Pacini Carlo di Borgogna
Firstly‚ a word to enthusiasts: that is‚ to those with a special interest in early 19thcentury opera‚ who may‚ perhaps‚ have acquired and enjoyed other operas of Giovanni Pacini that have appeared in recent years on records for the first time (Saffo‚ Marco Polo‚ 5/97; Maria‚ Regina d’Inghilterra‚ Opera Rara‚ 7/98)‚ and who may look with some eagerness at this review. Don’t read it! If‚ for instance‚ you have previously enjoyed productions on record by Opera Rara and are wondering about this one‚ have no fear; it’s well up to standard. Don’t wonder. To borrow a wellknown slogan of our time: just do it.
There is a reason for this – as might be thought – selfdefeating introduction. The reviewer is bound to put the work in context‚ as does Jeremy Commons in his characteristically excellent essay in the booklet. But personally I’m glad I played through the opera without having read anything about it in advance. The one point which is wellknown about Pacini’s career is that it divides in two‚ with a fouryear period of retirement for further thought and study. From this he emerged with his masterpiece Saffo (1840)‚ and the general assumption has been that the operas from before the divide are inferior. In particular‚ it is understood that Pacini himself recognised this‚ his shortcomings being brought home to him by the relative failure of the last opera he wrote before ‘resting’. That opera was Carlo di Borgogna.
Well‚ now you know; and to some extent I’ve spoilt it. The test depends on not knowing in advance: fortunately‚ the ‘test’ is not all. It is an opera well setup with characters and situations; more importantly‚ one in which the forms themselves almost guarantee satisfaction if they are handled by such a master as Pacini was. We are not necessarily looking here for originality but (in no debased sense) for entertainment. As a matter of fact‚ originality is to be found as well: it’s a curious feature of Pacini’s writing that‚ while he can at one moment follow his stated theme with a sequential phrase of disheartening banality‚ he may also at any moment provide a harmonic or rhythmic lift that delights as it surprises.
The dominant character is Estella‚ Charles’s truelove who turns savage on being dropped in favour of an arranged marriage but changes tack again as she tries to warn him that he is going to his death. Jennifer Larmore takes full advantage of her opportunities‚ sings the difficult role with some depth of vocal colour‚ is the assured mistress of technique and gives her words a vivid intensity of expression. Though sung by Grisi in the première‚ this is still a role for the seconda donna‚ and it is the less interesting Leonora of York who has the statusconferring gift of the final aria and cabaletta. Elizabeth Futral has a clear voice‚ an impressive upward range and skill in fioriture: not‚ however‚ the muchdesired steadiness of emission. The lower men’s voices are strongly cast‚ with Gary Magee wasted in a role with little to sing. Bruce Ford takes the namepart‚ his tone virile‚ runs and gruppetti delivered with fluency we used to be told had disappeared with singers of the golden age.
As ever‚ David Parry conducts with a conviction to which his players (this time the Academy of St Martin’s) respond; the Mitchell Choir sing with precision and fresh tone; and the booklet is a model of what such things should be. As to recorded sound‚ I’d personally like slightly closer contact with the soloists‚ but I daresay for many this will be just about the right balance.