04 July 2016

CD REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti — PARISINA D’ESTE (M. Devia, D. Gonzales, G. Zancanaro, D. Kavrakos, T. Tramonti; Bongiovanni GB 2569/70-2)

CD REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti - PARISINA D'ESTE (Bongiovanni GB 2569/70-2)GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Parisina d’EsteMariella Devia (Parisina), Dalmacio Gonzales (Ugo), Giorgio Zancanaro (Azzo), Dimitri Kavrakos (Ernesto), Tiziana Tramonti (Imelda); Orchestra e Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino; Bruno Bartoletti, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in performance at the Teatro della Pergola, Florence, Italy, on 20 May 1990; Bongiovanni GB 2569/70-2; 2 CDs, 159:56; Available from Bongiovanni, NAXOS Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), and major music retailers]

As befuddling as why some singers achieve worldwide recognition whilst equally-qualified colleagues toil in relative obscurity is the question of why the caprices of fate consign exceptional singers to neglect by record labels. With few aspects of opera in the Twenty-First Century as lamented as the perceived decline of genuine bel canto in the exalted tradition of Giulia Grisi, María Malibran, and Giuditta Pasta, the paucity of commercial recordings featuring Chiusavecchia-born soprano Mariella Devia is as baffling as it is frustrating. In generations past, it was Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer, another celebrated scion of the royal house of bel canto, who reigned as Queen of the Pirates, ignored by major labels but adored by aficionados, who eagerly collected private recordings of her performances. Now, Gencer’s crown has passed to Devia, whose commercial discography is inexplicably sparse: aside from studio recordings of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore and Linda di Chamounix and professionally-produced ‘live’ recordings on hard-to-find labels, aural preservation of the excitement that Devia has generated in her bel canto outings is woefully inadequate. Even an event as significant as Devia’s triumphant return to New York as Elisabetta opposite Stephen Costello’s absurdly-maligned portrayal of the title rôle in Opera Orchestra of New York’s 2014 concert performance of Roberto Devereux was not recorded for broadcast or commercial release! In the age of Gencer, the major labels had Callas, Sutherland, Scotto, Sills, and Caballé, of course, but for whose benefit has Devia been overlooked? Every new release bearing Devia’s name among the cast is cause for anxious anticipation, and Bongiovanni’s release of this performance of Donizetti’s 1833 Parisina d’Este, recorded in the same theatre, Florence’s Teatro della Pergola, in which the opera was premièred, is a welcome addition to the recorded legacy of one of the most important artists in the history of bel canto.

Alas, despite considerable assets, Bongiovanni’s new release of what sounds like a decently-captured, minimally-remastered in-house recording of a performance from the 1990 Maggio Musicale Fiorentino production of Parisina is not the caliber of tribute that Devia’s singular gifts deserve. Mostly free from audience noise aside from curtailed applause, the usual bronchial intrusions, and a spectacularly ill-timed nasal noise of indeterminate origin that upsets the delicate atmosphere of the heroine’s first entrance, the sound quality does not impede enjoyment of the performance, but the distortion and peaking that result from the boxy, claustrophobic acoustic are unkind to the voices, especially the raison d’être prima donna. Under the well-schooled baton of Bruno Bartoletti, a veteran of the Maggio Musicale orchestra who was in his penultimate season as the Artistic Director of Maggio Musicale at the time of this performance, Donizetti’s music is performed with an apt dose of the verve that the conductor reliably brought to early Verdi repertory during his five-decade tenure with Lyric Opera of Chicago. Bartoletti’s tempi for arias and cabalettas are uniformly appropriate, and he paces ensembles with obvious instinct for Donizetti’s modes of scene construction.

Their work not reproduced in anything approaching high-fidelity sound, the Maggio Musicale choral and orchestral forces are precisely what an informed listener might expect them to be: enthusiastic, committed, and slightly provincial. [It should be noted that standards have increased exponentially in the years since this performance of Parisina was recorded. Today, the Florentine musicians often match and sometimes exceed the levels of excellence expected of their Milanese and Venetian counterparts.] As clamoring courtiers, boisterous soldiers, refined ladies-in-waiting, and offstage boatmen, the choristers sing vigorously. That individual voices are frequently distinguishable among the ensemble is perhaps more a circumstance of stage blocking and positioning of the recording device than of problems with training and balance. The instrumentation of Parisina cannot have failed to delight Donizetti’s illustrious tutor Johann Simon Mayr, and the Maggio Musicale musicians play their parts with the authentic Italian gusto that the score demands.

