30 April 2017

CD REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini — ADELSON E SALVINI (S. Alberghini, E. Scala, D. Barcellona, M. Muraro, R. Pogossov, D. Soar, K. Rudge, L.-M. Jones; Opera Rara ORC56)

IN REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini's ADELSON E SALVINI (Opera Rara ORC56)VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835): Adelson e SalviniSimone Alberghini (Lord Adelson), Enea Scala (Salvini), Daniela Barcellona (Nelly), Maurizio Muraro (Bonifaccio), Rodion Pogossov (Colonel Struley), David Soar (Geronio), Kathryn Rudge (Fanny), Leah-Marian Jones (Madama Rivers); Opera Rara Chorus; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Daniele Rustioni, conductor [Recorded in BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, England, in May 2016; Opera Rara ORC56; 2 CDs, 153:29; Available from Opera Rara and major music retailers]

If the repertories of the world’s most prominent opera houses were reliable criteria for judging the musical development of the greatest composers of opera, it would be easy to conclude that these composers emerged, Athena-like, from their respective places of origin as fully-formed artists with complete dominion over their faculties. The notable exceptions are Mozart, whose pre-Idomeneo operas have retained at least a measure of curiosity value among opera lovers, and Verdi, whose early scores still cling to the periphery of the international repertory despite performances that more often than not mishandle the music. The performance diaries of the world’s leading theatres would have one believe that Rossini’s career began with Il barbiere di Siviglia, Donizetti’s with Lucia di Lammermoor, Wagner’s with Der fliegende Holländer, Puccini’s with Manon Lescaut, and Richard Strauss’s with Salome. Some composers disavowed the scores via which they honed their talents and established their reputations, of course, but only a decidedly imperfect understanding of an artist can be gleaned from an examination of his œuvre that ignores formative works.

The quest to place Vincenzo Bellini’s bel canto masterpieces Norma, La sonnambula, and I puritani in the context of their creator’s artistic development begins in Naples in February 1825, when the young Sicilian composer, an eager pupil at the Real Collegio di Musica—today’s Conservatorio di Musica San Pietro a Majella—under the conservative supervision of Niccolò Zingarelli, introduced himself to the opera-loving Neapolitans with Adelson e Salvini. A setting of a Gothic-leaning libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola based upon a novella by François-Thomas-Marie de Baculard d’Arnaud, a little-remembered author whose great popularity in late-Eighteenth-Century France offers insight into the later French appreciation for Edgar Allan Poe, Bellini’s first opera was a graduation exercise that was staged in accordance with the Real Collegio’s practice of giving especially deserving matriculants opportunities to wade in the tumultuous operatic waters of Naples in the relatively safe harbor of the Conservatory. Tailored to the abilities of the musical forces at the composer’s disposal, Adelson e Salvini offers intriguing glimpses of the genius of Norma attired in the fashion of Rossini. A source of great novelty for modern listeners, it was likely the assimilation of disparate elements—flashes of Bellini’s mature style, Rossinian bravura writing, and rollicking passages in Neapolitan dialect—that endeared Adelson e Salvini to Bellini’s fellow students at the Conservatorio, where the opera was performed every Sunday for a year! The opera’s conquest did not extend beyond the Conservatorio, but the informed enthusiasm of his peers surely boosted the young Bellini’s confidence.

Recorded in conjunction with a concert performance in London’s Barbican Centre, Opera Rara’s studio recording provides listeners almost two centuries after the opera’s first performance with a chance to hear Adelson e Salvini in a faithful reconstruction of the form in which it was first performed. Like a number of composers, Bellini later returned to his first opera, both to revise it, assisted by a friend, for future performances that never transpired and to plunder its best material for reuse in later scores. As performed here, the quality of the young Bellini’s craftsmanship is consistently apparent, but this traversal of Adelson e Salvini is anything but a scavenger hunt for tunes heard in later, ostensibly better scores. Though his innate melancholia dulled Bellini’s response to the plot’s comedic elements, Adelson e Salvini is unmistakably a young man’s opera, and the exuberance of conductor Daniele Rustioni’s pacing of the music emphasizes its vitality and continuity. With the crisp, characterful singing of the Opera Rara Chorus, expertly led by Eamonn Dougan, and the controlled but corpuscular playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra as the agents of his mastery of Bellini’s score, Rustioni shapes a performance enjoyable both as a harbinger of the composer’s future operas and as its own entity. The libretto of Adelson e Salvini cannot be praised for its literary calibre, but Rustioni’s keenly-judged tempi and unapologetic Romantic fervor enable the singers to make the most of the dramatic potential afforded by Bellini’s setting. Bolstered by the choristers’ and instrumentalists’ dedicated work, Rustioni and the cast generate more tension than the opera has any right to wield. With its overlong stretches of dialogue, mostly handled very capably by the cast, Adelson e Salvini is an unevenly-proportioned score, but Rustioni meticulously effectuates a balance between true bel canto and a novice composer’s moments of uncertainty.

