VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848), and GASPARE SPONTINI (1774 – 1851): Spirito — Marina Rebeka (soprano); Irene Savignano (soprano), Marco Ciaponi (tenor), Francesco Paolo Vultaggio (baritone), Gianluca Margheri (bass-baritone); Coro ed Orchestra del Teatro Massimo di Palermo; Jader Bignamini, conductor [Recorded at Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Sicily, Italy, in July 2018; Prima Classic PRIMA001; 1 CD, 77:57; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]
When hearing recent performances of operas by Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, Vincenzo Bellini, and their contemporaries, it has been all too easy to forget that, freely translated, bel canto means ‘beautiful singing.’ Discussion of whether the singing of the artist widely celebrated as the Twentieth Century’s foremost exponent of this repertory, Maria Callas, truly epitomized the beauty of vocal emission that is so fundamental a component of bel canto continues more than a half-century after her last performances of bel canto rôles, but few operaphiles, even those whose experiences of Callas’s artistry are confined to recordings, would dispute the assertion that Callas’s gallery of bel canto heroines indelibly altered perceptions of this music and notions of how and by whom it is sung.
In the four decades since Callas’s death, assessments of her career have engendered debate about whether any bona fide successors to her legacy as guardian of bel canto have emerged. There have been fine voices and earnest, thoughtful interpreters of an ever-expanding array of bel canto rôles, to be sure, but has their work sustained and advanced Callas’s revitalization of bel canto repertory? The paradox of Callas’s artistry is that, for all the emotional complexity of her characterizations, her method of bringing rôles to life was remarkably simple: the foundation of every performance was fidelity to the score, allied with an intuitive musicality that approached every music difficulty as an extension of a character’s dramatic situation. In this unteachable amalgamation of musical integrity and dramatic sincerity, Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka has proved in the last decade to be a uniquely-qualified champion of her own variation on the Callas mystique. Her homage is not the flattery of mimicry but the advancement of Callas’s sublimely uncomplicated concept of bel canto.
In the first half of the Twentieth Century, a soprano’s path to operatic stardom deviated from the course traveled in previous generations by Giuditta Pasta, Jenny Lind, Adelina Patti, and Dame Nellie Melba. With larger theatres came instrumental ensembles and operatic dramas on scales calibrated to fill them, and voices were required to adapt by projecting greater volume over greater distances. By the middle of the Twentieth Century, the vehicles of career-defining triumphs on the world’s operatic stages were more likely to be operas by Verdi, Wagner, or Puccini than the bel canto scores in which prime donne of the Nineteenth Century made their reputations.
The persistent implications of this paradigm shift notwithstanding, the essential tenets of bel canto technique, foremost among which is an inviolable concentration on maintaining purity of line, remained unchanged. Though sung in Italian translation rather than the composer’s German, a 1962 RAI Torino broadcast performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg affirms with an ensemble of voices that seem better-suited to L’elisir d’amore or Don Pasquale than to Wagner repertory—Giuseppe Taddei as Hans Sachs, Bruna Rizzoli as Eva, Luigi Infantino as Walther von Stolzing, and Renato Capecchi as Beckmesser—that there are natural habitats for bel canto even in artistic territory with musical topography very different from that found in the operas of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. Rebeka’s Mimì in Wiener Staatsoper’s November 2018 revival of Puccini’s La bohème perpetuated this employment of bel canto technique in performance of other repertory. In the work of some singers, this sort of stylistic synthesis might be construed as evidence of laziness or incomplete training, but, like Callas, Rebeka exhibits uncommon awareness of the intrinsic bel canto in every piece that she sings.
Expanding a discography that already includes beautifully-sung recordings of operatic arias and scenes by Mozart and Rossini and performances of Vitellia in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito and Verdi’s Luisa Miller, Rebeka débuts on new label Prima Classic with Spirito, an insightfully-curated, lovingly-presented, and superbly-recorded programme of scenes from Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma and Il pirata, Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena, and Gaspare Spontini’s too-little-performed La vestale. Aided by Latvian National Opera’s music librarian Marija Beate Straujupe in an exploration of autograph materials that revealed that, after two centuries of scrutiny by performers and scholars, many discrepancies separate composers’ original intentions from modern performance traditions, Rebeka imbued Spirito with an aura of indefatigable advocacy for this music before singing a note.
The magnitude of her dedication to restoring glamour to this repertory is complemented by the idiomatic performances of the Teatro Massimo di Palermo chorus and orchestra and the elegant, elastic conducting of Jader Bignamini. Spirito is markedly enriched by the participation of a team of artists whose work displays focus on a unified aesthetic goal: with musicianship of this caliber supporting her singing, the listener is freed to contemplate the beauties of Rebeka’s vocal tableaux without fearing that their foundation will crumble beneath her.
