Rossini Matilde di Shabran
Here is treasure indeed: a memorable recording of Rossini’s grand, exhilarating, yet down the years too little noticed Matilde di Shabran. A comic-heroic romp written for the 1821 Roman carnival but substantial revised for Naples later that same year, the opera is an important staging-post between Rossini’s two earlier Roman entertainments, Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola, and their Parisian successors Il viaggio a Reims and Le Comte Ory, to which Matilde bequeathed a couple of movements. What is new here is the extent to which the comedy is driven by a spirit of parody. Parody had long been a weapon in Rossini’s comic armoury. Now, at the end of a decade during which he had single-handedly revolutionised Italian opera in both its comic and serious forms, he is man enough to start sending up himself.
The opera soon dropped from the repertory, dogged by travellers’ tales of a bizarre plot (a raving misogynist, a mad poet, damsels being thrown off cliffs) and an impossible-to-sing leading role. It re-emerged from the shadows at the 1996 Pesaro Rossini Opera Festival. Bruce Ford was cast as Corradino. When he withdrew, the 23-year-old Juan Diego Flórez stepped in, to sensational effect. This 2004 Pesaro production, based on Jürgen Selk’s new Critical Edition, catches Flórez at the peak of his powers. The plot, by Cenerentola librettist Giacomo Ferretti, is less complicated than its genesis might suggest. Corradino, a parody tyrant said to loathe women, poets, and all other affronts to his masculinity, resides in a Spanish castle whose welcome notices include such gems as ‘He who enters here will have his neck broken’. In Act 1, he is trapped into loving. With the tyrant tyrannised, Act 2 finds him in a series of even bigger fixes, from which he is eventually rescued by the poet he once threatened to liquidate and the woman he has loathed, loved, and tried to kill.
Spectacular as the role of Corradino is, there are no solo arias. This is ensemble opera par excellence. His spectacular entry - pure Errol Flynn - turns into a quartet. His first meeting with Matilde takes place in the latter half of the Act 1 Quintet. Later, despite Corradino’s best efforts to silence young Edoardo, their Act 2 duet remains just that: a duet. The joke fails, of course, if the singer playing Corradino lacks the wherewithal to drive a coach and horses through Rossini’s cunningly contrived maze. Flórez is terrific, literally so at times.
Matilde is sister to Isabella and Rosina, albeit a soprano brandishing high C sharps and the occasional top F. Unlike Corradino, she does have a solo aria, the opera’s showpiece finale, vividly thrown off by Annick Massis, who is well matched to Flórez histrionically and vocally. The two other leading players are Isidoro, a down-at-heel poet who ends up running the show, and the androgynously charming Edoardo, captive son of Corradino’s arch-enemy Don Raimondo. Rossini conceived the roles for the Neapolitan buffo Antonio Parlamagni and his daughter, Annetta, then refined them in the rewrite. In Naples, Isidoro was played (as here, in Neapolitan dialect) by the legendary buffo Carlo Casaccia. Decca’s Bruno de Simone is the gamest of Isidoros, Hadar Halevy a mellifluous-sounding Edoardo.
Isidoro bears the brunt of the stretches of secco recitative: eight minutes before the Act 1 finale, a further stretch as the plot thickens midway through Act 2. None of this hangs heavy. This being a distillation of five live theatre performances, the entire cast and fortepiano player Rosetta Cucchi are fully engaged with the drama.
Riccardo Frizza’s conducting is fierce and sharp-edged in the modern style. Occasionally I miss that Gui-like turn of the wrist which distinguishes the musician from the martinet but Frizza’s marshalling of the all-important ensembles is rarely less than masterly. The recording has the voices well forward, the orchestra a little too much to the rear. If the stereo placings are to be believed, Flórez was always centre-stage: understandable but oddly wearisome.
Matilde has made two previous appearances on record: the more recent a somewhat hit-and-miss live affair from the 1998 Rossini in Wildbad festival (Bongiovanni, 8/00, nla). The new set is vastly superior, the version to have as long as Decca chooses to keep it in print.