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ROSSINI: Sigismondo

CD Button Aleida, Sánchez-Valverde, Gritskova; Tarver, Arrieta, Bakonyi; Camerata Bach Choir, Virtuosi Brunensis, Fogliani. Naxos 8.660403-04 (2)

Recordings Sigismondo Cover lg 1217
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IT'S HARD FOR a twenty-first-century operaphile to fathom the compositional liberty enjoyed by Rossini and others of his era, when bits and pieces or whole chunks of one opera could be quickly recycled for another show in another town a long, difficult carriage ride away. If operagoers in December 1814 had access to our technology, they might have attended the premiere of the very serious Sigismondo at Venice’s Fenice and wondered, as the orchestra launched into the score, “Isn’t this the overture to that rollicking Turco in Italia broadcast four months ago from La Scala?” And, a few minutes into Act I: “Isn’t that villainous tenor, Ladislao, singing the same music as Turco’s flighty Fiorilla?” 

Even without modern technology, the sharp-eared critic of the newly launched newspaper Nuovo Osservatore Veneto (quoted in Charles Jernigan’s admirable booklet notes) commended Sigismondo’s “bright flashes of genius” but spotted “in the middle of all these beauties … various motifs … already heard in different contexts, so that the general opinion is that he loves to copy himself, because he doesn’t like to work that hard.” There’s some truth in that, but could any modern composer produce five high-quality new operas within eighteen months, as “lazy” Rossini did in the year and a half from Turco to Barbiere?

Regarding Sigismondo, he wasn’t the only one borrowing. Surely more than one Venetian recalled Rossini’s Inganno Felice,a hometown hit in 1812, and caught the striking similarities of plot between that farsa and the new dramma: in both, librettist Giuseppe Foppa depicted a noble lady falsely accused of infidelity by a scheming courtier and condemned to death by her credulous spouse, but secretly saved and kept in hiding until the curtain rose; villainy is at last unmasked, and virtue is rewarded as the remarkably forgiving wife is reunited with her contrite hubby. The tale didn’t succeed so well the second time around, but Sigismondo commands respectful attention, and the “genius” and the “beauties” observed two centuries ago are no less striking today.  

Three years and nine operas later, Rossini concocted, for Rome, Adelaide di Borgogna, on a libretto by Giovanni Schmidt. Both creators were fresh from Armida. Adelaide, too, is enjoyable for us “Rossiniani,” but I can’t help feeling that after the glories of the Neapolitan masterwork Armida, the two men needed to relax; Adelaide isn’t particularly gripping in story or song. For the overture of this dramma per musica, Rossini reached all the way back to his first staged opera, Il Cambiale di Matrimonio, a farsa comica. The plot, a fanciful slice of tenth-century European history, has the title heroine—the widow of the Italian king—simultaneously pursued by the German king Ottone and the ambitious Italian blueblood Adelberto, son of the even more ambitious Berengario. (Clearly aware of the era’s conventions, she greatly favors the former, a mezzo-in-pants.) Like Sigismondo, Adelaide borrowed (and later lent); part of the fun with Rossini is spotting where and when—a pursuit that’s especially enjoyable in the earlier opera, in which recognition (and lack of it) plays a vital role in the drama.

These two performances hail from the Rossini in Wildbad festival, the “German Pesaro,” which, since its founding in 1989, has been offering vigorous, stylish competition to its nine-years-older Italian cousin. Both festivals helped introduce the world to numerous singers who became stars; of the singers on display here, I’d nominate young Russian mezzo Margarita Gritskova, as the two trousered heroes, to follow them. Only twenty-six in 2014 when she played Ottone, and twenty-eight when, audibly more mature, she sang Sigismondo, the St. Petersburg-born and -trained Gritskova is impressive with her handsomely wide-ranging voice, solid bottom to brightly ringing top and ardently engaged delivery. I’d recommend these Wildbad performances just for her, but she has worthy colleagues on both. 

The soprano leads, tailored for the talents of Rossini favorite Elisabetta Manfredini, are here split between Maria Aleida (the presumed-dead Aldimira) and Ekaterina Sadovnikova (Adelaide); the former’s airy top notes are charming, as is the latter’s lovely silvery timbre in midrange. In Sigismondo, Kenneth Tarver sings sturdily as the nasty Ladislao, though he’s taxed by the climax of his Act I aria; the lighter-toned Gheorghe Vlad, as Adelaide’s spurned Adelberto, sings with impressive neatness but less panache. The supporting roles are well taken in both operas, and the performances are stylishly led by Antonino Fogliani (Sigismondo) and Luciano Acocella (Adelaide) from the latest critical editions. The modern-live sound is good, if not great; librettos, frustratingly only in Italian, are accessible online.  —Patrick Dillon

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