightful as this 2009 ROSSINI IN WILDBAD traversal, recorded by NAXOS with clear, well-balanced sound of tremendous immediacy, raises the question of why such a fantastic opera could have fallen into obscurity. Thus, though, are the pitfalls of opera. Fashions change, voices evolve, and both opera houses and, in the past century, record labels responded accordingly. Fortunately, another aphorism has proved applicable to opera: like life, opera is basically cyclical, and works of true brilliance have only to wait for the wheel of fortune to revolve them back into the light of public attention. Rossini possessed an unique gift for making the ridiculous not only genuinely amusing but often surprisingly moving, as well, and La gazza ladra, its libretto by Giovanni Gherardini based upon Théodore Badouin d’Aubigny’s and Louis-Charles Caigniez’s La pie voleuse, is perfectly summarized in the Preface of a synopsis of the French melodrama, published in London in 1815. ‘The basis of the plot appears almost too simple and too improbable,’ the now unknown editor wrote, ‘but genius renders trifles unimportant, and experience proves what appears improbable to have been true.’ The historical basis for La pie voleuse was no trifle: the young lady who inspired Rossini’s Ninetta was executed before the avian perpetrator of the crimes of which she was convicted was discovered. The ultimate outcome for Rossini’s heroine is considerably more felicitous. With a recording of the quality of this NAXOS set, skillfully engineered by Norbert Vossen and Siggi Mehne to render the ‘live’ circumstances of the recording sessions utterly unobtrusive, making the opera’s case with the public, the future of La gazza ladra suddenly seems far more propitious, too.

Long a champion of Rossini’s music and of peeling away layers of tradition in order to return performances to standards that the composer himself would have recognized, Italian conductor Alberto Zedda turned his perspicacity to La gazza ladra three decades before this Wildbad production, completing his definitive critical edition of the score in 1979. Invaluable as his contributions to Rossini scholarship are, it is in the orchestra pit in a performance of any of Rossini’s operas that his artistry is at its most admirable. Eighty-one years old at the time of the performances recorded by NAXOS, Zedda conducts with his customary blend of elegance and zeal. While maintaining ingratiating flexibility that permits affectionately lyrical expansion where appropriate, there is no deviation from the high benchmarks of rhythmic tautness that he imposes upon himself and the musicians under his direction. The story that alleges that Rossini composed La gazza ladra at record speed whilst sequestered under lock and key until the score was completed is likely apocryphal or at least considerably embellished, but the spontaneity of the music is undeniably remarkable, its fecund tunefulness perhaps masking its difficulties to the casual listener. Heard on a number of NAXOS recordings sourced from Wildbad productions, the Virtuosi Brunensis musicians, directed by Karel Mitáš, live up to the name of their ensemble, never failing to meet both composer’s and conductor’s demands. The most admirable quality of Zedda’s conducting of this performance is its natural logic: a tremendous wealth of thought undoubtedly informs his work, but nothing seems ponderous: in short, every scene sounds how a scene in a Rossini opera should sound. This is true, too, of the orchestra’s playing. The jovial Overture, its woodwind figurations evoking the cawing of the eponymous winged bandit, is played splendidly, the snare drums setting a mock-martial tone that contrasts meaningfully with the famous principal theme. From that start, the Virtuoisi Brunensis follow Zedda’s lead in mining the significance of every crescendo and accelerando. Prepared by Pavel Koňárek, the carefully-blended voices of Classica Chamber Choir of Brno are a particularly effective, wonderfully musical group of townspeople, especially in the opening chorus, ‘Oh che giorno fortunato,’ and the act finales. Gianni Fabbrini’s fortepiano accompaniment of secco recitatives also upholds the frolicsome spirit and lofty musical caliber of the performance. The lifeblood of opera is solo singing, but what a difference top-quality work by conductor, orchestra, and choristers makes!

Almost none of Rossini’s operas except Guillaume Tell has as extensive a cast as La gazza ladra. Engaging singers capable of performing the opera’s lead rôles—to say nothing of performing them well!—is an expensive proposition, often leaving little in the budget for casting secondary rôles. This recording is distinguished by a cast with no weak links—a feat even rarer than performances of La gazza ladra. With as accomplished a singer as Australian bass Damian Whiteley on hand to sing—rippingly—the lines of il pretore del villaggio in the Act Two Quintet, ‘Ahi qual colpo,’ the bar is set very high. Bass Maurizio Lo Piccolo, a pupil of the consummate Rossini singer Simone Alaimo, sings strongly as Giorgio, a lackey of the smarmy Podestà, and tenor Pablo Cameselle is a benevolent, light-voiced Antonio, the jailer who, having witnessed the Podestà’s efforts at capitalizing on his amorous designs on Ninetta, dedicates himself to proving her innocence and setting her free.

Tenor Stefan Cifolelli sings the peddler Isacco’s brief cavatina in Act One, ‘Stringhe e ferri da calzette,’ attractively, and his bright timbre stands out from the crown in the Act One finale. Buenos Aires-born mezzo-soprano Mariana Rewerski tangoes through Pippo’s music appealingly, providing a properly effervescent account of the Brindisi in Act One, ‘Tocchiamo, beviamo.’ Her singing in the Act Two duet with Ninetta, ‘A mio nome, deh, consegna,’ is both beautiful and heartfelt, and she proves winningly resourceful in recitatives.

