Maometto II: CD Review
The Bad Wildbad festival has become known as the 'Pesaro of the North'. It not only makes a speciality of Rossini's works but also presents often long forgotten Italian operas by German composers of similar vintage. The 2002 Festival juxtaposed Peter Von Winter's Maometo, which had lain unperformed for 150 years, with Rossini's Maometto II composed for Naples in 1820. In my review of the Von Winter work, issued on Naxos's sister label, Marco Polo, I explained that the two works derived from totally different literary sources and that the plot and characters are in no way related.
Maometto II was premiered at the San Carlo Opera in Naples on December 3rd 1820. It was the eighth and arguably the most radical of the reform operas that the composer wrote for performance at that theatre. These works were 'reform' in that, distanced from the populist clamour of Rome, Rossini was able to move away from static stage scenes and simplistic orchestral forms such as crescendos. At Naples he also had the benefit of an outstanding orchestra and an unequalled roster of star singers. Starting in 1975 the Philips label recorded four of Rossini's Neapolitan operas with a star-studded cast of international soloists. This series concluded with Maometto II in 1983. The Maometto recording featured Samuel Ramey as Maometto and June Anderson as Anna. It has recently joined the other three works at mid-price. But hey! Naxos claims this issue to be a 'World Premiere Recording'. How come? The answers lie in the small print and performing practice in the 19th century. By this practice the composer was only paid by the commissioning theatre and then only for those subsequent productions elsewhere that he personally supervised. Composers tried to restrict dissemination of orchestral and vocal scores. Despite Rossini's efforts an appropriated and bowdlerised version of Maometto was presented at Venice's small San Benedetto theatre on 21st September 1822. Rossini was scheduled to present an opera for the opening night at La Fenice, Venice's premiere theatre, later that year. The contract stipulated that the work had to be new to the theatre. Maometto with its plot harking back to Venice's historical past was ideal. However, Venice was not sophisticated. Naples and Rossini needed to adapt the score to more simplistic forms and supply a happy ending. Similarly, the contracted soloists, whilst of appropriate vocal range, were not of the quality of those at Naples. The upshot was that Rossini made radical revisions to the score and reduced the burden on the soloists by removal of several solo items. The revisions are outlined in some detail in the booklet accompanying this Naxos issue, as is a brief mention of the rewrite the composer carried out when the work was presented in Paris in 1826 as 'Le Siège de Corinthe'. This recording of the Venice version is around 20 minutes shorter than the Naples version recorded by Philips.
The musical performance at Bad Wildbad is vibrant with well-sprung rhythms and forward momentum under the baton of the Australian Brad Cohen who is proving himself to be an outstanding Rossinian. The engineers have captured a clean sound with the soloists and orchestra in a clear natural perspective. I believe the performances from which the recording derived were concert rather than staged. Consequently there is no extraneous stage noise or loss of sound as singers move around. It is only applause that distinguishes the recording from best studio practice. The applause is largely limited to the end of the overture and scenes except for that at the end of the recognition duet (CD 3 trs. 2-3) when it is rather raucous and intrusive.
Maometto is a bel-canto opera. The singing of the soloists makes or breaks a performance. Bad Wildbad has shown itself to be adept at casting young affordable upcoming singers. So it is here where all the soloists acquit themselves well. Whilst the young Israeli bass Denis Sedov in the name part doesn't have the sappy resonant tone of Sam Ramey on the Philips, yet his singing is strong, characterful and true toned (CD 1 tr. 8). The Calbo of Anna-Rita Gemmabella, who has sung at La Scala, is more the low mezzo indicated in her artist profile than the contralto shown on the title page. She has an extended and resonant lower register (CD 3 tr. 5) and a wide range of vocal colour and expression. She uses her vocal skills to give an outstanding interpretation. As Erisso, the heroine Anna's father, Massimiliano Barbolini sounds a little young for the role. Somewhat dry-toned he sounds a little tired at the end of Act 1 (CD 2 tr.2). Despite these reservations his contribution is significant and his runs are secure and without aspirates. He has a good future in this fach. As Anna, Philips fielded the lyric coloratura soprano June Anderson in the role. Here Luisa Islam-Ali-Zade, a mezzo, takes the part. Her biographical note claims a range of three octaves. Certainly she has no trouble with either the coloratura or the tessitura. Her full tone allows for a wide range of expression that adds greatly to the dramatic impact of the part, which is central to the drama. Luisa Islam-Ali-Zade's voice has a quick vibrato that can become fluttery and there are times when she over-stresses for dramatic effect. Despite those minor limitations I derived more pleasure and had greater involvement in the drama than I do with Anderson on Philips. All the minor parts are well taken.
I have already referred to the excellent booklet essay which together with a track listing and track-related synopsis is given in English and German. There is an error in the synopsis in both the English and German in that the numbering for CD 1 moves from 5 (Scene and Terzetto) to 6 (Chorus and Cavatina). The latter is in fact track 8 and is correctly shown as such in the track listing. The missing track numbers 6 and 7 should be attributed to Scenes 3 and 4 as described in the synopsis.
This recording is a must for all who enjoy Rossini's operas. As more and more of the composer's works become available on CD it also provides a wonderful opportunity for enthusiasts and scholars to hear the thoughts of a master musician accommodating to different audiences and performers. It will take a proud place on my shelves alongside the twenty odd of the composers operas that are already there.
Review by Robert J Farr, MusicWeb, October 2004