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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Le Siège de Corinthe- Tragédie-lyrique in three acts (1826)
Mahomet II, leader of the Turks - Lorenzo Regazzo (bass); Cléomène, governor of Corinth - Marc Sala (tenor); Pamyra, his daughter - Majella Cullagh (soprano); Néocles, a young Greek officer - Michael Spyres (tenor); Hiéros, an old grave-custodian - Matthieu Lecroart (bass); Adraste, confidante of Cléomene - Gustavo Quaresma Ramos (tenor); Omar, confidante of Mahomet - Marco Filippo Romano (baritone); Ismène, confidante of Pamyra - Silvia Beltrami (mezzo)
Camerata Bach Choir, Poznan/Iñaki Encina Oyón
Virtuosi Brunensis/Jean-Luc Tingaud
rec. live, Trinkhalle, Bad Wildbad, XXII Festival, 18, 20, 23 July 2010.
Libretto (French only) available online.
NAXOS 8.660329-30 [75.41 + 75.38]

It is something of a double that Maometto II should receive its belated British premiere at Garsington (see review) as this, the first sensible recording of Rossini’s Paris revision of the work hits the shelves. This performance derives from the Bad Wildbad Festival; one that has become known as the Pesaro of the North. It not only makes a speciality of Rossini’s works but also presents those of often long forgotten Italian operas by German composers of similar vintage. Naxos has issued several commendable recordings from this source that allow appreciation of Rossini’s emerging genius to be heard at modest expense. This issue precedes by one month a performance of Semiramide from Bad Wildbad and recorded at the XXIV Festival (to be reviewed). Le Siège de Corinthe was the first opera composed by Rossini for the Paris Opera after his appointment as director of the Théâtre Italien in Paris in 1823. Semiramide, was the last opera he composed for an Italian theatre.
 
The genesis of Le Siège is complicated, however a little context is necessary for an understanding of the music. Rossini’s original version - Maometto II - was premiered at the San Carlo in Naples on 3 December 1820. It was his thirty-first opera and the eighth, and the most radical, of the reform operas that he had written for performance there. At Naples Rossini had the benefit of a full-time orchestra and chorus. It also boasted an unequalled roster of star singers engaged by Barbaja, the formidable impresario of the Royal Theatres, who had brought Rossini to Naples as Musical Director. This enabled Rossini to distance himself from the populist clamour of Rome and Venice for crescendos and simplistic orchestral forms, static arias, stage scenes and comic operas. The outcomes were highly dramatic bel canto opera seria with flights of coloratura and vocal decorations paralleled by greater orchestral complexity. This Italian format was not appropriate for Paris and Rossini needed to grapple with the prosody of the French language and re-align his own compositional style towards that of his new hosts. However, before tackling that problem Rossini had the unavoidable duty of writing an opera to celebrate the coronation of Charles X in Rheims Cathedral in June 1825. Called Il viaggio a Reims and composed to an Italian libretto, it was presented at the Théâtre Italien on 19 June 1825 (see DVD review).
 
The “Coronation Opera” over, the works in French were a little slow in coming. However, when they did, first in the form of Le Siège de Corinthe, premiered on 9 October 1826, they were received with acclaim. Le Siège was a spectacular success in both musical and visual presentation and can be seen as the progenitor of the Grande Opera style. It arrived complete with de rigueur ballet that was to dominate at the Paris Opéra (Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique) for half a century.
 
The plot is basically the same as for Maometto II but with the sacking of Corinthe rather than Venice the scene of the action. This shift had the advantage of topicality with the Greek struggle for liberty from the Turks commanding sympathy among Parisians in the 1820s. Pamyra, daughter of Cléomène, Governor of Corinthe, has fallen in love with Mahomet using a false name. Her father wishes her to marry Néocles, a young and heroic Greek officer. When she learns the truth about Mahomet’s identity she stabs herself rather than be the wife of the man who has conquered her country. With en travestie roles being unacceptable in Paris the role of Néocles is given to a tenor.
 
The musical adaptation involved Rossini in a considerable toning down of the Italian bel canto display arias, the rewriting of recitatives and the more extensive use of chorus. Display arias do not wholly disappear and certainly that for the tenor hero, Néocles in act two (CD2 Tr.6), and the contribution of Pamyra in the finale (CD2 Tr.9) are up there with the vocal demands in Maometto II. With that in mind Bad Wildbad fields two suitable voices, one relatively new, the other a well known participant in bel canto recordings from Opera Rara. The tenor is the American, Michael Spyres. In the UK in May 2013 Spyres made a big impression stepping in at the premiere of the new Covent Garden production of Rossini’s La donna del Lago, the composer’s immediate predecessor to Maometto II at Naples, when the scheduled tenor Colin Lee was forced to withdraw due to indisposition. Both Spyres and Lee, when the latter had recovered, featured in the live cinema transmission and matched Juan Diego Florez note for note in their respective roles. Spyres is up to the demands of the role in this performance too, singing with vocal flexibility and appealing tone. I note from the artist biographies - very welcome, thank you Naxos - that he has appeared at major houses in bel canto and lyric roles. I look forward to hearing more from him, not least in this repertoire.
 
In the second tenor role of Pamyra’s father, Cléomène, Bad Wildbad has another high-flying tenor able to handle the demanding tessitura in its cast. He steps forward in the person of Spaniard Marc Salsa; new to me. There are times, as in the act two trio of the two men and Pamyra (CD2 Tr.7), when distinguishing between the two tenors is not easy. It is preferable, however, to having a more distinct but less flexible voice in the role. It bodes well as interest in these operas increases in the present day in even the major operatic centres after nearly a century of neglect.
 
As Pamyra, the daughter who unknowingly falls in love with the enemy, Majella Cullagh has form in bel canto roles, singing in many recordings from Opera Rara including Rossini’s Elisabetta and Bianca e Falliero (see review). Her strong characterisation allied to vocal flexibility is well in evidence in this performance. Her voice has slightly more edge than in some of her earlier recordings, of Donizetti as well as Rossini, but remains a formidable instrument. She handles the demanding coloratura with aplomb (CD1.Tr.7).
 
Lorenzo Regazzo as Mahomet II impressed me less than the other principals. He has sonority but also some unsteadiness. Otherwise his characterisation and diction are more than adequate. The chorus are well up to Rossini’s extended demands whilst on the rostrum, Jean-Luc Tingaud is fully at home in the idiom.
 
This recording presents a new edition for Rossini in Wildbad by Florian Bauer. It is based on a revision, by Jean-Luc Tingaud, of the original edition and on the parts for the first performance on 9 October 1826.  

Le Siège de Corinthe
has not fared well in the recording studio. A 1969 recording of a later Italian translation featuring Beverly Sills and Shirley Verrett (EMI CMS 64335-2) hardly flatters the work. A film of a stage production, particularly if it included a spectacular visual finale as brought the house down in Paris in 1826 and as well sung as this recording, would be very welcome. In the meantime this audio recording does at least do Rossini’s creation full justice. It also allows enthusiasts to appreciate his first venture into the French style of composition which was to last all too briefly. A mere four operas followed before he laid down his pen in terms of operatic composition with Guillaume Tell in 1829, at the young age of thirty-nine; this despite living nearly as long afterwards.
 
Robert J Farr  

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