Giovanni PAISIELLO (1740 -1816) Fedra - opera in two acts (1788)
Raffaella Milanesi (soprano) – Fedra; Artavazd Sargsyan (tenor) – Teseo; Anna Maria Dell’Oste (soprano) – Aricia; Caterina Poggini (soprano) – Ippolito; Piera Bivona (soprano) – Learco; Esther Andaloro (soprano) – Diana; Sonia Fortunato (mezzo) – Tisifone; Salvatore D’Agata (tenor) - Mercurio; Giuseppe Lo Turco (bass) – Plutone;
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Massimo Bellini di Catania/Jérôme Correas
rec. Teatro Massimo Bellini di Catania, January 2016
No texts enclosed DYNAMIC CDS7750/1-2 [55:09 + 63:28]
In Greek mythology Phaedra, sister of Ariadne, is married to Theseus, but falls in love with Hippolytus, Theseus’s son by another woman. Hippolytus turns her down and Phaedra, in revenge, tells Theseus that Hippolytus has raped her. Theseus believes her. What happens then is an open question, since there are several versions of the story. In one of them Theseus turns to Poseidon, who frightens Hippolytus’s horses and Hippolytus dies. In another version Theseus kills his son and Phaedra commits suicide. In a third version Phaedra doesn’t kill herself but Dionysus sends a bull which frightens Hippolytus’s horses.
This story has inspired many authors, for instance Euripides, Seneca, Racine, D’Annunzio and O’Neill, and composers including Mikis Theodorakis, Benjamin Britten and John Tavener. Several operas are also based on the Phaedra story: Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie (1733), Francesco Algarotti’s Ippolito e Aricia (1759), Giovanni Paisiello’s Fedra (1788), Simon Mayr’s Fedra (1820), Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Fedra (1912) and Hans Werner Henze’s Phaedra (2007). Of these only the earliest, Rameau’s first opera Hippolyte et Aricie, can with some justification be named a standard work – at least within the early music sector. There are at least four complete recordings available (2 CD, 2 DVD) and two more were issued on LP, of which at least Anthony Lewis’s recording for L'Oiseau-Lyre was transferred to CD.
The present recording of Paisiello’s Fedra, to a libretto by the Abbot Luigi Bernabè Salvoni after a tragedy by Carlo Innocenzo Frugoni, is presented in an edition based on the autograph manuscript which is in the library of the Naples Conservatory. It disregards the changes made for the 1791 Vienna performance. The cover says "World Premiere Recording", which is a statement that needs qualifying. In 1989 Nuovo Era issued a CD set with the opera in a digitally re-mastered version of an original recording from 1958. It wasn’t too well received by Gramophone, either as an opera or a performance, but Nicholas Anderson found some scenes that appealed to him and after all gave at least a hint that this is a tragedy. Much of the music was however too light-hearted. I can’t fully agree with him, but he was no doubt reviewing a garbled version, presumably the one for Vienna. Thus the present recording is a "world premiere" of the original.
Paisiello was an enormously prolific composer. Besides a lot of church music and a considerable amount of instrumental music, including nine string quartets and eight keyboard concertos, he composed 96 operas. Twelve of those were written during his stay at the court of Empress Catherine II of Russia in St Petersburg. The most famous was his masterpiece Il barbiere di Siviglia (1782) which was a resounding success in the rest of Europe as well. Insofar as he is known today it is primarily through this work. It was overshadowed by Rossini’s work of the same title and basically the same story – both works were closely based on Pierre Beaumarchais’s play – but didn’t disappear completely from the repertoire. It is still staged and has had at least three complete recordings.
Fedra was written for Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, where Paisiello returned after his sojourn in Russia. It opens with a finely wrought sinfonia which gives little hint whether what is to follow when the curtain rises will be buffo or seria. Structurally the first of the two acts is constructed along the pattern of the Neapolitan operas since the days of Alessandro Scarlatti: arias separated by recitative secco; that is accompanied by a harpsichord. Since this is a tragedy the chorus has a lot to sing in between, but this pattern prevails until we reach the end of the act. There Teseo meets Plutone (CD 1 tr. 16) and suddenly there is a darkness in the music and dramatic intensity, beginning with a threatening orchestral introduction followed by a dialogue that feels ‘modern’ – from a 1788 point of view. This feeling prevails for the rest of the act.
In the second act the tense atmosphere is a noticeable common feature. The arias are more dramatic, accompanied recitatives are employed more abundantly and the tension is increangly intense from Omnipotenti Dei questo è l’incontro (CD 2 tr. 11) in a scene that is practically through-composed. The scene also includes the only real duet, No, non partir (CD 2 tr. 14) with Aricia and Ippolito. There is very little in this act that can be characterised as light-hearted. Verdi could have turned this libretto into a true elevated tragedy had he ever bothered to tackle Greek mythology but Paisiello’s attempt is far from negligible.
Jérôme Correas, himself a former bass-baritone and early member of William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants, chooses sensible tempos and draws some dramatic playing from his orchestra and the chorus. It's not on the level of their colleagues from more prestigious houses but they do an honourable job. The soloists negotiate their roles worthily and in particular in the second act there is a great deal of good dramatic singing. Raffaella Milanesi in the title role and Anna Maria Dell’Oste as Aricia deliver their solos with great conviction. Artavazd Sargsyan as Teseo is excellent in the long scene in act II (CD 2 tr. 11-13) but the best singing per se we get from Caterina Poggini’s Ippolito.
The live recording is fully acceptable but the production is rather noisy with bumps and stamps. There is occasional applause but distant and quickly faded out. The most serious objection I have is the absence of a libretto, and I haven’t been able to find it online. There is not even a real synopsis, only a brief account of the story with no references to relevant tracks.
Fedra is no masterpiece but it is a worthy attempt and this recording is a valuable addition to the growing catalogue of more or less forgotten operas.