Rebeka’s career to date at the Metropolitan Opera, where she débuted in 2011, includes much-lauded outings as Donna Anna and Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Mathilde in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata, and Musetta in Puccini’s La bohème. In October 2017, she sang two performances of the title rôle of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, a part added to her repertory in Trieste in 2016, and she opens Spirito with an assured, affectionately-sung account of the scene in which Bellini’s heroine is introduced to the listener.
Giuditta Pasta, Bellini’s first Norma, uninhibitedly expressed her reservations about the musical and dramatic viability of her entrance aria, the rightly-feared ‘Casta diva.’ To her credit, her apologies were equally uninhibited when the composer’s faith in the music’s power to move audiences was rewarded with an euphoric reception for the piece. No other music in opera surpasses the elongated cantilene of ‘Casta diva’ as a paragon of the purest bel canto, and Rebeka’s singing of the aria exudes profound respect for Bellini’s melodic inspiration. She navigates the ascending phrases with the formidable breath control that the writing demands but so seldom receives, and her clear, unaffected diction elucidates the emotional depth of the composer’s treatment of the text. Here and in all of the scenes on Spirito, she is equally successful in communicating the dramatic trajectories of passages of recitative. Rebeka delivers the cabaletta ‘Ah! bello a me ritorna’ with technical brilliance, managing the music’s tessitura and intricate fiorature with an exuberance that diversifies her depiction of Norma’s temperament. Among the courageous ladies who sing Norma, many sopranos excel in either the aria or the cabaletta: few are the singers who, as Rebeka does on Spirito, fully master all of the music in this daunting scene.
Four years prior to the première of Norma, Bellini enjoyed a resounding success with the introduction of his Il pirata at La Scala, advancing the reputation for melodic fecundity instigated by his earlier work. The rôle of Imogene in the first production of Il pirata was entrusted to Henriette Méric-Lalande, whose connection with Bellini began a year earlier in Naples with the première of Bianca e Gernando and who went on to be the first Adelaide in Bellini’s La straniera in 1829 and the creator of the title rôle in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia in 1833. In the Twentieth Century, Imogene’s music was dominated first by Maria Callas, whose staged performances at La Scala and 1959 Carnegie Hall concert performance with American Opera Society are still discussed with reverence, and then by Montserrat Caballé, whose espousal produced the first studio recording of Il pirata.
Rebeka’s selection of the opera’s final scene for inclusion on Spirito broadens a continuing revival of interest in Il pirata. The melancholic prelude to the opera’s final scene receives from Bignamini and the Palermo musicians a performance of haunting beauty, the exquisite writing for cor anglais and flute delivered with expressive finesse. The soprano makes ‘Oh! s’io potessi’ a very personal utterance, the maelstrom of the character’s feelings churning in the vocalism. Rebeka intones ‘Col sorriso d’innocenza’ with subtlety that heightens the emotional impact of Bellini’s delicately-crafted vocal line. As in the scene from Norma, she utilizes the music linking Imogene’s aria and cabaletta as a portal into the character’s constitution, finding within the composer’s setting of words like ‘Qual suono ferale’ the essence of the psychological trials that Imogene faces in the course of Il pirata. The grim resignation of ‘Oh! Sole! Ti vela di tenebre oscure’ is powerfully realized in Rebeka’s performance, her timbre brightening as waves of anguish and defiance flood the music. Bignamini’s sensible tempo for the cabaletta enables the singer to give every note its due, and she capitalizes on this opportunity to provide a traversal of this music that is notable for both its accuracy and its emotive efficacy.
The title rôle in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda was created in the opera’s 1835 première by another of the Nineteenth Century’s most renowned singers, the Spanish-born Maria Malibran. Daughter of the tenor and pedagogue Manuel García, Rossini’s first Conte Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Malibran was heiress to a vocal tradition that was a cornerstone of bel canto. Joined in the performance of the finale ultima of Maria Stuarda on this disc by tenor Marco Ciaponi as Roberto, the Earl of Leicester, baritone Francesco Paolo Vultaggio as Lord Guglielmo Cecil, soprano Irene Savignano as Anna Kennedy, and bass-baritone Gianluca Margheri as Giorgio Talbot, each of whom sings with discernible involvement, Rebeka established herself in a 2016 Riga concert performance of the opera as an interpreter of La Stuarda with the potential to rival Leyla Gencer’s, Caballé’s, and Beverly Sills’s unforgettable portrayals of the doomed Queen of Scots. She furthers this impression with her graceful but gutsy singing on Spirito.
