Harder-to-find Studio Recordings of Three Rossini Operas
by Ralph Moore

I have chosen to review three studio recordings of Rossini operas on CD which are currently out of the catalogue from the main sellers and thus physical sets are obtainable only second-hand from eBay, Amazon or smaller, independent dealers – often expensively, but bargains still occasionally turn up if you persevere. While we do publish “normal” reviews of old releases in the daily batches on MWI, they do need to still be available commercially, hence this article.

I am reviewing them because while not all of Rossini’s operas are worth seeking out, each has something special and desirable about it if you are a Rossini aficionado. As such, this post supplements my previous article, An Eclectic Selection of Rossini Operas, in which I reviewed seven personal favourites. None of the three has previously been reviewed on MusicWeb. All three sets provide copious notes, synopses and a full Italian libretto with an English translation.

L’assedio di Corinto (1828)
Pamira – Beverly Sills (soprano)
Neocle – Shirley Verrett (mezzo-soprano)
Maometto – Justino Díaz (bass-baritone)
Cléomene – Harry Theyard (tenor)
Jero – Gwynne Howell (bass)
Omar – Robert Lloyd (bass)
Ismene – Delia Wallis
Adastro – Gaetano Scano
Ambrosian Opera Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Schippers
rec. 1974, All Saints Church, Tooting, London, stereo ADD
EMI Classics 7643325 [3 CDs: 161]

This is the studio recording of the version presented by Schippers at La Scala in 1969, and ten years ago I briefly referenced it in my review of the French version of this opera on Naxos. It is starrily cast, retaining two of the principals in Beverly Sills and Justino Díaz but Shirley Verrett replaces Marilyn Horne, who was Neocle at La Scala, and Harry Theyard is Cleomene rather than Franco Bonisolli. As much as I enjoy that live 1969 recording, neither substitution is regrettable – far from it. Theyard has a somewhat harder timbre than Bonisolli and occasionally forces a bit but his is a proper heroic, Rossinian, spinto tenor. Despite an important career at the New York City and Metropolitan Operas, he recorded only this, his sole commercial recording, and a live, abridged performance of Refice’s Cecilia with Renata Scotto. Shirley Verrett is on top form, performing wonders in her Act III bravura aria “Non temer”. Other bonuses include Covent Garden’s two great resident basses Robert Lloyd and Gwynne Howell, both of whom are superb. The same four principal singers as per here performed this opera at the Metropolitan Opera the following year in Sills’ long-delayed Met debut.

Now nearly fifty years old, this still stands up very well, both artistically and sonically, despite being something of an editorial hotchpotch – Schippers’ amalgam of two scores – not that Rossini would have cared. The Italian version was presented in Parma in 1828,  two years after the French version, Le siège de Corinthe, was given in Paris; that opera in turn was itself adapted from Maometto II, which had been premièred in Naples 1820. Its elevated style bears witness to Rossini’s shift towards absolute “Grand Opera”, culminating in Guillaume Tell, the last of his operas, premièred in 1829.  The choruses and orchestration are more varied, enriched and ambitious than before and the subject matter, albeit converted into a plot which is rather hokey even by operatic standards, is serious – and in its time highly topical, as although it is set in Corinth in 1492 it clearly referenced the then recent fall and destruction of Missolonghi by the invading Turks during the Greek War of Independence. Musically, it is very good if not quite as memorable as Rossini’s best; the excellence of the virtuoso singing is its primary attraction.

I have read that this was recorded too late in Sills career; I can only say that this is hardly apparent to my ears. There was always a certain slight shrillness to her top notes but her dexterity, flexibility and expressivity seem to me to be in no way diminished or impaired and the microphones compensate for the fact that her voice was considerably smaller than other bel canto divas such as Sutherland. Her facility in the coloratura of the aria opening Act II, “Dal soggiorno degli estinti”,  for example, is astounding – and very beautiful.

The youthful Justino Díaz displays an impressive range, from resonant bass notes to a ringing baritone top – hence his vocal designation as a bass-baritone – as well as impressive breath control. He is ideally cast as the stern yet enamoured Maometto.