Portraying Parisina’s lady-in-waiting Imelda, soprano Tiziana Tramonti is heard here near the beginning of a career that has subsequently taken her to many of the world’s most familiar opera houses in leading rôles. Her duties in Parisina are confined to scenes with her mistress in all three of the opera’s acts, but Tramonti sings capably throughout the performance, spiritedly supporting Devia and making her mark as a singer of great promise.

The supple, sonorous voice of Greek bass Dimitri Kavrakos flows through Donizetti’s music for Duke Azzo’s minister and Ugo’s adopted father Ernesto like the sparkling waters of the Aegean. In his Act One scenes first with Azzo and then with Ugo, Kavrakos convincingly plays the parts of courtier and concerned father, sensitive to the insecurities of both his employer and his foster son. Kavrakos’s voice anchors the finale primo handsomely, his lower register retaining its impact even in ensembles. Kavrakos lends great immediacy to Ernesto’s utterances in the Act Two scene with Ugo, powerfully depicting the character’s distress with tones that blend beauty with granitic strength. Furthering the grand impression made in the Act One finale, the bass delivers Ernesto’s lines in the finale secondo with unwavering authority. Like Devia, Kavrakos is too-little-represented on commercial recordings: the quality of his performance in this Parisina makes the meager chronicling of his considerable bel canto credentials all the more regrettable.

In the ranks of important Italian baritones of the Twentieth Century, Giorgio Zancanaro merits inclusion alongside Pasquale Amato, Giuseppe De Luca, Tito Gobbi, Giuseppe Taddei, and Ettore Bastianini. A native of Verona, Zancanaro came to singing relatively late in life, without formal training and following a stint as a police officer, but his polished-brass timbre, well-integrated vocal registers, and easy upper extension were apparent from the start of his career. As a Verdi baritone, he had few wholly-qualified peers during the peak years of his career, and his singing as Azzo in this performance of Parisina reveals that his mastery of Verdi repertory was founded upon a solid bel canto technique. His singing of Azzo’s Act One cavatina ‘Per veder su quel bel viso’ and cabaletta ‘Dall’Eridano si stende’ exudes aristocracy and ducal entitlement, and both the resplendent tone and magnificent top notes typical of Zancanaro’s best work abound. In the finale primo and the Act Two duet with Parisina, the baritone is a worthy partner for Devia, his vivid vocal acting lighting the soprano’s histrionic fuse. The indecision that grips Azzo in the finale secondo is obliterated by his merciless vengeance in Act Three, and Zancanaro rises to every challenge of the part, thundering thrillingly in the Act Three finale. That Zancanaro’s Azzo is less memorable than his Conte di Luna, Rigoletto, and Rodrigo di Posa is attributable to Donizetti, his librettist Felice Romani, and even Lord Byron, from whose 1816 poem of the same name the opera’s plot was derived, but this is a splendidly-sung performance of challenging music.

The punishing rôle of Ugo, the heroine’s exiled lover and, as is ultimately revealed, the unwitting son—by his first wife, thankfully—of her husband, was first portrayed by Gilbert Duprez, celebrated as the first tenor to consistently produce C5 with chest resonance. Recordings of different performances and/or different recordings of this performance from the 1990 Maggio Musicale production of Parisina have long been available from non-commercial sources, some of which cite Italian tenor Dano Raffanti as the portrayer of Ugo. Raffanti was listed for the rôle in the 1990 Annuario EDT dell'Opera Lirica in Italia, and, while it is possible that Raffanti sang the part in some performances, the Ugo heard on these discs is unquestionably Catalan tenor Dalmacio Gonzales (né Dalmau González Albiol). Unfortunately, the bright-voiced Gonzales has the dubious distinction of suffering most from the recording’s ambiance—or, more accurately, the lack thereof. So reliably distant in the soundscape are his contributions to the performance that it could almost be alleged that the recordist endeavored to slight him, and assessing his efforts beyond confirming that he sings when Ugo is asked by Donizetti to sing is difficult. [In most available editions, Jerome Pruett endures a similar indignity in recordings of the legendary 1974 Opera Orchestra of New York Parisina with Monserrat Caballé. Is there some cosmic curse on the rôle, a sort of Duprez’s revenge?] The ears must strain to fully appreciate Gonzales’s performance, but the expenditure of effort is generously repaid. The tenor’s accounts of the impetuous Ugo’s Act One cavatina ‘Io l’amai fin da quell’ora’ and cabaletta ‘Per le cure, per le pene’ are fantastic, his slender, sinewy voice soaring through Donizetti’s daunting vocal lines and cresting on clarion, mostly secure top notes of which Duprez would have been proud. In the duet with Parisina, ‘Ma girne in bando ancora,’ and the finale primo, Gonzales’s Ugo proves to be an engaging lover, the tenor’s timbre contrasting markedly but blending appealingly with Devia’s. Both his aria ‘Io sentii tremar la mano’ and the cavatina ‘Questo amor doveva in terra’ in Act Two are sung stylishly and expressively, and Ugo’s desperate part in the finale secondo is enacted with dramatic intensity. A pioneer in the lineage of tenori di grazia that produced Juan Diego Flórez, Lawrence Brownlee, Javier Camarena, and Andrew Owens, Gonzales is here heard at the zenith of his powers, the continual struggle to hear him notwithstanding.

