ROSSINI Mosè in Egitto; Otello; Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra

Author: 
Richard Osborne
Rossini Otello – López-Cobos

Rossini Mosè in Egitto – Scimone

  • Mosè in Egitto
  • Otello (or Il moro di Venezia)

Amid a small avalanche of new or newly reissued Rossini opera recordings, none is more important, individually or as a group, than this trio of reissues from Philips's unofficial Rossini edition. The Naples years, 1815 to 1822, are at the very centre of Rossini's creative life. It is here that genius—''I had facility and lots of instinct''—was put to school. And firmly so: the serious masterpieces of the Naples years take as their subjects the Bible and Shakespeare, Scott and Racine, Tasso and English historical romance.
Rossini made his debut in Naples with Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra. It is a verse reduction of a half-remembered drama by an Italian advocate out of an English romance. It is historically dubious and dramatically ingenuous, but the central situation is interesting (whilst campaigning in Scotland, Leicester, the Queen's inamorato, has married a young girl, a scion of the house of Mary Queen of Scots). As a text it offered the young composer substantial spaces to fill. And being Rossini he filled them with aplomb; yet gracefully and truthfully too. The Philips recording, conducted by Masini with unhurrying grace, has a fine cast. The Matilde is Valerie Masterson, affecting and sweet-sounding. Benelli is a stylish and generally fresh-toned Norfolk; with the young Carreras trailing clouds of glory in the di Stefano style, full of fiery brilliance, well parted as Leicester.
The Elisabetta is Monserrat Caballe, no less. There are some who might want less diplomatic restraint from the jilted Queen than Caballe offers us. She talks of fierce distress but is rarely fierce; her great injunction to Matilde ''Renounce!'' is eloquent rather than imperative. Stendhal described Isabella Colbran, the creator of the role, as a modern commentator might have described Callas. ''When Signorina Colbran talked with Matilde it was impossible to escape the irrefutable conclusion that this woman had reigned for twenty years as a queen whose authority was absolute and supreme. It was the ingrained acceptance of manner and mannerism bred by despotic power which characterized this great artist.'' Caballe communicates little of this vocally. Yet she is regal, and very feminine. Rightly so, for Elisabetta's music is exquisitely rather than fiercely wrought. Elisabetta's final scene is a miracle of soft sweet inwardness; and the glorious duet with Matilde is like an ethereal preview of ''Mira, o Norma''. The libretto, in fact, dictates a sweet reasonable queen.
The Otello (Naples 1816) also has a strong cast, headed by Carreras's searingly noble Moor. The Desdemona is Frederica von Stade: chaste and as luminous as a sculpture in Carrara marble. The set also displays casting in depth. In Rossini's day Naples was awash with great tenors, a situation that nowadays creates prodigious difficulties. Yet both the Iago, Gianfranco Pastine, and the Rodrigo, Salvatore Fisichella, emerge with honour, barely bloodied and never for a moment bowed by Rossini's terrible arsenal of vocal effects. ''They have been crucifying Otello into an opera,'' wrote Byron in 1818. Well, yes and no. By all means treat Acts 1 and 2 as flashy rodomontade, but Act 3 is glorious, inspired enough and sufficiently close to Shakespeare to have been a near fatal deterrant to what Verdi called his own ''chocolate project''. I thrilled to it afresh—off-stage Gondolier and all—in these brilliant new CD transfers.
If Elisabetta and Otello offer inspired scenes but the odd mauvais quart-d'heure, Mose in Egitto (Naples 1819) is flawless, an exquisitely wrought small masterpiece that is still too little known. Large houses and ignorant managements have fated audiences to experience the opera in the bloated Parisian rewrite Moise et Pharaon (though revivals have rarely been in French). In the original Naples version, the opera starts with the famous Scene of the Shadows—the plague of darkness that covers Egypt. It proceeds to the lovely pastoral-romantic Second Act with its terrific climax: Moses striking dead Pharoah's son. And it ends, the web of key systems miraculously intact, with the famous Prayer and crossing of the Red Sea. Moses, Michele Benedetti's part originally, draws from Raimondi the finest of all his recorded Rossini performances. June Anderson sings Elcia with stunning conviction, whilst Siegmund Nimsgern and Ernesto Palacio make a formidable father and son combination. Scimone, too, surpasses himself. A fanatical though occasionally wayward Rossinian, he has rarely directed a tauter or lyrically more beautiful performance.
Transfers to CD often find out lapses and glitches in the original productions. But these are immaculate—technically proficient, scholarly, musically memorable. There are no booklet credits, but the productions owe their existence to unstinting work in the Rossini cause of Erik Smith, and to Philip Gossett whose influence has never been far away. There is nothing old-fashioned or fustian about these sets. All three are necessary library acquisitions for lovers of memorable opera memorably performed.'

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