Parisina’s music was written in a hurry. The starry librettist Felice Romani, multi-commissioned into a schedule of Lorenzo da Ponte-type pressure, delivered late for the March 1833 Carnival season in Florence. He took the action from Byron’s popular contemporary sex and jealousy poem. Parisina, the wife of Azzo, a 15th-century Duke of Ferrara, has fallen in love with Ugo, who will turn out to be a child of Azzo’s previous marriage. Azzo’s reaction to his wife’s desired but never realised infidelity is to have Ugo murdered, and to present Parisina with the corpse in a manner that anticipates Puccini’s Tosca and Tabarro.
The opera looks beyond decorative bel canto towards the urgent, direct style that would become Verdi’s hallmark – an almost verismo approach in which, instead of leaving violence offstage to be described in torrents of beautiful (or mad) singing, the audience was confronted directly with the hero’s murdered corpse.While Acts 1 and 2 are substantial, Act 3 is manically (and brilliantly) short – an obvious forerunner of Verdi’s desire to end an evening quickly – in its focus on Azzo’s revenge. Opera Rara’s recording is led by Carmen Giannattasio, a sometime student of Leyla Gencer. Her Act 3 defiance of Azzo, the ingenious Romanza in Act 2, and her fatalistic “Forse un destin che intendere” are agile in decoration, expressive and well acted – a cunning piece of casting. The Spanish tenor José Bros displays enoughmetal in the voice to catch Ugo’s Percy-like desperation in returning obsessively to Parisina’s hostile court.
Uruguayan baritone Dario Solari is beautiful and supple in Azzo’s Act 1 hymn to his wife, although he is a very cultivated bad guy in the Otello-like scene in Act 2 where he observes Parisina sleeping and overhears her muttering Ugo’s name. Nicola Ulivieri’s young, grainy yet flexible bass gives point to Ernesto’s announcement of Ugo’s true parentage. Parisina’s lady in waiting, Imelda, is alertly taken by Ann Taylor’s warm mezzo.
The horns at Parisina’s entrance and the spooky bird-calls in Act 3, or the river “traffic” in Act 2 which Verdi may well have recalled for Act 3 of Aida, show off Donizetti’s imaginative use of scoring to second dramatic points. David Parry’s well paced conducting is especially aware of these touches. Ardent Donizettians will have other Parisinas – complete (as from New York in the 1970s with Caballé on Myto, or the Bongiovanni performance) or in parts (Caballé again). But the quality of the present recording, musically and technically, demands that cognoscenti should invest again, and should tempt those for whom the opera’s name has remained merely an entry on a complete works list.