This recording of Parisina documents Mariella Devia’s artistry nearly two decades into her international career, a career still very much in progress: now traversing her sixty-ninth year, her schedule for the second half of 2016 and 2017 includes performances of the title rôles in Bellini’s Norma and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, two of the most perilous parts in the bel canto repertory. Her professional début in Treviso in 1973 introduced her to the public in a rôle that was to be a cornerstone of her repertory, the eponymous protagonist of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. [Incidentally, in the same year in which she headlined Maggio Musicale’s production of Parisina, Devia sang in a now-legendary RAI Roma concert broadcast performance of Lucia opposite the Edgardo of Alfredo Kraus in which the score was performed without cuts and in the composer’s original, generally higher-than-traditional keys. A superb-quality recording of the broadcast is available on CD (catalogue number CA1671) from Australian retailer Celestial Audio.] At her first entrance in Act One, it is obvious that Devia was in excellent voice for this performance, but there is a surprisingly prominent suggestion of caution in her singing. Fidelity to Donizetti’s score only partially accounts for the relative paucity of the soprano’s trademark sopracuti. Still, her singing of Parisina’s Act One cavatina ‘Forse un destin che intendere’ and cabaletta ‘V’era un dì quando l’alma’ is undeniably exhilarating, the inimitable voice moving through the music with only a slight hint of sluggishness. Charges that Devia is primarily a vocal phenomenon are not wholly unfounded. She is not unfailingly an animated performer, but she is at her peak as a singing actress in the duet with Ugo and Act One finale in this performance, singing and emoting with equal aplomb. Devia approaches the Act Two scene with Imelda as a springboard for her beguiling voicing of the romanza ‘Sogno talor in correre.’ As reminiscent of Verdi’s energetic music for Macbeth and his dastardly Lady as of the duet for the titular heroine and her brother Enrico in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Parisina’s duet with Azzo unites Devia and Zancanaro in a glorious masterclass in the now-elusive art of bel canto. The quartet ‘Per sempre, per sempre, sotterra sepolto’ is arguably the finest music in the score, and Devia’s vocalism highlights its quality. The soprano is at her ravishing best in Parisina’s Act Three rondò, ‘Ciel, sei tu che il tal momento,’ the spot-on intonation and limpid tone above the stave spiraling intoxicatingly through Donizetti’s ascending lines. Disappointingly imperfect, this Parisina is nonetheless a gratifying addition to Devia’s gallery of recorded Donizetti portraits.

The success of many of Parisina’s companions in the Donizetti and broader bel canto repertories depends upon their leading ladies, and few leading ladies in recent years have borne the weight of bel canto performances more successfully than Mariella Devia. The discouragingly [and bewilderingly] lukewarm critical reception for Opera Orchestra of New York's May 2016 concert performance of the opera featuring Angela Meade, Aaron Blake, and Yunpeng Wang suggested that Parisina remains a difficult sell for modern audiences. That Mariella Devia sold it to the Florentine audience in 1990 is manifest in every phrase of her singing on this pair of discs. Her salesmanship deserves a better marketplace than this recording provides, but devotees of the Queens of the Pirates gratefully take what they can get.