Bel Canto Banquet

14 Feb 2015

Bel Canto Banquet

-William Charlton-Perkins

22 December 2011


The Bel Canto repertoire has dominated my listening and viewing in recent weeks, as the passing of Dame Joan Sutherland has prompted personal revisits to much of the great soprano’s recorded legacy. With this in mind, and with the HD screening of Met’s engaging Don Pasquale at Cinema Nouveau still resonating, I thought I’d share some impressions of a number of recent recordings that feature new generation exponents in this field, by way of suggestions for readers to explore as online shoppers, or as last minute gift requests via the internet.


Three releases from the UK’s ever-enterprising Opera Rara label offer exciting listening. A rare recording of Bellini’s La Straniera, starring the feisty Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi in the title role, makes a strong case for this seldom heard piece, which is often regarded as the Cinderella of the short-lived composer’s 11-opera canon.


Composed in 1828, the work’s high-voltage melodrama of a libretto proves an effective stringboard for some arresting musical encounters as the cornerstones of Bellini’s score, which is perhaps less florid and more declamatory in style than those of its better known siblings, La Sonnambula, Beatrice di Tenda, Norma and I Puritani. 


While the title role of Alaide proves a bit of a stretch for Ciofi’s lyric soprano, her all-or-nothing commitment and nuanced performance are most compelling.  As Opera Rara’s typically exhaustive booklet note explains, Bellini wanted the great Rubini for the tenor role, Arturo, but his favourite was unavailable due to other commitments.


This accounts for the lack of a punchy tenor part in this score, also perhaps for the work’s low ratings.  Mark Stone and Enkelejda Shkosa, however, make ample amends in the baritone and mezzo parts of Baron Valdeburgo and Isoletta. The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Geoffrey Mitchell Choir respond fully to David Parry's fiery conducting.


Parry is also at the helm of the London Philharmonic in the other two Opera Rara releases featured here, Rossini’s dramatic masterwork, Ermione, composed in 1819 for the San Carlo opera house in Naples, and Donizetti’s 1833 lyric tragedy, Parisina. Both works offer superb opportunities for a star soprano in their equally meaty title roles, which were created respectively by two leading prima donnas of the early 19th century, Isabella Colbran and Carolina Ungher.


Here both roles are entrusted to Carmen Giannattasio. With equal aplomb, she sails through the hazards of Rossini’s fiendishly taxing virtuoso passages and Donizetti’s emotionally draining vocal high-wire of a part, the latter culminating in what must surely be one of the most purple death scenes in the opera repertoire.


Following in the footsteps of Marilyn Horne, coloratura mezzo soprano Patricia Bardon makes a meal of her substantial role as Andromaca in the Racine-inspired Rossini work, as does British tenor Paul Nilon in the terrifyingly demanding role of Pirro.


Likewise the Spanish lyric tenor Jose Bros is a major plus factor in the Donizetti work, taking full advantage of his role of Ugo, which offers similar vocal rewards to that of Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor. As always, Opera Rara reward purchasers of their luxuriously packaged recordings with wonderfully informative accompanying booklets. Each of the three recordings touched on here is well worth investing in.


So is Decca’s new DVD release of Bellini’s melodically inspired final opera, I Puritani. Captured live last year at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, this stars the Peruvian tenor, Juan Diego Florez (billed these days as the 21st Century’s King of the High C’s) in one of his most thrilling roles, opposite opera’s exciting new discovery, the young Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze as the mentally dicey Elvira.


While the latter’s sometimes shrill top notes hardly efface memories of Sutherland’s golden high register in one of her hallmark roles, the new girl on the block nonetheless makes the fragile heroine of this piece her own, while her Angelina Jolie look-alike persona goes a long way towards winning audience support. Bass baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo and baritone Gabriele Viviani provide thrills too, and all but bring the house down in their show-stopping duet, Il rival salvar du dei at the end of Act II. Pier’Alli’s self-effacingly stark staging deliberately casts the focus onto Bellini’s marvellous score, which is stylishly conducted here by Michele Mariotti.


All recordings mentioned here are readily available from online retail outlets, if not locally.


[Republished courtesy of The Mercury newspaper]

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