As an old man, Rossini remembered with gratitude the audience who attended the first performance of Sigismondo in Venice’s La Fenice theatre on December 26, 1814. ‘They were bored rigid and were clearly eager to vent their displeasure. But they stayed, remained quiet, and allowed the music to continue. That kindness touched me deeply.’
The theatre had warned Rossini that the libretto was unlikely to set his pulses racing. The plot concerns Sigismondo, King of Poland, who has jettisoned his wife at the behest of a rancorous first minister, himself a frustrated admirer of the exiled queen. It’s the kind of plot archetype we find in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale with Hermione’s expulsion and mysterious return. Sadly there’s nothing remotely Shakespearean about Giuseppe Foppa’s libretto.
It’s interesting, nonetheless, that the principal characters spend much of their time in (or perilously close to) a state of nervous breakdown. It explains the slightly off-the-wall quality of much of the music, a quality that earlier in 1814 had found near-perfect expression in Rossini’s Pirandello-like jest Il turco in Italia.
For a modern audience to tolerate Sigismondo as the Venetians did, you need a performance of style and imagination whose roots are set firmly in the soil of the bel canto tradition from which the opera derives. With its entirely non-Italian cast, this live 2016 Rossini in Wildbad recording can’t quite provide that. The Cuban-born American soprano Maria Aleida, who sings the role of the exiled queen, seems well versed in the bel canto style. Too often, though, what we have here is the rough-and-ready feel of performers making what they can of the work’s eccentric charms.
Superior by far is a 1992 Rovigo festival recording on which Richard Bonynge leads an all-Italian cast, headed by Bruno Lazzaretti, Rossella Ragatzu and the young Sonia Ganassi. With Bonynge in charge, the performance has precisely the kind of breeding and sense of musical style the work requires.
The Bongiovanni set is also better presented. The live recording has a refined studio-like quality to it, with applause confined to the ends of acts. And the booklet comes with a complete text and English translation – not so much a bonus, more a necessity in a rarity such as this.