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BELLINI: Adelson e Salvini

CD Button Barcellona; Scala, Pegossov, Alberghini, Muraro; BBC Symphony Orchestra, Opera Rara Chorus, Rustioni. Text and translation. Opera Rara ORC 56 (2)

Recordings Adelson e Salvini Cover 717

YOU WON'T HEAR MUCH of “Bellini” for long stretches of Adelson e Salvini, the composer’s first opera, written at age twenty-three for his graduation from the Royal College of Music in Naples. A lot of the writing owes a conspicuous debt to Rossini, then the city’s reigning musical deity. The overture’s slow introduction mimics the analogous passage in Il Barbiere di Siviglia,while its allegro culminates in a “Rossini rocket.” A plot revelation in the Act II finale leads to a typical Rossinian ensemble of stupefaction. One of the principals is a basso buffo of a kindcommon throughout the comic operas of the older composer but whose like isn’t found in Bellini’s later works. 

A few key moments, though, display the distinctive voice of the composer of Norma and I Puritani. The tenor Salvini’s Act III aria “Si cadro…ma estinto ancora,” sung to a characteristically arpeggiated accompaniment, is an example of the long melodic line—“melodia lunga lunga lunga”—that Verdi prized in Bellini’s work. Five years after Adelson, Bellini recast “Dopo l’oscuro nembo,” the Act I romance for Nelly, the contralto prima donna, as “O quante volte,” Juliet’s entrance aria in I Capuleti e i Montecchi. The reworking shows a degree of musical sophistication not present in this iteration, whittling the Adelson version down to two strophes from four and adding ornamentation that draws out the melody to its furthest possible extension. But the tune is intact here, in all its sinuous, minor-key beauty, and it could not have been written by any other composer. 

Adelson’s libretto, by Andrea Leone Tottola, is a hand-me-down that had been set in 1816 by Valentino Fioravanti; it’s so flimsy that it’s a wonder it was used even once, let alone twice. It recasts a gothic, eighteenth-century tragedy (François-Thomas-Marie de Baculard d’Arnaud’s novella Adelson et Salvini) as an opera semiseria, adding buffo relief and a ludicrously happy ending to a tale that involves an attempted kidnapping and an apparent murder. The piece follows the opéra comique practice of using dialogue instead of recitative. Later in his career, Bellini was able to make recitative sustain the lyric impulse of his music; in comparison, Adelson seem comparatively short-breathed and fragmented. 

Perhaps because of the Rossini influence, up-tempo numbers dominate the piece, emphasizing its comic aspects. But as derivative as the music may be, it never seems stale: the work exudes the excitement of a young composer gaining control over his musical materials while tackling the genre that would earn him renown. Daniele Rustioni’s buoyant reading draws out the work’s verdant freshness. Tempos are firm but never constricting; the piece’s motor impulse seems to spring up all but unbidden from the pit. The BBC Symphony Orchestra is wonderfully alert. 

But the cast is uneven. Adelson, the hero, is unusually florid for a baritone role, calling for more dexterity in rapid passagework than Simone Alberghini can deliver. No such problem afflicts Enea Scala, as his rival, Salvini; in fact, a generation ago his delivery of coloratura would have been a marvel. But compared to the best of the current bel canto tenors, Scala’s tone is pinched and unlovely, especially on high. Daniela Barcellona brings unquestionable stylistic authority to Nelly, but her voice’s persistent beat on high tones lends the character an unseemly dowdiness. All three leads excel in their delivery of dialogue: there’s music in the way these performers speak their native language.

Baritone Rodion Pogossov, as the villain Struley, offers scant bel canto elegance in his entrance aria, but his firm, vibrant tone, with its hint of a snarl, suits the dastardly character; it’s a pleasure in its own right. The best among the principals is Maurizio Muraro, as the buffo Bonifacio, creating comedy through his ebullient articulation of patter.

Opera Rara, with its customary scrupulous musicology, has included an appendix consisting of four numbers that Bellini wrote for an aborted revival. The CD booklet features an encyclopedic consideration of Adelson’s history, by Benjamin Walton, along with a generous selection of photos from the recording sessions, showing the performers on a voyage of joyous musical discovery. —Fred Cohn 

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