An Invaluable Addition to Your Library
dwadefoley | New York, New York United States | 04/05/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The "100 Years of Italian Opera" series released by Opera Rara is unique in the annals of opera recordings. However, this installment is especially exciting as it documents the evolution of Italian opera during the 1820's, the decade when romanticism truly began to come into its own on the operatic stage. Opera Rara has lovingly compiled a variety of arcana written by composers famous and forgotten. Included is everything from overtures to arias, duets, ensembles, and entire scenes. Every vocal range is represented, and the dramatic material varies from old school subjects such as figures from mythology and antiquity to English monarchs. This recording merits the highest praise for both its scholarly interest and entertainment value. Opera Rara has outdone itself with a beautifully produced booklet, though with its generous size and content, "tome" might be a more apt moniker. Each selection on the CD has a corresponding article in the booklet which gives the original cast of the opera, the singers interpreting the piece, a detailed history of the composer and the opera in question, an analysis of the music, and an Italian-English translation. Each article is thorough, fascinating, and well-written and substantially increases one's enjoyment and understanding of the selections. As if all this weren't enough, 19th-century drawings of composers, singers, librettists, and costumes are liberally strewn throughout and further serve to make these artists, and the operas they helped to create, come alive. The singers are competent at worst, and at their best are excellent. Most of them are unknown, but some of Opera Rara's mainstays are featured here: Della Jones, Bruce Ford, Marilyn Hill-Smith, Yvonne Kenny, Diana Montague and Alistair Miles are all featured, and are all as wonderful as ever. Among the singers that may be less familiar, contralto Patricia Spence and mezzo Penelope Walker merit particular mention for their wonderful contributions to this recording. David Parry is competent and tasteful in his conducting as we would expect, and the Philharmonia Orchestra is in fine form. The Geoffrey Mitchell Choir provides the choral backup when necessary and also does a fine job. With thirteen composers and twenty-four operas represented, it is only possible to discuss a few high points in the set. Those interested in Donizetti's oeuvre will not be disappointed, as five of his early works, all of which have yet to be revived in modern times, are represented here. Bruce Ford easily tosses off a difficult aria from the 1822 comedy "La Zingara", and Della Jones executes Byzantine coloratura pyrotechnics with confidence and panache in the rondo-finale from the obscure "Alfredo il Grande". A lovely all-female trio from his "Chiara e Serafina", and a grand and impressive bass aria from the tragedy "Il Paria" are other numbers that the Donizetti-phile will treasure. Bellini and Rossini are not forgotten, either. A recently discovered alternative aria from the former's "Adelson e Salvini" shows that even in his earliest works, Bellini was true to the lyrical, melancholy style we associate with his masterpieces. And the first of the Rossini pieces offered, a duet from "Zelmira", sounds for all the world like Bellini, despite predating the latter's first opera by 3 years.Among the other composers featured are the prolific and underrated Pacini and Mercadante, both of whose careers eventually spanned Verdi's middle period. Pacini's "Il Contestabile di Chester", an 1829 work based on a Walter Scott novel, provides us with an exquisite love duet for soprano and en travesti mezzo-soprano. The woebegone farewell of the star-crossed lovers is interpreted with beauty and artistry by Yvonne Kenny and Susan McCullough. Della Jones again rises to the occasion in a ferociously difficult aria from Mercadante's "Nitocri", yet she is confidently in control of the death-defying leaps, scales, and trills that pepper the aria and which would so easily confound a singer of lesser abilities. A highly dramatic act finale from Mercadante's "Amleto" is also included, this selection featuring choral and ensemble writing that is so dramatic we have difficulty believing it is from an opera of 1822. Carlo Conti, a composer with whom almost no one this side of paradise is familiar, contributes a wilting and sad Bellinian lament from "Giovanna Shore" of 1829. This piece resembles a traditional heroine's aria di sortita, but it contains enough participation from the two basses that it becomes a trio. The best surprise of all comes from the selections by Carlo Coccia, a composer whose masterpiece "Caterina di Guisa" was recently successfully revived in Italy. This album features a remarkably beautiful duet from his "Rosmonda", a setting of the same libretto used for Donizetti's "Rosmonda d'Inghilterra." Again featuring Yvonne Kenny, this time with Diana Montague, the scene parallels Rosmonda's introductory scene in Donizetti's opera, but allows the pageboy Arturo to participate fully. The highlight of the entire set, however, is the final scene of Coccia's "Maria Stuart", an opera based on the same Schiller play that inspired Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda". Coccia's handling of the scene in which Mary of Scots confronts Elizabeth I is not as shocking as Donizetti's, but nevertheless brilliantly builds the tension in the Queens' encounter until they turn on each other. Coccia's librettist preserves more of Schiller's characters and this allows nine voices in the ensembles, making them unusually rich and varied in both their harmonies and counterpoint. The fact that these were two of Coccia's LEAST successful works had me salivating to hear more of his operas performed. Some of the other numbers, while not representing the best composers or operas of the day, nevertheless give us a more complete picture of the artistic climate in which some of the masterpieces were produced. This set is indispensible to anyone interested in early 19th century Italian opera, and may generate such an interest in those who lack it!"
Another feather in Opera Rara's cap
Michael K. Halloran | 11/26/1999
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This installment in Opera Rara's "Hundred Years of Italian Opera" project again reveals a treasure trove of lovely melody and high operatic drama. The examples are well-chosen and really lovely, making one wonder at their neglect. One can almost hear history in the making, as these composers push the boundaries of musico-dramatic conventions. Listen, for example, to the excerpt from Mercadante's "Amleto," a Italian version of "Hamlet" which plays fast and loose with Shakespeare but is marvelous on a musical level. Mercadante includes whistling piccolos in the orchestration, which sound eerily like human screams, a truly bone-chilling effect. I was reminded of the "Dies Irae" of Verdi's Requiem. There is also a lovely aria a due from "Rosmonda" by Coccia, sung deliciously by Yvonne Kenny and Diana Montague. Kenny, who is featured prominently in this set, has lost some of the ease of her highest notes but sings with a beautiful line and an alertness to the dramatic situation. Other singers include Nuccia Focile, Della Jones, Bruce Ford, and Alistair Miles. An essential set for the lover of bel canto and for those who enjoy discovering (unjustly) forgotten works."
100 Years of Italian Opera
John Butler | Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada | 10/29/2001
(4 out of 5 stars)
"It was a wonderful experience to hear many of the songs in this series for the first time, and be introduced to composers one had never heard of before. It's time to retire the warhorses of opera for a while, and bring out some new (old) music. Mr. Parry gets full marks for this series, and I hope they release some more of them soon-- does anyone know why none have appeared since the 1820-30 CD? A slight grainy quality to some of the works and an occasional variation in recorded volume was a bit annoying, but on the whole these discs offer a variety of emotions, some memorable melodies (bel canto isn't all Bellini and Donizetti), and some real finds, such as Paer and Mayer."