Francesco Cilea’s L’arlesiana – based on the play, Alphonse Daudet’s L’arlésienne, for which Bizet provided his famous incidental music – has always languished behind the composer’s next opera, Adriana Lecouvreur, in terms of popularity. Although Cilea’s score is full of melody and atmosphere, the reasons are not hard to see. Federico must be one of most emotionally immature and unsympathetic of all verismo tenor heroes – which is saying something – and spends most of his time longing for the titular girl from Arles, who never appears. The two most interesting and appealing characters are Federico’s poor mother, Rosa Mamai, and his foster-sister Vivetta, whose love nearly saves him.
The opera’s history is also complex, with the composer tinkering with his score for some four decades after its 1897 premiere. The original four-act version – which was immediately cut down to three acts – has been lost but this new recording (made live in concert in 2012) boasts the inclusion of a second romanza for Federico from that first version, found again only recently by the tenor Giuseppe Filianoti. It’s a well-crafted aria, giving the character a moment in the limelight beyond the oft-excerpted ‘È la solita storia’ from Act 2, but doesn’t really add much dramatically speaking.
Filianoti brings stylish, well-schooled singing to this new aria as well as to the rest of Federico’s music, even if the voice itself is short on sap and colour. Iano Tamar, a soprano who makes excursions into mezzo territory, takes a while to settle into Rosa Mamai’s music but is moving in her big Act 3 lament. Mirela Bunoaica brings charm to Vivetta and the rest of the cast is stylish. The playing of the Freiburg orchestra is perfectly decent and Fabrice Bollon is a reliable guide through the score.
The engineering is not terribly refined, though, and rather orchestra-heavy. And while this set is obviously important for completists, I think the drama is more vividly communicated in Charles Rosenkrans’s 1991 Budapest recording for EMI.