Rossini Robert Bruce
We collectors being a tidy-minded crew, it is gratifying to have released within a few months of one another both the French Rossini opera pastiches with which the composer himself was involved. In the spring (3/03), I reviewed the performance of Ivanhoé (Paris, 1826) which the Italian label Dynamic recorded at the 2001 Festival della Valle d’Itria; now we have Robert Bruce (Paris, 1846), staged and recorded at the 2002 festival.
The making of new works out of old materials was hugely popular in the 18th century. By Rossini’s time, however, it was a largely discredited medium. Indeed, Robert Bruce was something of a terminus ad quem where pasticcio was concerned. Its launch at the Paris Opéra in December 1846 was a famously scandalous affair which effectively ended the rule of the Opéra’s director, Léon Pillet, and seriously tarnished the reputation of his mistress, the mezzo-soprano Rosine Stoltz.
During the 1820s, Rossini had resisted attempts to stage La donna del lago at the Opéra. Publicly, he argued that it needed a more intimate setting; privately, he was preparing the ground for its epic follow-up, Guillaume Tell. In the summer of 1846, Pillet visited the ailing Rossini at his home in Bologna to commission a French version of La donna del lago suitable for staging at the Opéra. The plan was to recast the drama, replacing Scott’s The Lady of the Lake with his re-telling (in Tales of a Grandfather) of Robert Bruce’s defeat of the English and humiliation of the arrogant and effete Edward II.
Knowing that Rossini would approve the plan but refuse to do the work himself, Pillet took with him the composer Louis Niedermeyer and the librettist Gustave Vaëz. When the labour of matching the old music to the new text proved irksome, Rossini allowed sources other than La donna del lago to be used. It was not what Pillet had in mind but it is what Niedermeyer and Vaëz took back to Paris, complete with a laconic note of approval from the composer.
The result is strangely unbalanced. Music from Zelmira opens and closes Act 1, with a long extract from La donna del lago sandwiched between. Act 2 draws more consistently on La donna del lago but, midway, Robert Bruce leads a Trio and a Quintet from Zelmira. Perhaps because it is dominated by no one source, Act 3 works rather better. The opening scene, Bruce’s nocturnal meditation beneath the ramparts of Stirling Castle, adapted from Zelmira, is especially fine. The feckless mood of Edward’s court is well catered for. The denouement is effective.
How rigorous Rossini was in his advice to Niedermeyer must be open to question. A chorus from Armida used in Act 3 sounds more like a Witches’ Sabbath than a Gathering of the Clans and Act 2 ends with an injudicious use – Offenbach in the offing – of some of Rodrigo’s music from La donna del lago. Rossini made no comparable errors of judgement when compiling his own Cantata ad Onore del Sommo Pontefice Pio IX that same summer.
As with Ivanhoé, the Valle d’Itria performance works pretty well. Davide Cicchetti’s Edward is especially fine, as is Simon Edwards’s portrait of Arthur, the English officer in love with Douglas’s daughter Marie. Marie’s role is fashioned from Elena’s and Malcolm’s music in La donna del lago. Though more at home in the latter, Iano Tamar manages to weld the parts into a cogent dramatic whole. I also liked Inga Balabanova in the comprimario role of Nelly. She may not be ready to sing Rossini’s Bianca – Nelly’s St Valentine’s Day aria in Act 2 is the cabaletta from Bianca’s amorous cavatina – but it is an effective performance in context. Nicolas Rivenq’s Bruce has its rough moments but he is a good enough singer to take the opportunity afforded him at the start to Act 3. Two of the male comprimarios are decidedly poor.
Orchestrally and chorally, the performance is first-rate, with alert and atmospheric conducting from Paolo Arrivabeni. The orchestra is closely miked but the ‘mix’ is good, conjuring up a stage picture that is both clear and vivid.