Francesco Benucci may not be a household name to opera-lovers today; this despite the fact that several of the castrati of roughly the same period have made an imprint even for audiences more than two hundred years after the singers' own time. Benucci was however a great name during his lifetime. Born in Livorno in Italy, presumably around 1745, he became one of the most revered buffo singers, first in Italy where within a handful of years he was a frequent guest at the leading opera houses, before he in 1783 was hired by the Viennese court theatre. He stayed there for twelve years and during that period appeared in a lot of operas, often in roles tailor-made for his voice and acting ability. Not least Mozart found in him an ideal singer for several of his greatest characters. On this adventurous disc Matthew Rose and Arcangelo present overtures and arias—and a couple of duets—from operas by five important composers of the period: more than five quarters of an hour of delicious music performed with elegance and vitality and—not least—tongue-in-cheek humour.
Arcangelo have three overtures to themselves and their playing is superlative: lively and powerful in Paisiello’s Il re Teodoro in Venezia, dark and ill-foreboding in Don Giovanni and with mercurial vividness in Le nozze di Figaro. In the Paisiello opera Benucci sang the role of the inn-keeper Taddeo in 1784. Incidentally he sang Bartolo the year before in the same composer’s better-known Il barbiere di Siviglia when it was produced in Vienna. When Mozart, a few years later, wrote his sequel to Barbiere, Le nozze di Figaro, Benucci was given the title role. It is here represented by Figaro’s three great arias. For some reason they are not presented in the right order—the active Aprite un po’ quegli occhi is inserted between the two arias from act I, but that matters little in a recital of this kind. What does matter is that they are sung with such style, such involvement and such an appropriate voice. Somewhat surprisingly Matthew Rose is here described as a baritone and he certainly has all the necessary top notes for all the roles here, but his basic tone is darker and he extends straight down in the basso profondo register—an impressive range. This is really magnificent singing—and acting with vocal means. I would love to hear him in a complete recording of the role.
Another great Mozart role that Benucci made his own was Leporello in Don Giovanni. He didn’t sing in the premiere in Prague in October 1787—Felice Ponziani did the honours then—but when the opera was mounted in Vienna half a year later, Benucci took over and Mozart even composed a duet for Leporello and Zerlina specifically with Benucci in mind. It is included as the final number on the present disc and it is a great duet. Matthew Rose audibly relishes performing it and Anna Devin’s Zerlina is lovely. Long before that we have heard Rose deliver one of the very best versions of the Catalogue aria. Another role for my list of desiderata.
The third Mozart role written for Benucci was Guglielmo in Così fan tutte. Here Mozart encountered problems. He wrote a grand aria for the singer to excel in, a kind of catalogue aria in fact, and scored it with trumpets and timpani for dramatic effect. Here, for once, Mozart overreached himself—the aria was found unsuitable for the dramatic situation and was discarded and replaced with the shorter and lighter 'Non siate ritrosi'. Rivolgete has become a popular number for opera recitals—it has indeed formidable musical and dramatic qualities—and occasionally has also been performed in its intended place in the opera. It clearly shows the capacity of Benucci—and of Matthew Rose. His is a riveting reading and he negotiates the technical stumbling-blocks with superiority. 'Donne mie' is also excellent, as is the duet with Dorabella, the latter sung by Katherine Watson, in 2012 winner of Glyndebourne’s John Christie Award. Having hitherto mostly sung in baroque opera, her Dorabella is lighter than the darker mezzo-sopranos who traditionally take on the role; none the worse for that.
While Mozart’s operas have remained in the standard opera repertoire, the remaining composers’ works have by and large been relegated to secondary positions. In Mozart’s time they were highly regarded, often more so than Mozart. Take Martin y Soler, whose Una cosa rara, premiered six months after Le nozze di Figaro. Within five years it had been mounted in Dresden, Prague, Milan, Venice, St Petersburg, London, Madrid, Barcelona and Paris. It was so well-known that Mozart quotes an extract from it in Don Giovanni the following year. It is easy to understand its popularity. The two arias presented here are highly attractive. I saw it many years ago at the Drottningholm Court Theatre and recall that I was stunned by its melodic riches. Take Antonio Salieri, whose Axur, re d’Ormus was premiered in January 1788 and which by 1805 had been played a hundred times in Vienna. It was also Joseph II’s favourite opera. The aria 'Idol vano d’un popol codardo' may explain its success: it is well wrought and melodically attractive. The somewhat earlier La grotta di Trofonio is here represented by the wide-ranging aria 'Spirti invisibili', which is dramatic and mystical. Salieri wrote in his manuscript: 'for it to have effect the voice that sings it must be of great power, and dark'—characteristics that fit Francesco Benucci as well as Matthew Rose.
It seems that the role as Frasconio in Giuseppe Sarti’s I contrattempi was one of the first to be written specifically for Benucci. This was in Venice in 1778, five years before he moved to Vienna. Sarti had obviously found out that the singer had an aptitude for falsetto and heightened the comic effect of the aria through its use. Matthew Rose has the same aptitude.
If there is any justice in this world this disc should be a bestseller and I urge readers to invest in it for the repertoire and for the magnificent singing.