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Bel Canto Weekend

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Donizetti, Anna Bolena, M. Callas, G. Simionato, N. Rossi-Lemeni, Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, G. Gavazzeni
(live, 1957)

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Bellini, La Sonnambula, C. Bartoli, J. D. Flórez, I. D'Arcangelo, Orchestra La Scintilla, A. De Marchi

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W. Ashbrook, Donizetti and
His Operas

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P. Gossett, Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera
This weekend at Ionarts will be largely devoted to listening to (hopefully) beautiful voices, beginning with tonight's Vocal Arts D.C. recital by the redoubtable Stephanie Blythe (the first half at least -- life is too short to listen to opera singers perform dinner theater music) and followed by two bel canto classics, the opening of Washington National Opera's production of Donizetti's Anna Bolena on Saturday and Washington Concert Opera's performance of Bellini's La Sonnambula on Sunday afternoon (if you buy now, ask about the half-price tickets, announced yesterday). The last two were our top picks for the month of September, and we have spent some time this week listening to two outlier recordings of these works.

Anna Bolena is an opera that has yet to be reviewed live in the history of Ionarts, since we missed the production at the Metropolitan Opera last year, the first in that august house's history, in which Anna Netrebko did not quite come up to snuff. The La Scala Anna Bolena, recorded live in 1957 (EMI), has the sound drawbacks expected of a live recording, removing it from consideration for most desirable recording of this opera. The attraction, of course, is that it features Maria Callas in the title role, one for which she was justly renowned and in her only available recording. There are better options for overall sound and for the beauty of singing in the title role, including Leyla Gencer (Andromeda), Beverly Sills (DG), and Joan Sutherland (Decca). The opera, premiered to acclaim in December 1830 in Milan with the dream billing of mezzo-soprano Giuditta Pasta and Giovanni Battista Rubini as the doomed lovers (a year in which the prolific composer had already completed three new operas for the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples), has yet to get the critical edition treatment in the new Donizetti Complete Works, but William Ashbrook covered the background extensively in his magisterial study of Donizetti's operas.

Donizetti made some major revisions to the opera after the premiere, not unusual as he sought to tailor the music to his cast. It was a watershed moment, as Donizetti notes that the opera, "externally at least, marks the great turning-point in Donizetti's career." Ashbrook notes that Donizetti finally had a good libretto to work with (by Felice Romani, also available in English), and the many affecting moments in it offered him "the dramatic emphasis he had long been seeking," releasing in him "a vein of Romantic pathos that was to become his particular trademark." It is this quality that is perfectly suited to the timbre of Callas's voice, skilled as she was at deploying the grain and power of her unusual tone to a meaty role. Conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni kept the pace moving (along with the cuts often made to the score, preventing the performance from running too long), while allowing the singers the room needed to manipulate their complicated lines. Mezzo-soprano Giulietta Simionato makes a cutting but also sympathetic Giovanna, lovely in the duets with Callas, while Nicola Rossi-Lemeni is a glowering presence as Enrico and Gianni Raimondi is an ardent Percy.

La Sonnambula was premiered on March 6, 1831, also in the Teatro Carcano, the main competition for La Scala in Milan (we last reviewed it live at the Baltimore Opera in 2005). It was also created for mezzo-soprano Giuditta Pasta as prima donna and Rubini in the lead tenor role and used a libretto by Felice Romani. Of this coincidence, Ashbrook noted, "It would be difficult to find a parallel instance of one opera house in a single three-month season introducing two operas of such high merit as Anna Bolena and La Sonnambula. From this season on, the names of Donizetti and Bellini, as long as the latter lived, would be linked as the two outstanding Italian composers of opera (Rossini having retired)." Philip Gossett, in his entertaining book Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera, lists La sonnambula as one of the few Italian operas of the period that "exist in a unique version identifiable with the composer," mostly because they were staged only once. Cecilia Bartoli is the first mezzo to make a recording of the role as it was originally written, using the new critical edition by Luca Zoppelli and Alessandro Roccatagliati, which undoes the transpositions and vocal extensions that refashioned the title role for high soprano and reverses the cuts that had become widely accepted.

Whether you will be interested in this recording largely depends on your opinion of Bartoli's voice, which some listeners find affected and over-agitated. As someone who not only tolerates but admires Bartoli's voice, I was naturally attracted to this beautifully packaged 2-CD set and, although others may be turned off by the sometimes kooky characterization of Bartoli's performance, found it compelling. Also attractive is the playing of the Orchestra La Scintilla, a fine historically informed performance ensemble here ably conducted by Alessandro De Marchi. The rest of the cast, if anything, will be of greater interest to a wider array of listeners, beginning with Juan Diego Flórez who is an excellent Elvino, a role that Bellini tailored to Rubini's unusually high-placed voice with three pieces "written in keys that seemed even in the early 1830s to be stratospheric." Most tenors sing these pieces in lowered transpositions (including Flórez, in a rare deviation from Bellini's original score in this recording). Such changes put Amina's role, when she interjects lines in pieces sung by Elvino, into low mezzo territory. "In short, as the role is printed in modern editions," Gossett observes, "Amina is a mezzo-soprano when she sings with Elvino, a soprano when she sings alone. No wonder singers have such a difficult time wrapping their vocal cords around the part." Ildebrando D'Arcangelo's Rodolfo, Gemma Bertagnolli's biting Lisa, and a generally fine supporting cast round out the disc.

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