This recording of Adelson e Salvini splendidly perpetuates Opera Rara’s legacy of filling supporting rôles with talented artists. As Madama Rivers, the Adelson estate’s seemingly inescapable housekeeper, a rôle sung in the opera’s première by a male singer, mezzo-soprano Leah-Marian Jones is never heard without enjoyment but is at her absolute best in the Act Three finale, voicing ‘Ed in giubilo l’affano in ogni alma si cangiò’ with zeal and a captivating hint of irony. Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge’s fretful Fanny, Madama Rivers’s niece and Salvini’s adoring pupil, jump-starts Act One with her forthright singing of ‘Immagine gradita del ben che tanto adoro.’ Both ladies ably lend their voices to ensembles. Bass David Soar delivers Bellini’s music for the guileful Geronio with delectably malevolent glee. His account of ‘Oh fortunati istanti’ with the chorus in Act One rings out strongly, his timbre attractive and his intonation secure throughout the range of his part. Soar’s singing in Geronio’s Act Two duet with Struley bursts with energy and dramatic purpose but always adheres to a bel canto line.

Filling the lungs of Colonel Struley with air of an aptly martial swagger, baritone Rodion Pogossov sings Bellini’s music with attractive, easily-produced tone and dramatic instincts befitting one of today’s best-qualified exponents of Mozart’s Papageno in Die Zauberflöte. Struley would benefit greatly from a dose of Papageno’s amiability, but Pogossov manages to make the dastardly colonel unexpectedly sympathetic, his machinations a means to an end rather than evidence of irredeemable villainy. The baritone sings his Act One aria ‘Tu provi un palpito per la dimora’ suavely, every note of the range in the voice and projected evenly. In the Act Two duet with Geronio, Pogossov equals Soar as a bel canto stylist, phrasing even foursquare passages with imagination. The virility of the baritone’s voicing of ‘D’inutili querele questo non è l’istante’ in the Act Two finale electrifies the scene more palpably than the offstage gunshot that is erroneously believed to have ended the life of the opera’s heroine. Throughout the performance, Pogossov enacts Struley’s intended vengeance for having once been exiled from Ireland with vocalism of polished bravado, extracting from Bellini’s writing the histrionic essence of a part that in many ways prefigures Ernesto in Il pirata and Riccardo Forth in I puritani.

An acclaimed interpreter of comic bel canto rôles including Bartolo in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and Sulpice in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro brings to his performance of Bonifacio, Salvini’s Napulitano-spouting servant, extensive experience in music of Adelson e Salvini’s vintage. In truth, Bonifacio’s effusions go on rather longer than Bellini’s invention could sustain them, but Muraro devotes a magnificent display of comedic artistry to making the character engaging and, on the whole, succeeds impressively. The Act One cavatina ‘Bonifacio Voccafrolla? Lei l’ha in faccia, eccolo ccà’ is sung with brio, and Muraro’s affability perfectly complements his Santini’s impenetrable seriousness in their duet, ‘Vi, comme se storzella.’ The bass-baritone anchors the Act One finale steadfastly. Muraro performs Bonifacio’s Act Two aria ‘Ora vi’, lo caso è bello!’ with indefatigable brilliance, and his singing of ‘Miette l’esca vicin’a lo ffuoco’ in the Act Three duet with Adelson bristles with guarded insinuation. The microphone occasionally emphasizes an unsteadiness in Muraro’s voice that is markedly less discernible in the theatre, but steadiness is the hallmark of the dramatic trajectory of his performance. Bonifacio could easily be a buffoon: as sung by Muraro, he is a practical, pragmatic figure willing to play the fool in order to defuse explosive situations.

The Adelson of bass-baritone Simone Alberghini, like Muraro a renowned Rossinian, not least in parts like Figaro and Dandini in Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola, is a man of appropriately aristocratic bearing, one whose innate benevolence is sorely tested by the opera’s madcap twists of fate. At his entrance late in Act One, Alberghini declaims ‘Obliarti? Abbandonati!’ powerfully, leaving no doubt that the lord of the manor has returned to oversee his realm. Not suspecting the cause of his friend’s agitation, Alberghini’s Adelson sings ‘Torna, o caro, o questo seno’ in the Act Two duet with Salvini mellifluously, confident that his imminent happiness will restore to the artist his own tranquility. Believing that he is ensuring Salvini’s future joy by presenting Fanny to him as a bride, Adelson launches the Act Two finale in earnest, and Alberghini sings ‘Ecco alfin quel caro oggetto’ jovially. Thereafter, bewildering events sweep over him like an avalanche, and the bass-baritone’s refined portrayal of Adelson reflects every emotional pivot that the character experiences without hectoring or hysterics. In the Act Three duet with Bonifacio, this Adelson’s scheming does not conceal his sorrow. The subsequent confrontation with Salvini inspires Alberghini to a stirring reading of ‘L’amico! Ah! Più non è...tu l’uccidesti!’ The singer’s bel canto credentials are put to excellent use in this performance of music for which his voice is virtually ideal.

