influence of the Catholic Church on the lyric theatre in
Italy even beyond the period of the primo ottocento was all-pervasive.
This influence extended from the earliest operas when women
were not permitted to appear on stage well into Verdi’s middle
period. In the first decade of the 18th century
Pope Innocent XII banned all forms of theatrical performance.
This did not prevent wealthy art lovers, including Cardinals
and Princes from commissioning lavish musical works for performance
in their own palaces. With the likes of Handel and Alessandro
Scarlatti around the operatic element in the music was evident.
This was acceptable so long as the subject matter was biblical
even though the audience was receptive to the sensuality
of the often-convoluted plots. During Holy Week the festive
atmosphere could extend to elaborate scenic decoration particularly
when they were regarded as a climax to the Christian celebrations.
By the time of Rossini and Donizetti, with the lyric theatre
being popular among the masses, there were few restrictions
on stage performances. Women had replaced the castrati and
were seen on stage in all the appropriate finery, and where
the plot decreed, seductiveness. However restrictions remained
in respect of the Lenten period when it was only acceptable
to stage a work rooted in the Bible. Rossini’s fifth opera Ciro
in Babilonia, premiered on 14 March 1812 in Ferrara,
fell into this category. Although announced as a drama with
choruses it was an attempt at opera seria around an oratorio.
When based in Naples his Mose in Egito, premiered
on 5 March 1818, was described as ‘azione tragica-sacra’ in
three acts, the last short act being preceded by an interval
to facilitate the preparation of the stage set and machinery
to represent the parting of the sea. When presented with
the requirement to compose for the San Carlo during Lent
in 1830, Donizetti fell back on the same format of ‘azione
tragica-sacra’ that had served Rossini. It was the last such
occasion that the subterfuge would be necessary even in cloistered
Naples where the censors were very restrictive. His Ugo,
conte di Parigi, premiered in Milan on 13 March 1832,
and Parisina in Florence on 17 March 1833, faced no
conceived the plot of Il diluvio universale himself,
merely employing Domenico Gilardoni to versify it. It concerns
the relationship of Noah and his sons with the neighbouring
satraps and their chief Cadmo. Sela, Cadmo’s wife, had espoused
Jehovah, but is still in love with him. He agrees to take
her back if she renounces and curses the god of Noah. Despite
her inner conviction she does so, is struck by lightning,
and the flood commences. Noah and his family escape over
the rising waters. Fine in a libretto, less so in the theatre.
As with Rossini’s opera, which required the parting of the
sea, the visual realisation of Donizetti’s last scene was
something of a disaster and a drawback to the reception of
the work. The San Carlo had been provided with the best stage
machinery of the time when it was rebuilt after a disastrous
fire in 1816. It reopened in November 1817 with Rossini’s Armida.
This required lavish staging for Armida’s palace and enchanted
garden as well as having the lovers descend on a cloud that
becomes her chariot and, as Armida waves her wand, turns
into her castle. With such possibilities having been achieved,
neither Rossini in his sacred opera, nor Donizetti twelve
years later, were being overly ambitious. Despite the last
scene the work was fairly well received but never revived
in Naples after the initial Lenten run.
revised Il diluvio universale for performances in
Genoa in 1834. Unusually for Opera Rara, who tend to record
the original with an appendix of later additions, it is the
complete Genoa edition that is the basis for this recording.
For Genoa, Donizetti provided additional music, particularly
cabalettas, which he may have felt to be more theatrical.
This would certainly have the effect of taking the work further
away from the restrictions, perceived or real, of the original ‘azione
tragica-sacra’. There is also the virtue of the composer’s
greater musical maturity, confidence and competence that
had manifested itself in the intervening years and particularly
after the widespread success of Anna Bolena premiered
in December 1830. This work had launched his international
career. The intervening period had seen the premieres of L’Elisir
d’Amore and Lucrezia Borgia and the revision was
followed, within a year, by Maria Stuarda and Lucia
music of Il diluvio universale is characteristically
melodic. Whilst that given to Noah is of a more serious vein,
some of the jolly tunes that accompany the Satraps are on
a par with early Verdi in not particularly relating to the
mood of the plot. At the premiere in March 1830, Donizetti
had the great advantage of the mighty physical presence and
vocal prowess of the bass Luigi Lablache as Noah. Like Rossini’s
Moses, Noah needs vocal weight and gravitas. Whilst Mirco
Palazzi sings with good tone and legato his lean bass does
not seem to me to have the ideal weight or sonority in the
bass range to give the role its full due (CD 1 trs.18-22).
Much of the weight of the drama falls on Sela, the wife of
the Satrap leader who has espoused Jehovah. The role requires
a dramatic rather than a lyric coloratura voice. Whilst Majella
Cullagh’s voice has grown in strength, sometimes taking her
into the verismo domain on stage, her upper voice and coloratura
have largely remained flexible. I did though detect something
of a flutter intruding from time to time as she puts dramatic
weight on her voice. She has the heft to rise above the orchestra
and characterises through variety of tonal colour and weight
more than the words, which sometimes go wanting. She makes
much of Sela’s introductory scene and cavatina (CD 1 trs.
4-5) and is particularly strong in her scene with Cadmo as
Sela pleads for sight of their son (CD 2 trs.5-7). I do though
feel she lightens her tone too much in the final scene as
Sela is overcome and dies at her denial of Jehovah, when
more variation of colour would have been preferable (CD 2
trs.14-16). These are minor considerations in what is a formidable
performance in a demanding role. Manuela Custer as Ada is
well contrasted vocally with her colleague. She sings with
creamy tone but without convincing me of her fluency in coloratura
or trill. She characterises well in her duet with Cadmo (CD
1 trs.14-15) but is over-cautious in her own big aria (CD
2 trs.1-3). As Cadmo, the unbelieving Satrap leader and harsh
husband of Sela, Colin Lee’s light flexible tenor is rather
monochrome. On the plus side his diction is admirable and
his voice tuneful if with a somewhat nasal or reedy tone.
The chorus who have, as in Rossini’s Moses, a significant
role to play sing quite magnificently. On the podium Giuliano
Carella, previously unknown to me, keeps the drama on course
and finishes the work with a fine flourish (CD 2 tr. 17).
The recording is good rather than outstanding and I would
have liked a better roll of thunder as Sela is struck down.
is the fourteenth Donizetti opera issued by Opera Rara, the
majority, as here, being studio recordings. All have been
conceived and supervised by Opera Rara’s founder, Patric
Schmid, and his team. Tragically, he died at the concert
performance of Il diluvio universale given during
the recording. Without his vision and drive these Donizetti
operas, and those by other primo ottocento composers, and
which are their sole representatives in the catalogue, would
remain names in a list. As a critic I have to comment on
the details of a recording as I hear it. On a personal level,
and particularly as a lover of Italian opera, I am immensely
grateful for Schmid’s vision and drive, qualities that enable
me to hear and enjoy works that would otherwise probably
never come my way on disc or in the theatre.
need hardly add that this recording is presented in the superior
boxed manner that has always have been Opera Rara’s hallmark.
Likewise, it is accompanied by a full libretto with English
translation and an extended scholarly essay by Dr. Jeremy
Commons. This essay, as always, gives previously unknown
insights into the period of composition as well as the work
under consideration. All lovers of Opera Rara’s work, and
Donizetti in particular, will want to add this recording
to their collection.
Robert J Farr