ROSSINI Bianca a Falliero
Bianca e Falliero is a magnificent opera. Written for La Scala, Milan, in the autumn of 1819 at the high noon of Rossini’s Italian career, it clothes a tautly drawn narrative with some of the most sumptuous yet theatrically pertinent vocal writing Rossini provided for the lyric stage.
Blessed with a classically taut libretto by Felice Romani, it makes better theatre than Semiramide (Venice, 1823), which similarly reverts to the ‘old-fashioned’ use of an en travesti contralto male lead. Yet where Semiramide held the stage and travelled widely, Bianca e Falliero faded from view after a 20-year reign in Italy and the Iberian peninsula. This 2015 Rossini in Wildbad production was the first to be staged – Vienna excepted – north of the Alps.
Set in 17th-century Venice at a time of high military alert, the opera tells of a senator who would rather have the city’s finest military commander compromised, arraigned and executed than have his daughter refuse a fellow senator’s hand in marriage. Not that Falliero is executed. The kind of tragic ending permitted in Naples in 1816 when Rossini set Shakespeare’s Othello was forbidden in Austrian-controlled Milan, not least because of the show-trial element in the opera’s French source. The enforced happy ending – the father’s sudden recantation – is well contrived musically but it did the opera few favours in post-Napoleonic Europe.
In August 1986 Pesaro’s Rossini Opera Festival staged a sensational revival of Bianco e Falliero with Marilyn Horne in epic form in the role of Falliero, Katia Ricciarelli as a deeply affecting Bianca, the Desdemona of the piece, and Chris Merritt playing the recalcitrant father with a Vickers-like intensity. With the text restored to its pristine state in a new critical edition by Gabriele Dotto, a decent staging and a cast to die for, this was one of opera’s great revivals.
Briefly released on CD (Fonit Cetra, 9/94 – nla), the recording was long gone when Opera Rara tackled the work in November 2000 (A/01, download only). Taking so vocally fearsome a piece into the recording studio must have seemed a safe option – too safe, it turned out, as key passages emerged more as singing exercises than proto-Verdian embodiments of raw emotion.
With this new Rossini in Wildbad production the risks are all the other way. The live staging generates its own intensity but several of the cast sound out of their depth in the cruelly one-dimensional context of a sound-only recording. Kenneth Tarver is memorable as the father; elsewhere, the Falliero copes and the Bianca barely manages. The real hero is Antonino Fogliani, whose high-octane conducting points the music forwards to the more rapid dramaturgy of the Verdian age which Bianca e Falliero partly presages. Unusually for a Rossini in Wildbad recording, the microphones don’t always keep track of the singers at key moments.
Pesaro’s second, 2005 staging received short shrift from lovers of the voice beautiful when it appeared on CD (Dynamic, 7/06). Sadly, no one reviewed the DVD, which was released at much the same time. With sumptuous period designs by Hans Schavernoch based on one of Paolo Veronese’s most celebrated paintings, and with meticulous direction by Jean-Louis Martinoty, it’s a staging that proves beyond doubt that none of Rossini’s opere serie is better suited to the small screen than this emotional epic rooted in domestic conflict.
With Daniela Barcellona as Falliero, Maria Bayo as a vividly played albeit vocally fragile Bianca and Francesco Meli as a wheelchair-bound bear of a Contareno, the 2005 cast may yield something in vocal fire-power to its 1986 predecessor but its marriage of vocal skills and expert stagecraft makes for an unusually satisfying theatrical experience.