Schippers was already a very experienced Rossini conductor and directs both sensitively and con gusto. The Ambrosian Opera Chorus is as fine as ever and the LSO is really on fire, as you may hear right from the overture.

La pietra di paragone (1812)
Il Cavalier Giocondo, poeta – José Carreras (tenor)
Marchesina Clarice – Beverly Wolff (mezzo-soprano)
La Baronessa Aspasia – Elaine Bonazzi (mezzo-soprano)
Donna Fulvia – Anne Elgar (soprano)
Il Conte Asdrubale – John Reardon (baritone)
Macrobio, giornalista – Andrew Foldi (bass-baritone)
Pacuvio, poeta – Justino Díaz (bass-baritone)
Fabrizio, cameriere del Conte – Raymond Murcell (baritone)
The Clarion Concerts Chorus & Orchestra/Newell Jenkins
rec. 1971, Vanguard Studio, New York, stereo ADD
Vanguard Classics 08 9031 73 [3 CDs: 165]

In many ways this is Rossini’s Così fan tutte, a joyous, farcical comedy of manners with a similar reliance upon the theatrical devices of disguise and deceit to mock human frailty, but surprisingly, in addition to the farcical elements, the opera contains a lot of social commentary and in particular satirises the corruption and venality of the Press in the person of the journalist-editor Macrobio whose patter-song “Chi è colei” is clearly the forerunner of many a similar aria in later works.

Obviously the main interest here is the contribution of the twenty-four-year-old José Carreras in what must have been his first commercial recording, but there is additional interest in the presence of such fine singers as Beverly Wolff, John Reardon and Justino Díaz in an operatic rarity – Rossini’s first major commission and a big hit. This is the only studio version. The sound is rather tinny and distant for 70s analogue stereo and it is evident – especially on headphones – that sometimes the channel separation is rather excessive but all in all the engineering is more than acceptable. The lively overture delivers one of the first examples of Rossini employing his famous, accelerando-crescendo “choo-choo-train” effect (though I doubt whether Rossini had seen Richard Trevithick’s steam locomotive, invented in 1804), lifted from La scala di seta , written earlier the same year, and the lively opening chorus is in recognisable Rossinian vein – as is Díaz’ bumptious bore of a poet, the type of character who pops up throughout Rossini’s opere buffe. A loud and boisterous ensemble ensues; we are immediately in comfortably recognisable territory which helps explain the immediate success of the work. Even the harpsichord-accompanied recitativo is fleet and painless – and sometimes genuinely humorous.

The three leading ladies here are all lovely singers. Andrew Foldi’s first entrance duetting with Carreras reveals him to have a rather tight bass-baritone which doesn’t have much bass in its tone but it is neat and musical. Carreras, as expected, sounds wonderful, then both Wolff and Reardon – the latter probably familiar to most collectors as Marcello in Beecham’s famous recording of La bohème – deploy fine voices, also in duet, to confirm that this cast – all-American save for Carreras – is one of distinction. 

The set pieces have a strange sense of familiarity about them if you come from a position of knowing Rossini’s other operas; there is even some storm music which is later recycled – in classic Rossinian fashion –  in Il barbiere di Siviglia. That is not to say that they lack appeal; I enjoy various highlights such as Díaz’ range of silly voices in the supremely daft aria for Pacuvio “Ombretta sdegnosa” featuring a dialogue between a maid and the little shade of a wizard of the “Missipipi” in which she calls him a pike and he denies it, saying he is a mullet; don’t ask, because I can’t tell you… 

Other highlights include the little gem of a trio “Su queste piante” and the riotous ensemble concluding Act I. Carreras does not have that prominent a role, in fact, but his contribution in such a distinctive voice is a delight and his big moment comes in the love aria which concludes Act II, when he sings with great warmth and flexibility. The Act III quintet and chorus “Men tremendo” is also typically ebullient and Anne Elgar is impressive in the stratospheric line of her display aria “Pubblico fu l’oltraggio”, hitting top D-sharp and D – there is a lot to enjoy in this farce.

