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If it were not for the operas of Gioachino Rossini, the operatic repetory of the mezzo soprano would lack some of its most interesting characters and music. Silvia Tro Santafé proves herself a true ‘Rossini Mezzo’ in this collection of scenes and arias, accompanied by the excellent Orquesta Sinfónica de Narvarra and Lluís Vich Vocalis.
By chance, during most of his career, the composer was closely associated with mezzos. Firstly, there was Marietta Marcolini, an established singer noted for her comic roles, who took the 19 year-old composer under her wing. In gratitude, the composer wrote starring roles for her in five of his early operas, all but one of them comedies. The first was the wickedly funny L’equivoco stravagante premiered in Bologna in 1811. Its libretto really reverses the definition of opera quotes above. In this opera, the tenor stops the baritone from marrying the mezzo and does it by telling him that she is a castrato singer in drag. Unfortunately, this was considered so scandalous that it was taken off after only a couple of performances. Next came Ciro in Babalonia, not merely the exception in that it was not comic, but it was written as an opera to be performed in Lent and therefore based upon a Biblical story, the fall of Belshazzar’s Babylon by Cyrus King of Persia. This was followed the same year (1812) by La Pietra del paragone, in which the Marcolini role disguises herself as her twin brother, a form of drag evidently acceptable for the period. Marcolini did not appear at the first performance of Rossini’s earliest great success, Tancredi, but she appeared as the heroine in his next comedy, L’Italiana in Algeri (1813). The last Rossini premiere she took part in was Sigismondo (1814) a total failure at the time. The following year, Rossini was in Naples with a remarkably generous contract to write one opera a year for a payment that included a share of the profits from the opera house’s gambling tables.
The first of these was Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, written for Isabella Colbran, then at the peak of her fame and the darling of the Neapolitan audience. History dictates that Elisabetta was not to get her man, but Colbran fared rather better, she later married her composer (at the time of the opera she was involved with the Impresario who had given Rossini his contract). It is sometimes said that Colbran was a soprano—at the time the terms were not classified quite as strictly as they are now—but it seems clear that she was a mezzo with a high extension to the voice. What is now sometimes called rather unattractively with its medical suggestion, a mezzosoprano acuto. The parts he wrote Colbran lie noticeably higher than those he wrote for Marcolini.
Rossini wrote leading for roles for Colbran in eight further operas, all for Naples. These include Desdemona in Otello, the title-roles in Armida and Zelmira and Elena in La Donna del Lago. They left Naples and married in 1822 but her voice was showing signs of strain and he wrote only one further opera for his wife, Semiramide (1823). They later separated, but Rossini took care of her until her death permitted him to re-marry and he always loyally maintained that she was one of the greatest interpreters of his music.
There is a further reason why Rossini is particularly kind to the mezzo. He usually followed the baroque tradition of casting the male lead in a serious opera as a mezzo trouser role. The tenor as hero was a development of romantic opera—a norm that was established as Rossini’s serious operas were fading from the repertory. This expectation had to be broken before they could be re-established on opera stages in the last forty years.
The music for three of the characters in this recital are not just trouser roles, but they are also all three the heroes of their operas, though in the case of the rather undashing Malcolm in La donna del lago he is only this by virtue of the fact that the heroine loves him and they are united at the end. These trouser roles are always written lower than their heroines, which is one reason why the higher roles are now often considered to be soprano territory.
Cavatina (L’Italiana in Algeri)
Rossini’s first success was his first opera for major opera house, the unjustly neglected La pietra del paragone. Its neglect may partly be ascribed to the fact that his next opera, Tancredi was a sensational success. It was perhaps fortunate that his next commission was a comedy, especially as it was also premiered in Venice a mere three months later. Very different from the gentler more sentimental La pietra del paragone, with L’Italiana what we think of as Rossini comedy was born. It was perhaps the greatest gift he gave to La Marcolini, for the heroine dominates the madcap plot in which she single-handedly foils the marriage plans of Mustafa, fends off the unwanted attentions of Taddeo and rescues her lover Lindoro and the whole Italian party from the clutches of the Algerians. In her first aria, her initial dismay at being taken prisoner turns to laconic acceptance of her plight and determination to use her feminine wiles to her best advantage.
Coro, Recitativo e Rondò (L’Italiana in Algeri)
The first act of L’Italiana is so perfect that the second can seem an anti-climax. All rests on the shoulders of the Isabella to carry the second act through. She decides she needs the help of the men who were captured with her and who are now far too resigned to their fate as Mustapha’s slaves for her liking. She attempts in this second act aria to inspire this feeble bunch by appealing to their sense of patriotism.