Ninetta’s employers and the parents of her beloved Giannetto, Fabrizio Vingradio and his wife Lucia, are portrayed with bumptious big-fishes-in-a-small-pond pretentions by bass Giulio Mastrototaro and mezzo-soprano Luisa Islam-Ali-Zade. Mastrototaro’s stalwart voice rolls out gratifyingly in recitatives and ensembles. Islam-Ali-Zade’s Lucia is an amusing but menacing harridan who redeems herself with a well-sung, wholly sincere performance of her aria in Act Two, ‘A questo seno,’ placed after the trial scene as Rossini intended. Convincing both in their characters’ accusations and their eventual admission of their error, Mastrototaro and Islam-Ali-Zade are decided assets in rôles that are prone to being liabilities.

In Bruno Praticò’s Fernando Villabella, Ninetta’s father, and Lorenzo Regazzo’s Gottardo, the dastardly Podestà, this performance benefits from the participation of two of the most gifted lower-voiced Rossinians of recent years. Running from arrest and punishment for desertion, Fernando is the inadvertent cause of Ninetta’s inability to defend herself when accused of stealing Lucia’s prized silver spoon. Having sold a piece of silver bearing the initials FV—her father’s, not Fabrizio Vingradio’s—to Isacco in order to obtain money to sustain Fernando during his fugitivity and the proceeds of the sale being found on her person when she is apprehended, Ninetta’s only choices are protecting her father with silence or betraying him with explanation of her innocence. When father and daughter duet in Act One in the finely-crafted ‘Come frenar il pianto,’ Praticò sings lovingly, using both music and text to figuratively caress his heartbroken daughter. He and Regazzo sing resonantly in the trio with Ninetta, ‘Siamo soli.’ Praticò makes Fernando’s aria in Act Two, ‘Accusata di furto,’ one of the highlights of the recording. When Fernando is reunited with Ninetta as a pardoned man at the opera’s end, the elation that Praticò’s vocalism conveys seems to spread over the whole cast. Regazzo’s Podestà is a scheming scoundrel from first note to last, but how delectable is his treachery! In the cavatina in Act One, ‘Il mio piano è preparato,’ Regazzo’s singing is the musical equivalent of a silent-film villain twirling his mustache, the voice produced with assured insouciance. In Act Two, the arrogance and humbug wooing in his aria ‘Sì, per voi, pupille amante’ are amusingly unctuous, and Regazzo’s singing gives great pleasure. Both gentlemen occasionally sacrifice tidiness of line for comedy, but it is unlikely that Rossini would have minded.

With recent releases of recordings of the title rôle in Händel’s Joshua (Accent), Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte (Sony Classical), and Mozart and Salieri arias (MDG) to his credit, Detroit-born tenor Kenneth Tarver is finally receiving some measure of the widespread recognition that his talent merits. His extraordinary voice has been heard in the world’s great opera houses, but his singing as Giannetto in this performance of La gazza ladra spurs curiosity about why his name is not synonymous with bel canto everywhere in the world in the way that Tito Schipa’s was seventy-five years ago. A dashing hero on stage, Tarver’s singing combines a beautiful timbre reminiscent of Cesare Valletti’s with dizzying virtuosity that enables him to conquer Rossini’s most throat-stressing passages with flabbergasting ease. Indeed, in this performance he sings Rossini’s volleys of coloratura like a great violinist playing Vivaldi’s most insanely difficult music for that instrument, every note in rapid-fire passagework given its due and every pitch placed with zinging precision. ‘Vieni fra queste braccia,’ Giannetto’s cavatina in Act One [not to be confused with the like-named number in Bellini’s I puritani], is dispatched with a dazzling display of expertise. Likewise, Tarver’s singing in the Act Two duet with Ninetta, ‘Forse un dì conoscerete,’ palpitates with dramatic involvement and ideally poised, dulcet tone. The only disappointment in this portrayal of Giannetto is instigated by Rossini: with Tarver on hand to sing the part in future, could he not have proactively composed more music for the character?

Spanish soprano María José Moreno depicts Ninetta as a good-natured young lady whose sunny disposition is tested but never eclipsed by the dire straits in which she finds herself. She sings the Act One cavatina ‘Di piacer mi balza il cor’ confidently, her negotiations of coloratura and easy management of the wide tessitura immediately earning appreciation. Rossini’s expressive writing in Ninetta’s duet with Fernando, ‘Come frenar il pianto,’ prefigures similar moments in the young Verdi’s operas, and Moreno cannily blends her pensive tones with Praticò’s brawny singing. Her security above the stave is exhibited both in the trio with her father and the Podestà, ‘Non so quel che farei,’ and in the act finales. The soprano’s keen talent for ensemble singing is again revealed in her performance of the Act Two duets with Giannetto, ‘Forse un dì conoscerete,’ and Pippo, ‘A mio nome, deh, consegna.’ She unites first with Tarver and then with Rewerski adroitly. It is in Ninetta’s Preghiera as she is led to execution, ‘Deh, tu reggi in tal momento,’ that Moreno’s voice is at its most beautiful. Such an assertion is hardly meaningful when her singing throughout the performance is so beguiling, however, and her innocent, fresh-as-spring-rain characterization is enchanting.

With the label’s extensive catalogue preserving a gallery of storied Rossini portraits including Lawrence Brownlee’s Lindoro in L’italiana in Algeri, Joyce DiDonato’s Cenerentola, Ewa Podleś’s Tancredi and Sumi Jo’s Amenaide, Michael Spyres’s Otello, and Ramón Vargas’s Conte d’Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia, the people responsible for planning and completing NAXOS recordings have learned a thing or two about recording Rossini’s operas over the past two decades. Adding more Rossinian star turns to the label’s discography, that knowledge here yields a recording of La gazza ladra that can be enjoyed without reservation. Hard is the heart that is impervious to this thieving magpie’s wiles.