December 12, 2012


Vivaldi: Orlando Furioso (1714 version). Riccardo Novaro, baritone; Romina Basso, mezzo-soprano; Gaëlle Arquez, Teodora Gheorghiu and Roberta Mameli, sopranos; Delphine Galou, contralto; David DQ Lee, countertenor; Modo Antiquo conducted by Federico Maria Sardelli. Naïve. $33.99 (2 CDs).

André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry: Le Magnifique. Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Jeffrey Thompson and Karim Sulayman, tenors; Elizabeth Calleo and Marguerite Krull, sopranos; Douglas Williams, bass-baritone; Randall Scarlata, baritone; Opera Lafayette conducted by Ryan Brown. Naxos. $9.99.

Maria Callas Sings Verdi: Studio Recordings 1954-56. Dynamic. $14.99.

      One of the most interesting new operas to have come along recently is a very old one: Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso. This is not the well-known 1727 opera – it is one of the same title, on the same subject, with the same libretto, but dating to 1714.  The rediscovery of the opera this year was a major musical event and a great rarity: works this important simply do not “go missing” for 270 years after a composer’s death.  But this one did, although “missing” is not quite right: the score was held among Vivaldi’s papers in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin, Italy, but it did not have a composer’s name on it and was wrongly considered a revision of an opera attributed to the little-known Giovanni Alberto Ristori.  It was only very recently that Federico Maria Sardelli identified it as being by Vivaldi. Once the authorship was confirmed by other Vivaldi scholars, the work received its modern première in July and was promptly recorded as part of the ongoing Vivaldi Edition from Naïve. One of the ironies of the rediscovery is that it has long been known that an Orlando opera was performed in 1714 at the Teatro San Angelo in Venice and was such a big hit that it ran for 40 performances – impressive for the time. But no one knew exactly what that Orlando was. The theater’s directors were Vivaldi and his father, who was also a musician, but, again, no one made the connection, or had any reason to do so. Now there is reason aplenty, and the 1714 Orlando Furioso, with more than a dozen arias never heard before, is available for Vivaldi scholars and all interested listeners, in Sardelli’s meticulous reconstruction and with him directing the ensemble Modo Antiquo.  For all the understandable excitement that the rediscovery of this work has generated, it will not overwhelm most modern listeners or fill them with wonder.  The story is the well-known one from Ludovico Ariosto’s poem and Vivaldi’s later Orlando – a tale of love, magic and madness, with the spurned, jealous knight Orlando going mad when his beloved Angelica weds another, but eventually recovering his reason and forgiving Angelica and her husband, Medoro.  The upbeat conclusion, however, is missing in the 1714 Orlando, because only two acts have survived, the second ending with Orlando going mad.  The third act is, at least at this point, nowhere to be found – one reason this recording, as fascinating as it is, will remain outside the mainstream and be of most interest to Vivaldi specialists. 

      The 1714 Orlando libretto by Grazio Braccioli is the same one that Vivaldi revisited in 1727.  What is not the same in the earlier composition, and in fact is surprising in light of Vivaldi’s later works and the usual approach of Baroque opera, is that the role of Orlando is sung by a baritone (Riccardo Novaro), not a contralto or mezzo-soprano, as in the later piece.  Structurally, the 1714 Orlando follows the typical approach of opera seria and of Vivaldi’s later version, with the action carried forward through recitatives while the arias are used to comment on what has happened and give characters’ reactions to events.  The music is less advanced, less developed, than that in the later opera, but it has considerable beauty and commendable clarity – Vivaldi composed The Four Seasons at about the same time as the earlier Orlando, although there is no musical connection between the works.  The excellent Naïve recording is and will remain a specialty item, perhaps, and may be of greater interest to scholars than to music lovers in general – but this Orlando is a wonderful work on its own terms, not as grand as Vivaldi’s later version but filled with beautiful music, expressive arias and a fascinatingly different take on Ariosto’s poem and Braccioli’s libretto.  It is a curiosity, yes, but an absolutely fascinating one.

      Le Magnifique is a curiosity, too, and a rediscovery of a different kind, written in the same century as Vivaldi’s two Orlando versions but partaking of an entirely different sensibility.  This 1773 opera, to a libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine that is based on a tale by La Fontaine, is very much of the Classical era, during which André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry (1741-1813) was considered to be France’s greatest composer of opera-comique. The story line will be entirely familiar to anyone who knows Rossini’s or Paisiello’s The Barber of Seville, whose source dates to the same time period: Pierre Beaumarchais’ Le Barbier de Séville was first performed in 1775.  In Le Magnifique, a cruel, older tutor named Aldobrandin (Jeffrey Thompson) is determined to marry the young Clémentine (Elizabeth Calleo) who has been entrusted to his care. But Octave (Emiliano Gonzalez Toro), known as Le Magnifique, figures out how to wrest the girl away from her unwanted suitor and win her for himself. The centerpiece scene here is not a shaving distraction but Aldobrandin’s agreement to give Octave 15 minutes to speak with the girl provided that he, Aldobrandin, is present; and it turns out that the tutor has commanded the girl to keep silent, so Octave cleverly asks Clémentine to drop the rose she is holding if she accepts his proposal – which she does; and he thereafter maneuvers matters to the lovers’ mutual satisfaction and Aldobrandin’s discomfiture.  Grétry’s programmatic overture, a rarity for its time, sets up the story nicely, and the music of the opera – which runs 80 minutes and which Naxos has managed to fit onto a single CD – propels the plot along neatly, with the love music being especially expressive.  Opera Lafayette has successfully revived quite a few long-unperformed operas, and does itself proud once again with this sparkling recording.  Ryan Brown leads the troupe with a sure hand, and if Le Magnifique is scarcely a work of major importance, it is one with many pleasures and a catchy, well-constructed score that is well worth rediscovering – or discovering in the first place.

      There is nothing “undiscovered” about Maria Callas, and therefore nothing particularly surprising in the new Verdi recording from Dynamic’s Historical Series.  Nor is this 58-minute CD likely to please today’s opera enthusiasts completely.  The studio recordings here were made from 1954 to 1956, when Callas (who had recently lost a great deal of weight) was nearing the height of her fame but was not at the pinnacle of her performing ability from a strictly musical standpoint (her acting was another matter).  The sound quality is all right but on the dull side, and the selections are ones that are already widely available from Callas and many other singers.  There are certainly some significant high points here, including “Caro nome” from Rigoletto and “Ritorna vincitor!” from Aida, but the excerpts are very much of the “greatest hits” type: three arias each from La Forza del Destino and Un Ballo in Maschera, two apiece from Il Trovatore and Aida, and the single one from Rigoletto.  The great performers of the 1940s and 1950s are being heard more often on CDs now, and that is in many ways a good thing, but the quality of recording has advanced so much – as has the quality of opera singing – that performances that seemed exceptional 60 years ago now seem interesting but lacking in the punch that modern ones deliver.  It is worth remembering that Callas was a superstar not only because of her voice but also because of her theatrical presence and her stormy personal life.  Those latter two characteristics have faded with time, and while the voice is still worth hearing – it is not a beautiful voice, but she used it beautifully – it no longer seems the ne plus ultra that it once did.  This Callas collection gets a (+++) rating and will be of interest mainly to those who have not yet heard “La Divina” and are interested in how she handled some Verdi standards at a time when her vocal abilities were not quite at their peak but were still very much a force to be reckoned with.

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