Recitativo e cavatina (Tancredi)
The success of Tancredi inspired a sort of hysteria. Stendhal considered it to be Rossini’s masterpiece, but that was because he considered it to be the composer’s most Italian opera (in comparison with Zelmira which he thought to be his most Teutonic). Both operas are based upon French models, which probably encouraged Stendhal in his sweeping judgments. In the case of Tancredi, it is a play by Voltaire. However, because it was written for Venice, it had to be provided with a happy ending as that was the Venetian tradition—the same tradition required a happy ending to be rewritten for the Neapolitan Otello. Rossini however insisted that the librettist supplied an alternative tragic conclusion that was first performed shortly after in Ferrara.
Tancredi is a trouser role and in his first aria, he reflects on his (illegal and dangerous) return from exile to his native Syracuse and his hopes to see his love, Amenaide. The popularity of this aria throughout the nineteenth century is attested by the fact that Wagner parodies it in Die Meistersinger.
Finale secondo: Coro e Scena (La Cenerentola)
Originally, this aria formed the conclusion to Il Barbiere, where it was sung by the Count. It is so much better suited to its new home that it is rarely heard in the original position; I think for three main reasons. Firstly, Il Barbiere is closer to the rapid pace of farce, while most of Cenerentola is slower and more gentle (it is a surprisingly long opera considering it is supposed to have been written in less than three weeks), and a lengthy aria suits it better. Secondly, the Count is not solely at the heart of the opera, it is also most definitely about Rosina, so an aria sung by one of them leaves the other politely smiling fixedly for longer than most divas care to. Cenerentola on the other hand is about the protagonist, any Prince would do really, and so this is not a problem. Lastly, it is about the journey from scullery to throne, and the aria forms a fitting image of royalty. She delivers and you will sit and listen.]
Recitativo e cavatina (La donna del lago)
For one who was once a high priest of Romanticism, the works of Sir Walter Scott mostly gather dust on bookshelves. For the first half of his literary career he wrote poems and only turned to novels around 1814, and it is upon a poem that La donna del lago, which appeared in 1819, is based. It cannot claim to be the first Scott-inspired opera; the earliest, which is based upon the same poem as Rossini’s opera, seems to be The Knight of Snowdoun (Henry Bishop and others) in 1811. His popularity as a source may be gauged by Guy Mannering (partly by Mozart’s pupil Thomas Attwood) which appeared in 1816 only a year later than the novel. It is often claimed that Rossini here for the first time abandoned his neo-Classical stance for the charms of Romanticism, but curiously the events of Elisabetta closely mirror those of Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth. The only problem was that it was not yet written. There was clearly something in the air.
The plot concerns events in the life of King James V of Scotland, mostly disguised, for reasons best known to himself, as Uberto. He falls in love with Elena who not only loves Malcolm but is forced by her father, Douglas, to become betrothed to Rodrigo. The opera is blessed with a relatively happy ending—no one seems to mind about the death of poor Rodrigo—when the King forgives everybody and Elena is allowed to marry her Malcolm. In his first aria, he has determined to join the King’s enemies and comes to find Douglas to tell him, but alone he thinks of his fond memories of Elena.
Aria (La donna del lago)
Malcolm, on the latter side, is taking a hopefully well-earned rest from the battle that is raging between the King’s men and the opposing Highlanders. He is told that Rodrigo has been killed and Elena has gone to the Palace to seek her father. He determines to follow her and to attempt to rescue her even if it costs him his life. Swashbuckling sentiments, but the ensuing happy end has more to do with the King’s clemency than anything Malcolm does.
Recitativo e cavatina (Semiramide)
Rossini’s final opera for Italy was written for Venice, perhaps that is why Semiramide deliberately eschews the experimentation of his Neapolitan operas and returns to his greatest Venetian success, Tancredi. Both are adaptations by Gaetano Rossi of tragedies by Voltaire. Rossini was able to get away with the original ending in Venice because though it ends with the death of the title-role, she is an anti-heroine who had murdered her husband and usurped the throne of Babylon. Her son, Arsace, who had escaped his mother’s murderous rampage is able to take the throne and restore the status quo. Appropriately to a drama that calls for spectacular costumes and effects, the score is the most sumptuous of all of Rossini’s Italian operas.
Eccomi alfine in Babilonia is Arsace’s “presentation” aria. He has returned from the military campaign summoned by a secret message from Semiramide. Mystified by this, he also thinks of his love for the Princess Azema. He is not aware that she has summoned him because, not recognising him, she has fallen in love with him. An Oedipal conundrum only resolved when he accidently kills her.
Tim Coleman © 2009