ROSSINI Ricciardo e Zoraide (Pérez-Sierra)
Ricciardo e Zoraide was written for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1818, midway through Rossini’s seven-year residency in the city. A tale of love, jealousy and honour involving a Nubian tyrant, a lovelorn Paladin, an Asian princess and a put-upon royal spouse, its libretto was mined from an early 18th-century mock-heroic epic by the poet Niccolò Forteguerri. The Neapolitans enjoyed it rather more than they had enjoyed Otello, Rossini’s previous piece with a black protagonist.
The opera held the stage until 1846, then vanished until its revival at the 1990 Pesaro Rossini Festival, when Riccardo Chailly conducted a newly completed Critical Edition. The production lost both its lead tenors before it opened. Chris Merritt (the Nubian Agorante) fell out with the management and Rockwell Blake (the Paladin Ricciardo) was indisposed. But it’s an ill wind. Their talented replacements, Bruce Ford and William Matteuzzi, made their international reputations with the production.
Five years later, Ford and Matteuzzi recorded the work for Opera Rara with a cast that included Nelly Miricioiu as Zoraide, Della Jones as Agorante’s scorned wife Zomira and Alastair Miles powerful in the role of Ircano, Zoraide’s father and pretender to the Nubian throne. The set still sounds well and its scholarly programme book, complete with full text and English translation, remains an important selling-point.
The new set – cheaper but less lavishly provisioned – derives from a concert performance recorded at the 2013 Rossini in Wildbad Festival. The star of the occasion is the Russian coloratura tenor Maxim Mironov. His Ricciardo matches Matteuzzi’s in virtuosity while surpassing it in tonal beauty. Conversely, it would be idle to pretend that Randall Bills is Ford’s equal. Ford’s command of line is in a different league, as is his ability to deal with the darkened vocal colours – notorious low As and A flats – with which Rossini characterises the Nubian king.
On the distaff side, Wildbad fields a first-rate Zomira, Silvia Beltrami. Their Zoraide, Alessandra Marianelli, is a sympathetic presence but she is no match for Opera Rara’s Nelly Miricioiu, who is better able to husband her vocal resources in moments of crisis and is the superior technician in the exquisite Act 2 canon quartet.
The conductor José Miguel Pérez-Sierra takes a sympathetic view of the music but, unlike Opera Rara’s David Parry, is too much inclined merely to follow the singers. There is also a degree of belligerence about Parry’s direction of the end-of-act finales that prevents the drama slipping off piste into opera buffa territory.
The live concert recording deals effectively with the opera’s innovatory spatial effects. (This is the work in which the onstage banda first becomes part of Italian opera’s batterie de cuisine.) There is, however, a problem with the recording of the tenors’ great Act 2 duet of ‘reconciliation’, where a poorly positioned Mironov appears to be standing behind his antagonist.