BELLINI Bianca e Gernando
Here’s an operatic ‘first’ from the Rossini in Wildbad festival which isn’t by the Swan of Pesaro himself. Bianca e Gernando was Bellini’s first professional opera (after his student work Adelson e Salvini, recently resuscitated by Opera Rara, 5/17). Its 1826 premiere was cancelled at the last minute and eventually given a few months later, headed by Henriette Méric-Lalande and Giovanni Battista Rubini in the title-roles. Bellini revised it two years later as Bianca e Fernando (1828) when, after the success at La Scala of Il pirata, he was commissioned by Genoa but had little time to write a new opera. The revised version has been previously released but this is the premiere recording of Bellini’s first thoughts.
The opera is based on Carlo Roti’s Bianca e Fernando alla tomba di Carlo IV, duca di Agrigento. Bellini and librettist Domenico Gilardoni had to change the name to Gernando because Ferdinando was the name of the heir to the throne at the time and therefore couldn’t be used on a royal stage. The plot concerns the dastardly Filippo (a baritone, needless to say), who has imprisoned Carlo, Duke of Agrigento, and usurped the throne. Years later, Carlo’s son Gernando returns to the palace in disguise to overthrow him and discovers his unwitting sister, Bianca, is about to become Filippo’s bride. Things kick off in the usual bel canto fashion until Carlo is released from his cell and the tyrant is ousted.
The young Bellini had wanted to push compositional boundaries but felt he needed to hang on to such elements as crowd-pleasing cabalettas to keep audiences happy. The stylish music nevertheless turned critical heads, despite Gilardoni’s lumpen libretto (which you can access in Italian only via Naxos’s website – not good enough, Naxos). Bellini’s score, done and dusted in a fraction under two hours, is attractive if hardly memorable, the highlights being Bianca’s plaintive Act 2 Romanza, an extended duet for brother and sister and a decent prison scene for Carlo. Taken from the autograph score housed in Catania’s Bellini Museum, the original version has no overture and several cabalettas are different from the revised opera. The opera ends with a trio and chorus rather than the 1828 scena for Bianca.
Antonino Fogliani leads an efficient account of the score, not always in brilliant sound, with intrusive ‘bravo man’ in the audience sounding louder than some of the singers. Russian tenor Maxim Mironov is the pick of the crop as Gernando, a light tenor with an attractive ping to his upper notes. Bianca is sung by Silvia Dalla Benetta, a soprano who has forged an unremarkable career in provincial Italian houses and a Wildbad regular. Her tone is a little pallid with a squally top. Vittorio Prato’s sturdy baritone does well as Filippo, who gets some jolly music to sing considering he’s the villain, while Luca Dall’Amico’s unfocused bass is a disappointment as Carlo. One for Bellini completists only, I fear.