Perhaps the imbalance in the distribution of voice parts explains the comparative neglect of La pietra; it is heavily biased towards lower voices and the sole tenor part is secondary and relatively simple compared with the embellishments expected of the three other low male voices which would have necessarily been of the smaller, more agile, “conversational” variety before the advent of the great bronze Verdi baritone who could fill a house – and for once the bass-baritone gets the girl while the tenor is left unsatisfied. Kudos, then, to the singers here such as John Reardon who display exactly that kind of facility in arias such as the Act III “Ah! Se destarti in seno”.

A final endorsement for this recording must proceed from the fact that it is markedly superior to rival sets from Bongiovanni and Naxos.

Bianca e Falliero (1819)
Bianca: Katia Ricciarelli (soprano)
Falliero: Marilyn Horne (mezzo-soprano)
Contareno: Chris Merritt (tenor)
Capellio: Giorgio Surjan (bass)
Costanza Patrizia Orciani (soprano)
Priuli: Amrogio Riva (bass)
Pisani: Ernesto Gavazzi (tenor)
Un ufficiale/Un usciere: Diego D’Auria (tenor)
Philharmonic Chorus of Prague
The London Sinfonietta Opera Orchestra/Donato Renzetti
rec. live composite August 1986, Auditorium Pedrotti, Conservatorio G. Rossini, Pesaro
Ricordi Fonit Cetra RFCD 2008 [3 CDs: 177]

I reviewed here the Opera Rara studio recording of this opera made in 2000; this is an earlier alternative, a composite recording drawn from live performances in the Pesaro Rossini Opera Festival, equally starrily cast. Being live, it is obviously not in such good sound – it is a bit over-reverberant – but it is digital and unobjectionable, as long as you don’t mind some clumping from the chorus. Both recordings use the same critical edition by Gabriele Dotto but there are quite a few cuts here in the recitativo secco; otherwise it is musically complete.

The whole opera contains some great music. There are the usual self-borrowings from earlier works, but Rossini recycled that music precisely because it was so good. Despite the floridity of the solo roles, the chorus, too, plays a major role.  A splendid overture, lyrical and invigorating by turns, sets the tone and confirms that the London Sinfonietta are the equal of the LPO for Opera Rara, even if the live sound doesn’t permit quite the same crisp, vivid definition we hear in the Opera Rara studio recording. Conductor Donato Renzetti is considerably brisker than David Parry, which, in combination with the cuts, means that this live recording runs faster than Parry’s, despite the inclusion of some applause.

The first solo voice we hear is Chris Merritt’s Contareno; his is a much fuller, more virile sound than Barry Banks’ sweet, lyric tenor for Opera Rara but both are exceptionally agile and have the absurd top notes; Merritt hits an astonishing – and wholly secure – top D in the ensemble at the end of Act I, Scene 2, setting out his vocal stall early. Giorgio Surjan’s rich bass sounds similar to Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s.

Opinion regarding Marilyn Horne’s voice will always be divided, despite her eminence. It is not intrinsically beautiful, but her tough, nasal, aggressive sound with its hard-edged top notes and booming lower register suits trouser roles and of course her speciality was coloratura display. I do not find her characterisation as sympathetic as Jennifer Larmore’s but Horne’s agility is, if anything, superior – even if occasionally she evidently overdoes it and almost trips over herself.

Katia Ricciarelli is still in top form before her precipitate decline. Her voice was never quite technically secure but her soprano had a special, limpid, plaintive purity, and the power of her high notes is surprising. Good as Majella Cullagh is on Opera Rara, Ricciarelli is at her very best here and deserves the warm applause she receives after her arias. The series of duets with Horne concluding the first act is mightily impressive. and she displays admirable agility, especially in the concluding aria, which Rossini filched from La donna del lago and Isabella Colbran had previously sung to great acclaim by the Neapolitan audience.

For me, the other highlight of this opera is the Act II quartet ”Cielo, il mio labbro inspira” and it is beautifully delivered here, almost as magically as in the Opera Rara recording; I have no complaints.

I would not necessarily esteem this above the Opera Rara studio set but it is highly enjoyable and will appeal especially to admirers of the principal singers here.

(This has also been available on the Legato and Opera Hommage labels. Copies of the latter are available second-hand but the Ricordi set I am reviewing here is invariably very expensive wherever it is on sale.)

Ralph Moore