Yes, there is a Rossini opera with a Canadian character. Well, OK it’s a bit ambiguous whether he’s Canadian or American and the librettist doesn’t seem quite sure that they aren’t the same thing. Anyway, likely the earliest of an appearance of a Canadian in opera unless one counts the Les sauvages d’Amérique section of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes. The opera is the early one act comedy, La cambiale di matrimonio. It’s a bit of a one trick pony. An English merchant has contracted to marry his daughter to the Canadian, Snook, but she’s already unofficially engaged to another. After much faffing about Snook makes the contract over to the other suitor and makes him his heir. The joke, such as it is, is that all this is carried out in the language of commercial contracts. For example, when Snook minds out that Fanny is engaged he considers the “merchandise” to be “mortgaged” and so on. Still it provides a back drop for some showy singing and the usual rapid fire Rossini ensemble numbers.
It’s a bit hard to believe, but, as far as I can tell, the only available video recording of Cecilia Bartoli singing Rosina in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is a 1988 recording made at Schwetzingen when she was 22 years old. It’s pretty typical of Michael Hampe’s productions of that period; traditional, elegant, symmetrical and generally well composed, but nothing terribly insightful. It’s also rather dark and grey in places which taxes the recording technology of the period sorely.
So here’s another Rossini one act farsa from Schwetzingen. It’s a 1990 La scala di seta in, inevitably, a production by Michal Hampe. It’s predictably pretty to look at and well constructed dramaturgically. The Paris background is a nice touch. There’s some fine singing and energetic fooling from Alessandro Corbelli as the servant Germano. The principal quartet of lovers; Luciana Serra, David Kuebler, Jane Bunnel and Alberto Rinaldi backed up by David Griffith as the girls’ guardian are stylish and toss off the various quick fire ensembles with aplomb. Gianluigi Gelmetti and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart round things out with an equally accomplished reading. So there it is, straightforward Rossini in a typical Hampe production pulled of nicely in Scwetzingen’s elegant rococo theatre.
There are two girls and two guys. The guys are not who they appear to be. Nobody is sure who is pairing off with who and there’s a scheming servant. And we are in Naples. You know the opera of course. It’s Rossini’s L’occasione fa il ladre. It’s one of Rossini’s early one act farsi for La Fenice and it’s quite good, if very silly. There are plenty of musical high jinks with fast paced ensembles and some wicked coloratura. And it has an unambiguously happy ending. You will also likely recognise some of the music as, in best Rossini fashion, he used chunks of it in later works.
There are some seriously obscure Rossini operas and Il signor Bruschino is one of them. It’s scarcely an opera at all really. It’s a one act farsa running about an hour and a quarter. By the time he wrote this one at age twenty Rossini has already had several hits in the genre and knew how to pull out a crowd pleaser but oddly Il signor Bruschini was a colossal flop. The plot was too convoluted and the music too advanced for the tastes of the farsistas. If one wanted to think about the plot one went to a proper opera house like La fenice rather than the fairly obscure Venetian theatre where the work premiered. It even offended the critics by, horror of horrors, asking the second violins to tap on their music stands with their bows during certain passages of the sinfonia.
I guess Serse gets performed as often as any Handel opera but there only appears to be one DVD version in the original Italian available. It’s a 2000 production from the Dresdner Musikfestspiele. Michael Hampe directs a cast of, then, fairly young singers, few of them familiar to me. Christophe Rousset conducts Les Talens Lyriques and the Ludwigshafener Theaterchor. It’s a really good DVD. The costumes and sets, by Carlo Tommasi, are a sort of mid 19th century European with “exotic” touches. There’s a consistent palette of black, white, grey and silver with a little deep blue and cream intruding. It’s all very elegant. The direction is more than competent. The relationships between characters are explored and Sandrine Piau, as Atalanta gets to exploit her considerable comic talents. To cap it all off we get a few, very apt, pyrotechnic surprises right at the end.
The singing is uniformly excellent. Paula Rasmussen, a mezzo, is cast in the castrato title role. It’s a role where personally I’d prefer a David Daniels or a Lawrence Zazzo but she manages to look and sound masculine enough. The same is true for Ann Hallenberg as “his” brother Arsamene; a genuine mezzo role. Patricia Bardon sings Amastre, Serse’s discarded lover who spends 9/10 of the opera disguised as a man. Ms Bardon manages the difficult feat of acting a woman pretending to be a man convincingly which is obviously quite different from a woman acting a man. I won’t try and describe the singing performances individually because I would just end up using “stylish” way too much. These are all thoroughly idiomatic Handel performances with tasteful decoration, lovely legato and accurate coloratura. The two sisters Romilda and Atalanta are played by sopranos Isobel Bayrakdarian and Sandrine Piau. It was a real pleasure to be reminded of what a fine Handelian Bayrakdarian was right at the start of her career. Her singing is just gorgeous. Piau is great too. She has great comic timing in a role that really needs it and she also gets the most coloratura fireworks which she handles very well indeed. The guys who play guys are Marcello Lippi as girls’ father, Ariodate, and Matteo Peirone as the servant, Elviro. These are both essentially buffo roles and both men are well up to them. I don’t think I’ve heard M.Rousset and his Les Talens Lyriques before but they are as good a Baroque band as I have come across. The chorus doesn’t have much to do but it does fine with what it does have. All in all, it’s very satisfying musically and dramatically.
Direction for TV/DVD is by Philip Behrens and it’s OK. There aren’t too many intrusive close ups though it’s a 4:3 picture so some of that is a bit inevitable. Picture quality is pretty typical of TV to VD productions. Sound options are PCM stereo or Dolby 5.1. The surround version sounded very good. There are no extras on the disk and the documentation is pretty basic. It’s a Euroarts production.
There’s a ten minute trailer up on Youtube that gives a really pretty good idea of what to expect though it’s a bit short on comedy and there’s no Sandrine Piau. Here it is.