Rossini Ricciardo e Zoraide
It was inevitable that when interest finally focused on the superb array of heavyweight operas Rossini created for Naples between 1815 and 1822, Ricciardo e Zoraide would be somewhat to the rear of the queue. Not because it is bereft of fine music – it has some good moments and some memorable quarters of an hour – but because the story, the essential stuff of the drama, is intrinsically less interesting than that of
The tendency has been to blame the librettist for all this: Francesco Berio di Salsa, gentleman of leisure and one of Naples’s leading men of letters. Having, in Lord Byron’s phrase, “crucified Othello into an opera”, he now turned his attention to two cantos from a mock-heroic epic poem by the early eighteenth-century poet and priest Niccolo Forteguerri. The Arisoto-like ironies, such as they are, of Forteguerri’s poem Il Ricciardetto appear to have passed Berio by or evaded his powers of appropriation and redeployment. Yet the libretto as such is clear enough, a workmanlike job with well-drawn dramatic sight-lines and cues aplenty for heart-stopping moments, some of which Rossini chooses to set in what was for him a new and expressively daring kind of accompanied recitative.
The drama is dominated not by Ricciardo (Giovanni David’s role) or Zoraide (written for Colbran) but by Agorante, King of Nubia, Nozzarri’s role. Though married to the formidable Zomira, an invention of Berio’s to accommodate Rosmunda Pisaroni, a rising star in the Naples company, the king is in love with Zoraide, daughter of a stern tribal headman, and inamorata of the guileful paladin Ricciardo. Agorante’s character, as it is purveyed to us by the libretto and through Rossini’s music, is that of a reluctant tyrant. This is immediately established in Agorante’s remarkable cavatina “Minacci pur” and proceeds to colour not only the role itself but the mood of the entire opera.
Bruce Ford, it should be said at once, sings the part magnificently. It was he who recreated it on stage in Pesaro in 1990, alongside the present Ricciardo, William Matteuzzi. Not only is Ford’s singing exemplary, his pacing of the role is masterly, allowing him to dig beneath the surface of the character and reveal the ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ aspect of Agorante’s temper. Matteuzzi is also perfectly cast in the florid, bright-toned role of Ricciardo. I have not always enjoyed Matteuzzi’s work on record and have read some stinging criticisms of his performances in the theatre, but here there is real empathy with the role realized in page upon page of exemplary singing. He also works well with Ford. The Act 2 duet between the two men – improbably, as sexy a piece of male canoodling as you will hear in all opera – is a particular case in point.
David Parry’s tempos help. Again, I have seen his work excorciated in print. “Overloud dynamics and unvarying timbres” was Opera magazine’s judgement of the Ricciardo e Zoraide he conducted in Pesaro last summer. I have to say, there is nothing of that here. The ASMF (old Rossini hands) are exemplary and Parry’s shaping of the work is both kind to the opera’s prevailing tinta and mood and extremely solicitous of the singers’ needs. Some of the tempos are daringly slow: the start of the great Act 1 Trio “Cruda sorte!”, for instance. But with so much going on – powerfully fractured exclamations and a haunting off-stage chorus – the slowness seems justified.
The rest of the casting is meticulous. Nelly Miricioiu, who has a hint of Callas in her tones, makes a plausible and affecting Zoraide, Alastair Miles is superb in the Commendatore-like role of her father Ircano, and Paul Nilon makes a strong impression in the role of Ricciardo’s lieutenant Ernesto. It was also a stroke of genius to cast Della Jones as the defiant wife Zomira. This is a role that needs working at. The power of the character is in the ensembles and the accompanied recitatives. (A set-piece solo is late arriving, and strangely muted when it does come.) Della Jones brings many of the same qualities to this role as she brought to her superb impersonation of Vitellia in Hogwood’s recent recording of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito (L’Oiseau-Lyre, 3/95). The almost exaggerated clarity of her diction ensures that everything this mistreated wife utters is etched into the listener’s imagination.
And it is this sense of living engagement with the score – born of a strong belief in the virtues of the music, meticulous preparation, direct theatrical experience and solid professionalism – that makes the set the success it is. Like the various Philips productions of some of the better-known Neapolitan operas by Rossini, this is a recording that will not readily brook challenge.
The recording itself is excellent. Expertly engineered by Robert Auger, it maps Rossini’s richly perspectived score – the first in which he uses a complex array of separate on- and off-stage bands – with clarity and unaffected good sense.
As realized here Ricciardo e Zoraide is a piece of which the sympathetic listener could grow very fond. Frustratingly fond. I lost count of the times when I thought to myself, “Now, if only that was in one of the better known operas, it would be ranked among Rossini’s most memorable ideas!” Flowers, as the poet has it, born (more or less) to blush unseen and waste their sweetness on the desert air.'