The controlled conflagration of Rebeka’s singing of Bellini’s music also flickers in her performance of Donizetti’s work. Vitally, the passions that she evinces are always those present in the music. The indignation of a wronged woman enlivens the soprano’s declamation of ‘Io vi rivedo alfin!’ The nobility of her voicing of ‘Deh! Tu di un’umile preghiera’ intimating the character’s aristocratic bearing, this Stuarda is a queen to the marrow of her bones even when facing execution. Again following the emotional courses of the music, Rebeka wrenchingly conveys the gravitas of the sentiments that torment the condemned woman in her final moments. There is nonetheless a serenity in her singing of ‘Ah! Se un giorno da queste ritorte’ that touchingly asserts the heroine’s unwavering belief in the righteousness of her actions. No less unfaltering is Rebeka’s technical acumen. She unflinchingly articulates the passagework and ascends above the stave without grandstanding. There is an undeniable vein of showmanship in this music, but, as Rebeka sings it here, it is as much the character as the singer who displays the marvels of her voice.
The operatic incarnation of the second wife of Henry VIII in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, premièred at Milan’s Teatro Carcano a year to the day before Bellini’s Norma reached the stage of La Scala, was, like Norma, also a Pasta rôle. Callas’s interpretation of the title rôle in La Scala’s groundbreaking 1957 production of Anna Bolena instituted a benchmark to which other singers’ efforts are compared, almost universally unfavorably. Rebeka made her rôle début as Anna Bolena at Opéra National de Bordeaux on 5 November 2018, and like her Maria Stuarda, her inaugural depiction of Anna was already a distinguished portrayal.
The voices of Percy and Smeton in this recorded performance of Anna Bolena’s closing scene are provided by Ciaponi and Savignano, who again sing attractively and characterfully. Rebeka interacts with them and the gruesome reality of Anna’s fate as though on stage, voicing ‘Piangete voi?’ with moving desperation and umbrage. The innate dignity of the soprano’s reading of ‘Al dolce guidami,’ the centerpiece of what is typically described as a mad scene but is in Rebeka’s handling a study of a woman in complete command of her faculties grappling with the consequences of circumstances beyond her control, is enhanced by the unflappable musicality of her phrasing. The ugliness of the character’s impending demise never imperils the tonal beauty with which ‘Che mai sento’ is sung. The interpolated E♭ in alt with which Rebeka resolves her forceful, imaginatively-ornamented account of the cabaletta ‘Coppia iniqua’ sounds slightly strained, but it ably imparts the exasperation of a fiercely proud woman meeting an unjust end, and it excitingly concludes an inspired, intrepid performance of this music.
There is perhaps a parable about opera’s incessant struggle for acceptance beyond the ranks of its devotees to be gleaned from the fact that Saint-Domingue-born soprano Alexandrine-Caroline Branchu is now most remembered by history not for her creation of the rôle of Julie in the 1807 Paris première of Gaspare Spontini’s La vestale but for her brief stint as Napoléon Bonaparte‘s paramour. In terms of frequency of performance, La vestale may be the least-familiar of the operas sampled on Spirito, but Julie is a rôle embraced by acclaimed bel canto divas including Callas, Gencer, Renata Scotto, and Caballé, albeit in Italian translation rather than Spontini’s authentic French.
For this recorded survey of Julie’s scene from Act One of La vestale, Rebeka prefers the original French, and it is apparent from the first words of ‘Ô des infortunés’ that her mastery of French vowels comes within a diphthong’s distance of equaling the quality of her Italian diction. The attention devoted to textual nuances in the Bellini and Donizetti selections is similarly valuable in the soprano’s singing of Spontini’s music. The poise with which she enunciates ‘Toi, que j’implore avec effroi’ befits a priestess of Vesta, but there is no lack of the ardor expected of a young woman in love with a Roman general. Rebeka envelops the vocal line with singing of silken sensuality, her zeal potently limning the conflict between duty and desire that vexes Julie. The meaning of the words and Spontini’s musical response thereto propel this performance of ‘Sur cet autel sacré’ to a lofty summit of expression. The kinship between Julie’s ‘Impitoyables Dieux’ and Elettra’s incendiary ‘D’Oreste, d’ajace’ in Mozart’s Idomeneo, re di Creta is unmistakable, and Rebeka immerses herself in the music’s volatile deluge with Callas-like intensity. Comparisons with Callas and other eminent mistresses of bel canto are inevitable, but one of Rebeka’s most commendable accomplishments on Spirito is honoring the traditions of both the original and later interpreters of the music whilst cultivating her own mesmerizing individuality.
Too often, analyses of bel canto singing are hijacked by obsessions with fanciful coloratura and interpolated high notes. These of course can be enjoyable aspects of bel canto performances, but it is unlikely that Bellini, Donizetti, or Spontini would have cited a singer’s agility or prowess above the stave as the most important trait that a Norma, Imogene, Maria Stuarda, Anna Bolena, or Julie should possess. As the creators of this music would appreciate, her bravura technique and gleaming upper register are but two of the joys of Rebeka’s singing on Spirito. It is the sensitivity of her musical recreations of the plights of five fascinating ladies that is the disc’s heart. Many singers perform and record this repertory, but this recording asserts Marina Rebeka’s manifestation of the true spirito of bel canto.