Rossini Maometto II
Rossini's art had come a long way from his first Neapolitan opera, Elisabetta, r
The subject of della Valle's drama came of age in the 1820s when the greek War of Independence became for its time what Czechoslovakian and Vietnam have been for ours. With pro-Greek and anti Turkish sentiments strongly reinforced by the romantic preoccupation with Classical antiquity and by Byron's death in Greece in 1824, the 1826 revision and revival of Maometto II were timely. Nor did the revision bloat and diffuse the drama as was to be the case with Moise et Pharaon. Le Siege de Corinthe not only makes the drama into a tragedy which is unequivocally Greek (one of the opera's few wholly new numbers is Hieros's blessing of the Greek banners before the final holocaust), it also tautens the musical structure in a way which gives the drama a pace and a ferocity which the much more spacious Maometto II rarely acieves. And yet the great majority of the music is there is Maometto II, and in its command of the big forms Maometto II makes claims on our attention which the more urgent, politically preoccupied Paris revision cannot do. Such is Rossini's command of longer forms in Maometto II, the entire First Act is built out of five broad movements dominated by a Terzettone, a larger-than-life Trio so massive in scale that it can withstand intrusive cannon fire, popular dismay, and a melting prayer before resuming its majestic course. Indeed, it never properly ends, since by the simplest of harmonic devices Rossini builds it over into the chorus which ushers in the Islamic horde, a chorus which looks back to the utterances of the forces of darkness in Act 2 of Armida and forward, in its rhythms, fierce unisons, and exotic tintinnabulations to Verdi's gipsy band in Il trovatore. The chorus is sparingly but powerfully and evocatively used throughout Maometto II. The launching of Act 2 with a substantial A major chorus for Muslim women disingenuously touting the 'Gather ye rosebuds' line is particularly remarkable for a fine-grained use of woodwind and percussion colours such as you might expect to encounter in the ballet music of Tchaikovsky or the mature Verdi. Conversely, there is a brooding quality about the score, equally typical of Rossini's later Neapolitan manner. It is not only in the opera's nocturnal opening that the brass—four horns, three trombones, two trumpets and serpentone—are atmospherically used; they feature prominently in the accompanied recitatives which Rossini now scores with as much care as the ensembles themselves.
This is, of course, the first recording of Maometto II. In an ideal world we would have Le siege de Corinthe in the catalogue, too, but Schippers's HMV set (SLS981, 7/75) is deleted and was a dog's breakfast of a set anyway both musicologically and as a performance. Sung in Italian with a contralto Neocles (Calbo, and Adolphe Nourrit's role in 1826), it was subject to a bewildering array of cuts, and additions which ranged from Sills's own ornamentation to the otiose importation of the whole of the Act 2 Trio written for the Venetian revision of Maometto II in Venice in 1823. Needless to say, the Philips edition, produced by Erik Smith and conducted by Scimone, indulges no such freakish whims. Apart from what appears to be a cut in the cabaletta of the Anna/Maometto duet in Act 2, the performance is exemplary in its fidelity to the letter of the score and the style of the composer. The title role—unusually, though Mose is another exception which proves the rule—is sung by a bass. At the Naples prima it was Filippo Galli, the greatest Italian bass of his day; here it is Samuel Ramey. Ramey's is a magnificent performance, worthy of a role written for Galli. His tone is full and noble and he copes expertly with the complex fioritura. (Diaz on HMV traces patterns across the page such as a fly might make trudging through the composer's ink.) A bass like Raimondi might have made a more dangerous-sounding Maometto, but Ramey has the better technique and the sense he communicates of a love for Anna, which in the last analysis is almost paternal, is very affecting.
Equally fine is Margarita Zimmerman's Calbo. The extreme range of the part causes her few problems and she sings her big Act 2 aria less stodgily than Marilyn Horne on an important recital record (CBS D38731—not available in the UK). Above all, Zimmerman makes us aware of Calbo's presence and personality, something not easily done when contraltos pose as warlike young men. Rossini's Erisso, Anna's father, was Nozzari, a singer of massive theatrical authority with a voice said to have been somewhat baritonal in quality. Judged by these standards, Ernesto Palacio might be thought a rather light-weight choice (initially, Laurence Dale's admirable Condulmiero makes the stronger impression) but Palacio's expertise in florid writing is needed later on the voice is fuller and warmer than it has sometimes been on record. As Anna, June Anderson reveals a better sense of style than Sills. She was, and no doubt still is, a first-rate Elcia in Mose in Egitto and is best in Maometto II where the writing is rapt and prayerful. In Anna's more ferocious outbursts she is, perhaps, too demure. The huge half-hour finale, designed as a series of contrasting numbers for the queenly Colbran, is only intermittently powerful in Anderson's performance. The finale exchanges with Maometto are rather palely declaimed, though Anna's dying appostrophization of her mother's ashes is touchingly done.
Scimone directs with an acute ear for Rossini's imaginative use of orchestral sonority, a fine sense of the pacing of the choruses, and a proper feel for the scale and steady reach of the drama. The recording is excellent on LP though the battery of Muslim drums and the rent-a-crowd uproar (did Mr Smith travel to Chelsea to record this, or was it Millwall?) might have been more smoothly edited into the sound mix. But these are negligible quibbles. The set lives up to the high musical and scholarly standards of this important series. It merits the support of all who are interested in early and mid-19th century opera—not least so that we can ensure the continuation of a series which has yet to give us Armida, Ricciardo e Zoraide, La donna del lago, and, as substantial a piece as any, Ermione, Rossini's powerful realization of Racine's first great tragedy, Andromaque.'