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Sunday, June 5, 2022


Arts journalist William Charlton-Perkins of CopyDog reviews the two recent Opera Rara Classics.

Since its founding in 1970, Opera Rara, the trail blazing British record label, has served the cause of Opera with unfailing devotion and distinction. For five decades it has fulfilled its mission of bringing to light unjustly neglected scores, drawn mainly from the first half of the 19th Century. While much of the company’s burgeoning catalogue has remained in circulation, some items have not. Understandably perhaps, given the rarefied nature of the repertoire from which it is mined.

(Right: The cover for the Donizetti boxset)

Last September, Opera Rara ended its 50th anniversary celebrations by issuing a limited-edition boxset titled Donizetti in the 1830s. Restoring to circulation three operas composed at the height of the Italian master’s popularity, this 7-CD set, branded as Opera Rara Classics, comprises Il Diluvio Universale (The Great Flood) of 1830; Ugo Conte di Parigi (Hugo, Count of Paris) of 1832; and L’assedio di Calais (The Siege of Calais) of 1836.

Remastered to state-of-the-art audio standards, the set is accompanied by a newly commissioned essay by Donizetti specialist and Opera Rara’s Dramaturg, Roger Parker. Featured in the casts of the latter two operas is the great Welsh mezzo soprano, Della Jones, a stalwart of the company’s stable of artists during its early years. Testifying to the spirit of drive and motivation endemic to Opera Rara’s operational DNA, Miss Jones recalls how limited funds meant she had to record her taxing Act 1 scena from Ugo in a one,15-minute take. Indeed, the feistiness of this bravura artist’s singing provides many a highpoint in one’s listening experience, as do the contributions of her compatriots, Janet Price and Eiddwen Harrhy. Likewise, the contributions of the Australian coloratura soprano Yvonne Kenny, and South African baritone, Christian du Plessis, to mention just a few others.

Each of the three operas restored here benefits from a keenly perceptive conductor at its helm. Recorded in 1977, Ugo is led by Alun Francis, while L’assedio, recorded in 1988, has David Parry on the podium. Il Diluvio, from 2005, is conducted by Giuliano Carella, with Scottish coloratura soprano Majella Cullagh, American tenor Colin Lee and Italian Baritone Mirco Palazzi leading the committed cast. Well worth investing in, this valuable set.

(Left: The cover for the Rossini boxset)

So, in equal measure, is the follow-up Opera Rara Classics release, the 8-CD Rossini in 1819 set, which came out in February this year. Restoring to circulation three highly different Opera Serie masterpieces that flowed from the astonishingly fecund pen of Rossini at the height of his powers during the golden years of his Italian career, the set opens with Bianca e Falliero (2000), written for La Scala, Milan. The hugely demanding work is performed here with great panache by a cast headed by Majella Cullagh with the American superstar mezzo, Jennifer Larmore in the title roles, with British tenor Barry Banks showing his stratospheric paces to fine effect, alongside the bravura Italian basso, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo. David Parry again shows his expertise throughout.

The other two operas featured are: the revolutionary, convention breaking Ermione (2009), based on a classical drama by Racine, and the overtly romantic, La Donna Del Lago (2006), the first of many operatic takes on the works of Sir Walter Scott. Both the latter were for the famed San Carlo opera house in Naples. Each boasted a cast of legendary virtuosi, headed by the Spanish prima diva, Isabella Colbran, the company’s resident Prima Donna, and the composer’s soon-to-be first wife. Here, Colbran’s roles are taken by the Italian soprano, Carmen Giannattasio. In a promotional video accompanying the digital version of the release of Ermione, the diva shares a touching memory with conductor David Parry of the emotion-charged moments in the finale of the opera’s recording session.

This speaks to another of those close-to-the-edge, behind-the-scenes elements that so often prevail in Opera Rara’s work. The blazing intensity that informs Ms Giannattasio’s assumption of the Racine-inspired heroine, combined with her tender rendition of the role of Elena in La Donna del Lago, are reason enough for bel canto enthusiasts to acquire this set. In each, her performance is more than offset by the singing of her fellow cast members. Not least among these are those of tenors Colin Lee, Paul Nilon, Gregory Kunde and Kenneth Tarver, and of mezzo soprano Patricia Bardon. La Donna del Lago was recorded live at the Edinburgh Festival under the baton of Maurizio Benini, while the other two works had David Parry at the helm.

Glories abound in each of the six operas reviewed here. Each, written at the height of the Bel Canto era, makes extreme demands of accomplishment of its performers. Each, correspondingly, yields high returns of visceral and aesthetic pleasure to the listener. Donizetti in the 1830’s and Rossini in 1819 are available online from; and from retail platforms such as Amazon.

William Charlton-Perkins

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