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Niccolò PICCINNI (1728-1800)
L’Americano - Intermezzo for four voices in two acts (1772)
Donna Aurora, Lisandra’s fiancé - Giovanna Dondadini (mezzo-soprano)
Cavaliere Lisandro, an Italian aristocrat - Domenico Colaianni (baritone)
Villotto, an American - Simon Edwards (tenor)
Silvia, Aurora’s friend - Patrizia Ciofi (soprano)
Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia/Eric Hull
rec. live, Festival Valle d’Itria di Martina Franca, July 1996
DYNAMIC CDS 743/1-2 [75:04 + 74:28]

Niccolò Piccinni was one of the most prolific opera composers in his own day. He worked for a long time in Rome before moving to Paris where he was caught up in a high profile dispute with Gluck. He lapsed into obscurity in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Of his operas 119 survive - the whole total may have been as high as 300 - but he is hardly ever performed nowadays. Somewhat like Cherubini and Meyerbeer, his historical importance is far in advance of his popularity. On paper he is a prime candidate for revival, but I very much doubt that L’Americano will spark any sort of renaissance.
The Festival Valle d’Itria specialises in promoting obscure operas and they have a lot of experience in it. The musical performances given here are noble and trusty. However, I regret to say that the work itself struck me as utterly conventional and entirely unremarkable. It’s as if you’re listening to all the conventions that Mozart and Rossini superseded in their works; it’s like listening in on a forgotten past. Nothing wrong with that, you might think, but music moved on in the late 18th century and left Piccinni in the dust. Consequently, my predominant view of this recording is that it is of historical interest only.
Take, for example, the character of Cavaliere Lisandro. He is a standard comic buffo role, the rich elder man whose betrothal does not work out but who rescues matters for the younger couple in the end. He is sung attractively enough here by Domenico Colaianni, but his arias consist mostly of conventional harrumphing with no psychological insight that I could detect. He manages to inject a little sparkle into Questo e il Regno delle Femmine, his main rant in Act 2, but there isn’t much else to write home about. Simon Edwards has a very pleasant tenor voice, and his Act 1 aria, in particular, is pleasing on the ear; but musically it is more diverting than interesting and all of his musical material is easily forgettable. Furthermore, his tenor is quite similar to Colaianni’s baritone, making them fairly difficult to distinguish in the ensemble scenes.
Not even Patrizia Ciofi can inject much comic sparkle into the role of Silvia. The arias of pathos suit her voice better, especially Mi cercano l’agnelle in Act 1. Only Giovanna Dondadini manages to inject some consistent verve into her part. The orchestral playing feels regrettably heavy. I wonder would it have had more zing with a period band? Also the live acoustic is plagued with echo, which doesn’t help matters. Nor does the texture vary much with only four singers and no chorus.
The biggest sin of all, however, is committed by Dynamic themselves, whose packaging for this release is unforgivably slight. We get an interesting enough essay giving some of the work’s background but there is no libretto in either English or Italian. There is a very slight synopsis - which isn’t cued - which only reinforces the feeling of the opera’s conventionality. Most of the time I had to deduce what was going on but was entirely divorced from the details. This really isn’t good enough: how can they hope for an obscure work to catch on if they’re not going to give you any help with it? This one is only for historians, I fear, and even then only if they’re prepared to work pretty hard at it.
Simon Thompson