03 January 2016

CD REVIEW: Pietro Generali — ADELINA (D. Bijelić, G. Nani, G. Quaresma Ramos, S. Beltrami, E. Muñoz, U. Rabec; NAXOS 8.660372-73)

CD REVIEW: Pietro Generali - ADELINA (NAXOS 8.660372-73)PIETRO GENERALI (1773 – 1832): AdelinaDušica Bijelić (Adelina), Gabriele Nani (Varner), Gustavo Quaresma Ramos (Erneville), Silvia Beltrami (Carlotta), Elier Muñoz (Simone), Ugo Rabec (Firmino); Eliseo Castrignanò, fortepiano; Virtuosi Brunensis; Giovanni Battista Rigon, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during the XXII ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival in the Königliches Kurtheater, Bad Wildbad, Germany, on 14, 16, and 24 July 2010; NAXOS 8.660372-73; 2 CDs, 90:41; Available from ClassicsOnlineHD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Italy in the first half of the Nineteenth Century—when there was no unified Italy in the modern sense, that is—was a volatile menagerie of ever-changing cultures similar enough to foster a burgeoning sense of shared national identity and sufficiently dissimilar to perpetuate the divisiveness begotten by generations of political intrigues and constantly-shifting allegiances. With the establishment of the short-lived Napoleonic Republic of Italy in Alpine Italy in the century’s first decade, a vital step towards eventual unification was taken, but would-be Italians in reality only traded Hapsburg overlords for Buonaparte scions. The seeds of the Risorgimento were sown, however, and the dissolution of the Papal States further redefined dominion over the Italian peninsula. It was into this cultural and political maelstrom, the Italy represented by Sardou’s and Puccini’s Baron Scarpia, that Pietro Generali’s ‘melodramma sentimentale’ Adelina was born at Venice’s Teatro San Moisè in September 1810. Using a libretto adapted by Gaetano Rossi from a French model set to music in the previous decade by André Grétry, Adelina combines a bucolic Swiss setting reminiscent of that in Bellini’s La sonnambula with surprisingly modern sensibilities. No standard-issue concoction of mistaken identities and fortuitous last-minute revelations, the drama of Adelina is a convolution of illicit love, an illegitimate child, and the effects of shame and social stigmas on individuals and families. If this seems unlikely subject matter for the venue in which the eighteen-year-old Gioachino Rossini’s hastily-written first opera, the one-act farsa La cambiale di matrimonio, premièred less than two months after the first performance of Adelina, perhaps it was: after devoting the next eight years to producing a further five of Rossini’s operas—L’equivoco stravagante, L’inganno felice, La scala di seta, L’occasione fa il ladro, and Il signor Bruschino—and a forgotten opera by Giovanni Pacini, the San Moisè, inaugurated in 1640 by the first performance of Monteverdi’s L’Arianna, closed. Few things in opera are ever wholly as they seem, however. The nature of the reception that Adelina received at its première is undocumented, but it is recorded in The Harmonicon that Adelina was performed at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket in London in 1825, when the rôle of Erneville was sung by famed tenor Manuel García not long before his departure for New York at the invitation of Lorenzo Da Ponte. Ironically, it was stated by The Harmonicon’s unnamed author that Generali ‘has taken his best subjects from Rossini’—an interesting observation considering that the sole intersection among the two composers’ works was Adelaide di Borgogna, Rossini’s setting of which, utilizing a libretto by Giovanni Schmidt, premièred in 1817 in Rome, Generali’s, its libretto by Luigi Romanelli, in 1819 in Rovigo. There is no evidence that Generali was familiar with Rossini’s score, but he was clearly confident enough of his own renown to risk competing with his younger colleague. That Adelina was performed in London fifteen years after its première strongly suggests that the work won lasting favor in and beyond Venice. One of the defining missions of the ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival is exploring the music of Rossini’s contemporaries, and the Festival’s 2010 production of Adelina offered an unexpected opportunity to make the acquaintance of Generali’s fascinating score. Now, NAXOS’s ongoing commitment to recording ROSSINI IN WILDBAD productions brings Adelina to an even wider audience.

Born in 1773 in Masserano in the Piedmont, near today’s border with France, Generali is not among the most widely-known composers of his era, but he was clearly extensively and sincerely admired during his lifetime. His first opera having met with at least moderate success at its first performance in 1800, he was an established entity in northern Italian opera by the time of Adelina’s première. Eighteen years later, on 27 December 1828, Generali’s opera Francesca da Rimini had the distinction of reopening the extensively-renovated Teatro La Fenice, and one act from Francesca da Rimini was included in the gala performance featuring an act from each of the season’s greatest successes that was presented to mark the end of Carnevale in 1829. Logically, then, the impression that Adelina made in Venice almost certainly cannot have been negligible. Despite a few problems, this NAXOS recording also makes a vivid impression. Foremost among those problems is the recording itself. Likely a result of the staging rather than flaws in microphone placement, this is one of NAXOS’s noisiest recordings, every footfall, sneeze, and cough captured and reproduced with crystal-clear fidelity. Appreciation of Generali’s music is not adversely effected, but the near-continuous non-musical distractions are a considerable nuisance. Veterans of a number of ROSSINI IN WILDBAD productions recorded by NAXOS, the Virtuosi Brunensis play Generali’s score idiomatically under the direction of Giovanni Battista Rigon, whose steady beat keeps the performance moving without rushing either the singers or the pace of the drama. Occasionally, the editing of material from the three performances that yielded the recording makes transitions among tempi seem clumsier than they probably were in the theatre, but Rigon maintains a firm hand and instinctively supports the singers. The fortepiano continuo of Eliseo Castrignanò is one of the recording’s greatest strengths, his playing masterfully enlivening otherwise dull secco recitatives. Under Rigon’s direction, the musicians deliver a lively account of the opera’s Sinfonia, its initial Largo shaped with subtlety that gives way to exuberance in the animated Spiritoso, and musical standards are commendably high throughout the performance. This is not uniformly great or greatly difficult music, but there is never a moment in this recording when the musicians’ performances suggest anything other than complete faith in Adelina’s stage-worthiness.

