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Sunday, October 9, 2022


William Charlton-Perkins writes a regular feature for the media titled Classical Notes.

This one is titled Bel Canto Banquet


The Bel Canto repertoire has dominated my listening in recent weeks, while exploring some notable titles in Opera Rara’s back catalogue.  Three releases from the past decade or so offer exciting listening. 

 La Straniera

La Straniera was the first Bellini work to enter the Opera Rara discography in 2007. Starring Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi in the title role, this compelling recording makes a strong case for Bellini’s tautly crafted piece, often regarded as the Cinderella of the short-lived composer’s 11-opera canon.

Composed in 1828, it is less florid and more declamatory in style than its better-known siblings, La Sonnambula, Norma and I Puritani. Felice Romani’s melodramatic libretto proved an effective stringboard for some arresting musical encounters as cornerstone moments in Bellini’s dramatic score. Set in Brittany around 1200. Its plot, with its tragic denouement, centres around the mistaken identity of the veiled title-role character, Alaide, whom the local populace mistake for a witch, little suspecting she is, in fact, the exiled wife of the King of France.

If the part occasionally proves a bit of a stretch for Ciofi’s slim-line lyric soprano, her keen dramatic focus and nuanced empathy for Bellini’s elegiac idiom are palpable, her patrician phrasing and limpid, velvety tones, soaring aloft in the opera’s climactic rondo finale, harking back thrillingly to the heyday of the lovely American diva, Anna Moffo.

As Benjamin Walton’s exhaustive booklet note indicates, Bellini wanted the legendary Rubini for the tenor role, Arturo, but his favourite was unavailable. This accounts for the lack of a punchy tenor part in this score. Also, perhaps for the work’s low ratings. Mark Stone and Enkelejda Shkosa, however, make ample amends in the baritone and mezzo parts of Baron Valdeburgo and Isoletta. The London Philharmonic and the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir respond with panache to David Parry's fiery conducting.

Il Pirata

Parry and the LPO also feature in Opera Rara’s 2012 release of Bellini's Il Pirata, starring José Bros, Carmen Giannattasio, and Ludovic Tézier. Composed in 1827 for La Scala, Milan, the work was written for three of the greatest singers of the age, Giovanni Battista Rubini, Henriette Meric-Lalande and Luigi Lablanche.

In common with all but one of Bellini's mature operas, this too is set to a Romani libretto. Its `sturm-und-drang' plot provides plenty of meat for lusty emoting: Imogene has been married against her will, in a futile attempt to save her father's life. She is deserted by her lover, Ernesto, the bandit title role character, and is accused of adultery by her husband. He is killed by Ernesto, who is then condemned to death. Imogen promptly loses her reason and, true to form, dispatches one of the most celebrated mad scenes in all opera, complete with a haunting cor anglaise obligato.

Opera Rara's principals leave nothing to be desired. Ms Giannattasio, a pupil of the legendary Turkish diva and bel canto specialist, Leyla Gencer, displays magnificent attack in the opera's notoriously demanding duets and ensembles, culminating in her fearlessly sung grande scena. The finely etched vocality of Mr Bros is distinguished by an elegance of line that recalls the great Alfredo Kraus, while Tezier's visceral baritone provides the ideal foil for his bright tenor tones.

Caterina Cornaro

Donizetti's Caterina Cornaro, released by Opera Rara in 2013, is again graced by the instantly recognisable Giannattasio, here putting her stamp on the rarely performed opera’s formidable title role. Composed for the San Carlo Opera House in Naples, Caterina premiered in 1844, just four years before Donizetti finally succumbed to the ravages of syphilis and the insanity that overtook him in the twilight of his life.

Almost incredibly, the embattled composer’s creative powers remained intact during the creation of this, his final opera. His powerfully charged vocal and orchestral writing enlivens this 15th century Venetian royal saga of intrigue and betrayal with a sure hand that amplifies and carries forward its dramatic charge.

As Gerardo, the opera's tenor lead, Cape Town-born Colin Lee intrepidly essays the high-lying tessitura of his music, keenly off-setting Ms Giannattasio's heroic account of the opera's title role. To sample the lady in full flight, listen to her all-stops-out rendering of Caterina's grand aria and cabaletta finale. Or indeed the alternative ending, generously included as an appendix.

Troy Cook's burnished baritone proves a perfect fit for the role of Lusingnano, King of Cyprus - Caterina's husband, whose dramatic death in the closing moments of the drama leaves the opera's prima donna a grieving centre-stage presence, as the curtain comes down.

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