In Adelson e Salvini’s Neapolitan première, the rôle of the painter Salvini was entrusted to Leonardo Perugini, a singer whose technical acumen is proved by the music that Bellini wrote for him to have been equal to the accomplishments of the finest tenors of his era. Opera Rara’s cast for this recording of Adelson e Salvini is graced by a tenor who answers to the same description among singers of his own time, Enea Scala. Intoning ‘Speranza seduttrice, fuggi da questo cor!’ in Salvini’s Act One duet with Bonifacio with eloquence and expressivity, Scala immediately confirms that bel canto is in his blood. In the duet with Nelly, the woman he loves despite her relationship with Adelson, that bel canto blood boils in Scala’s singing of ‘Ah! L’oppresse il dolor!’ and ‘E quest’alma lacerata da un affetto il più furente.’ The Act Two duet with Adelson is one of the opera’s climaxes, and Scala rivals Alberghini as a dramatic firebrand with his heartfelt voicing of ‘In seno al bel riposo fa l’alma ormai ritorno.’ In the Act Two finale, the tenor’s effervescent ‘È il Ciel, in questa guisa’ cuts through the scene like a lightning bolt. The beauty of Salvini’s Act Three aria with chorus and Adelson ‘Si cadrò....ma estinto ancora’ approaches that of Bellini’s writing for Elvino in La sonnambula and Arturo in I puritani, and Scala’s account of the aria intensifies the scene’s emotional potency. Indeed, the singer’s portrayal of the spirited artist heightens the persuasiveness of the performance as a whole. As recorded, there is a slight tightness in Scala’s singing, but this contrasts with the awesome freedom in this and other recorded performances of his ascents to top C. This recording has many virtues, but any listener hearing Scala for the first time in this performance of Adelson e Salvini would not be unjustified in thinking that the greatest of them is making the acquaintance of this phenomenal tenor.

The most surprising aspect of Adelson e Salvini’s 1825 première is that the rôle of the opera’s heroine Nelly was portrayed by Giacinto Marras, an adolescent male singer—and apparently rather a good one!—whose voice at that time was centered in the contralto register. Rossini wrote the rôle of Arsace in his 1813 opera for La Scala, Aureliano in Palmira, for the famous castrato Giovanni Battista Velluti, but the age of bel canto and the Elizabethan custom of casting young men in female rôles are not commonly thought to have intersected. [In 1825, the year of Adelson e Salvini’s Neapolitan première, Velluti’s London début in Aureliano e Palmira was little short of a fiasco, signaling the end of Europe’s prolonged obsession with castrati.] It is difficult to imagine even the composer of the travesti rôle of Romeo in I Capuleti ed i Montecchi intending any of his heroines to be sung by a male singer, and history unfortunately does not preserve a detailed account of how Marras came to be Bellini’s Nelly. Whether it was an instance of the youngster being in the right place at the right time, as it were, or of more controlled circumstances, Bellini’s music reveals that, like his colleagues in the first performance of Adelson e Salvini, Marras was—or was expected to be—a thoroughly capable singer.

Handsomely statuesque of figure and voluptuous of voice, mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona is in no danger of being mistaken for an adolescent boy; nor is her Nelly in this recording of Adelson e Salvini apt to be mistaken for the work of one. The Act One romanza ‘Dopo l’oscuro nembo’ is the score’s best-known number, and Barcellona’s performances of both Bellini’s original setting and a later revision of the aria pulse with the heart of the Bellini familiar from Norma’s ‘Casta diva.’ The mezzo-soprano’s singing in this performance is fulsome and flexible, her intonation unshakable. In the duet with Salvini, she exclaims ‘Infelice, in te rinvieni!’ with vehemence tinged with fear, and her articulation of ‘Di piacer la voce echeggi!’ in the Act One finale evinces the upheaval of Nelly’s predicament. In a misstep that he would not repeat in the operas that followed Adelson e Salvini, Bellini gave Nelly little to do in Acts Two and Three, but Barcellona’s Nelly is noticed even when she is not the center of attention. Her distinctive voice emerges from the ensemble in the opera’s final scene as it should, the long-suffering girl’s peace of mind finally restored. Nelly’s music poses few challenges to Barcellona’s technique, but her performance is by no means small-scaled. Nelly is not Norma, but in this performance she achieves the stature that her music commands.

No one would object more vigorously to proclaiming Adelson e Salvini an unjustly-neglected masterpiece than Bellini himself, but, typical of the label’s endeavors, Opera Rara’s recording presents the opera so winningly that its importance in both its composer’s artistic development and the evolution of opera in the Nineteenth Century cannot be denied. The value of any performance or recording must ultimately be determined by its musical merits, however, and on these terms Opera Rara’s Adelson e Salvini is a complete success. Even amidst the lofty milieux of opera, this Adelson e Salvini asserts, education can sometimes be wonderfully entertaining!