In the opera’s opening scene, ‘Ecco il sol che spunta fuori’ introduces the listener to the Latin-spouting schoolmaster Don Simone and prominent man about town Varner, sung by baritones Elier Muñoz and Gabriele Nani. The Havana-born Muñoz interacts with his colleagues with expert timing and is often genuinely funny in his singing of Simone’s droll recitations of Latin maxims, a conceit that could quickly become tiresome. A native of Bergamo, Donizetti’s hometown, Nani sounds as though he has bel canto in his blood: his Belcore and Malatesta in his fellow Bergamascho’s L’elisir d’amore and Don Pasquale are sure to be as delightful as his paranoid, pompous Varner. They are joined by the sparkling Carlotta of Bolognese mezzo-soprano Silvia Beltrami in ‘Si tu vales, vale, valeo,’ delivered charmingly by all three singers, father and daughter—Varner and Carlotta—responding to Simone’s pseudo-scholarly bluster with wit and boundless energy.

Born in Bosnia and Herzegovina and later resident in Serbia, soprano Dušica Bijelić brought to her assumption of the title rôle in the Wildbad Adelina a cosmopolitan résumé that belied her youth. In 2012, two years after the production heard on this release, she participated in a very selective Carnegie Hall masterclass with Renée Fleming, and even by 2010 she already had an impressive array of performances to her credit. Her portrayal of Adelina is a testament to the solid technical foundation of her musical education and to her gifts as an introspective singing actress. It is indeed sweet sound that characterizes her singing of ‘Dolce suon mi scendi al core,’ and she voices ‘Che farò?’ and ‘Chi mi consiglia?’ attractively and aptly pensively. Bijelić possesses a voice that seems destined for important contributions to performances of bel canto repertory in the Twenty-First Century, her upper register and negotiations of fiorature consistently impressive in this performance. She, Nani, and Muñoz sing the trio ‘Ah! l’avesse almen colpito’ engagingly, the soprano’s voice floating alluringly above the baritones’ grumbling.

In passages of recitative preceding the aria of Adelina’s seducer, said reprobate’s servant Firmino is portrayed by bass Ugo Rabec. Born in the French commune of Vittel, famous for its widely-distributed bottled water, Rabec voices his lines with dramatic directness and sturdy tone. When his master Erneville arrives on the scene, it is in the person of Rio de Janeiro-born tenor Gustavo Quaresma Ramos, a singer who, like Bijelić, seems earmarked for an estimable career in the tenor repertory of the first half of the Nineteenth Century. He phrases Erneville’s aria ‘Al respirar quest’aure, fra così ameni oggetti’ with suavity, his timbre taking on a lovely sheen as the vocal line climbs above the stave. The estranged lovers are reunited in the appealing duet ‘Oh, il più ingrato,’ Bijelić’s Adelina audibly falling in love with Quaresma Ramos’s Erneville anew as their voices intertwine. Indeed, their voices are as captivating in ensemble as they are individually: they would surely charm listeners as Rossini’s Comtesse Adèle and Comte Ory.

Muñoz provides a rollicking reading of Simone’s aria ‘Falsus, falsus est, che Amor sit,’ dispatching Generali’s patter writing with the acumen of a natural Figaro or Dandini. Muñoz is a source of vocal mettle and spirited but restrained humor throughout the performance: as Muñoz portrays him, it is hardly surprising that it is Simone who is the catalyst for the opera’s lieto fine. Bijelić sings Adelina’s aria proper—Generali identifies her first appearance in the manuscript solely as ‘Sortita di Adelina’—‘Oh dio! Esporre il sangue mio!’ with great immediacy, the ornaments elegantly integrated into her articulation of the vocal line. Likewise, her traversal of ‘Ma in ciel v’è un nume giusto, pietoso’ is distinguished by graceful nimbleness. The opera’s finale evinces an ‘all’s well that ends well’ philosophy, the wily Simone manipulating Varner’s prejudices and facilitating the ultimate reconciliation of father, daughter, and new son-in-law. ‘Oh natura, sì, ti sento’ and ‘La scelta del mio core’ receive from the entire cast the kind of what-will-happen-next concentration that can prove so effective in opera, no matter who wrote the score. Rigon and the Wildbad cast pay tribute to Generali with a rousing performance of Adelina’s effervescent finale.

It cannot be claimed that Adelina is a rediscovered masterpiece that is likely to carve for itself a niche in the international repertory among the better-known works of its composer’s generation. Making such a claim was not the purpose of ROSSINI IN WILDBAD’s production of the opera or of this NAXOS recording of it. What this and other Wildbad productions and NAXOS recordings of them do so efficaciously is confirm that Rossini was not a solitary genius in an artistic desert. If Adelina is representative of his work, Pietro Generali was a fantastic craftsman whose dramatic instincts transcended the uncomplicated frivolity of many of his contemporaries. Though imperfect in execution, this stylish, thoroughly enjoyable Adelina is much more valuable than another inadequate, half-hearted Barbiere di Siviglia.