Rossi: Cleopatra / Crescenzi, Theodossiou, Liberatore

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L. ROSSI Cleopatra David Crescenzi, cond; Dimitra Theodossiou ( Cleopatra ); Alessandro Liberatore ( Marco Antonio ); Sebastian Catana ( Diomede ); Paolo Pecchioli ( Ottavio Cesare ); Marchigiana PO/Ch NAXOS 2.110279 (114:56) Live: Macerata 2008

The article on Lauro Rossi (1812–85) in Grove I was written by the late Julian Budden, who was regarded, rightly, as an expert on Verdi. But as Budden considered all other Italian opera composers during the latter half of the 19th century as engaged in frustrated attempts to escape conventionality, so he does Rossi. “As a creative artist,” we’re told, he “belonged to that generation of minor composers who achieved a certain individuality within the post Rossinian tradition, but whose talent was unable to survive the tradition’s collapse.” There are several matters to dispute here: the casual proscription of the life effort of an entire generation of Italian musicians; an evolutionary theory of music that sees traditions in decline based on the rise of a single composer, a century or more after the fact; and of course, the dismissal of Rossi as a minor talent. One great composer doesn’t render all their good contemporaries less worthy of notice. When Bongiovanni released an admittedly subpar but exciting performance of the comic Il domino nero (2328/29) in 2003, it was apparent that Rossi rated neither this dismissal, nor that the style he wrote in had “collapsed.”

Cleopatra is something else again. It was composed almost three decades after Il domino nero , in 1876, and owes far less to Donizetti than it does to Meyerbeer, Auber—and occasionally, mid-period Verdi. Rossi as the Milan Conservatory’s director had developed over the decades a reputation for open-minded acceptance of stylistic innovation, and despite what Budden writes, it’s apparent he was also capable of moving musically with the times in his own work. This isn’t to say that Cleopatra is a major find. Leaving aside obvious but unfair comparisons with Aida , Rossi’s opera sometimes fails to find enough musical tension, or to match its brilliant orchestral palette with content that is similarly inspired. Nor does the literary merit of his libretto sustain investigation. But the work’s best pages—the act III final ensemble, Cleopatra’s heartfelt act II aria—lack nothing for focus or drama. It has effective part-writing throughout, and attractive thematic material. Cleopatra was worth the revival, even in a production that only intermittently supports the work.

The production problems are in part a matter of money, as you’d expect. The costumes give every impression of being Norma hand-me-downs, with a lot of black robes and no Egyptian cultural motifs in sight. Similarly, Cleopatra ’s sets are a few platforms and a long set of stark stairs. If this were truly historical, we’d have to conclude the New Dynasty got its architecture and fashions courtesy of Walter Gropius. Pier Luigi Pizzi is responsible for both, and for the stage blocking, which is usually competent—save for the act I banquet scene that startlingly poses its chorus indolently about the stage while the music proclaims festive, energetic activity.

Two of the three main performances rise above all this. Dimitra Theodossiou sings with an intensity that recalls Gencer. Her voice is dark, and with more than a hint of a beat under pressure, but intonation is accurate, and her control allows for every intended effect to succeed, with the exception of a few attempts at floated tones that remain earthbound. Sebastian Catana’s dark, mellifluous baritone is notable for scoring its dramatic points without leaving the musical line. Among the principals, only Alessandro Liberatore disappoints, with a small lyric tenor that has clearly been pushed throughout its range for volume, resulting in the “blown” sound that often hits singers much later in their careers. David Crescenzi doesn’t lead from the pit; he follows, though competently. In all fairness, he isn’t assisted by the sound engineering, which recesses the orchestra. Rossi makes much of instrumental detail, and it’s admittedly difficult to hear well at times.

Nor does the camerawork help. It suffers from the fidgets—an unwillingness to hold a shot for more than two or three seconds—and an excessive use of close-ups, turning the visuals for many ensembles into a confused mess. The curious thing is that the video director uses diagonal shots of a given singer across the stage for artistic effect, but never once considers employing this to bring multiple cast members who are singing together into a coherent image.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note the negative aspects of this production. Despite these, I do recommend the purchase of Cleopatra to all fans of 19th-century Italian opera. If it lacks the sustained invention of Gomes and the dramatic innovations of Mercadante, it still has enough vitality to sustain a revival, and enough power to triumph despite that production’s limitations.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal

Dates tell you an awful lot when it comes to opera. Take Lauro Rossi for example. Born two years after Verdi, he died two years before the premiere of the great Italian master’s Otello. His Cleopatra, based on an Egyptian theme, was premiered four and a half years after Verdi’s Aida, also based on an Egyptian theme. Although Rossi seems not to merit even a mention in Michael and Joyce Kennedy’s Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (Fifth Edition, 2007), he was no operatic or composer ingénue. On the contrary, he was among those chosen by Verdi to compose a section of the proposed Messe per Rossini - in his case the Agnus Dei. It is also true that his name does not feature, along with seven others of the twelve chosen by Verdi for that composition, in the esoteric list of operatic composers found in the Opera Rara catalogue. This is perhaps forgivable as even the vastly experienced Pier Luigi Pizzi, director of this production, claimed not to have heard of him until this production! He should have done more home-work. I have a performance of Rossi’s comic opera Il Domino Nero recorded live with the Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana, the same as here, on 28 September 2001. Nor should Pizzi have been surprised given the name of the theatre where this performance of Cleopatra took place, rather than in the open-air arena normally the venue of the large-scale opera performances of the Sferisterio Festival (See reviews of Maria Stuarda, Macbeth and Norma from the 2007 Festival). Meanwhile, we should be grateful that Pizzi’s efforts at fund-raising saved the Festival, albeit with some changes of programme after the withdrawal of state funding; perhaps shadows of things to come nearer home in the UK.

Fortunately the essay in the accompanying leaflet is highly informative. Rossi premiered a shared composition at the San Carlo, Naples, in 1830 after which his compositions came thick and fast . On Donizetti’s recommendation he was offered an appointment at the Teatro Valle in Rome. His tenth opera was premiered at La Scala in 1834 indicating that Rossi composed at a similar pace to Donizetti and Rossini, as was necessary to earn a living in an era when the diva was paid more than the composer. After the failure of a commission for the great diva Maria Malibran in Naples in 1834, Rossi took his talents to North and South America where he was music director and organizer of several opera companies. After a return to Europe Rossi was not short of work, composing both comic and tragic operas. His comic opera Il Domino Nero, presented in Milan in 1849, was a great success. But when the security of an academic post was offered in Milan in 1850 he took it and his pace of composition lessened. Even so six of his works were a success during this period. He moved to Naples Music Conservatory in 1870, working there until 1878 during which time he wrote his penultimate work Cleopatra, and after which he retired to the musical town of Cremona.

Premiered at the Teatro Regio, Turin, on 5 March 1876, Rossi’s Cleopatra caught the public’s imagination. Whether or not Verdi’s Aïda premiered five years earlier influenced his composition, or its reception , is conjectural. Whilst the musical style lacks the bravura of Verdi’s creation it is composed with the dramatic situations well supported by the music, be that in aria, duet or ensemble. Despite the well-known nature of the love of Anthony, Antonio here, and the eponymous heroine, Rossi’s Cleopatra requires a clear and easily comprehensible production. In this respect none does that better than the vastly experienced Pier Luigi Pizzi, especially as - his norm these days - he also designs the sets and costumes. The costumes of the Roman contingent are very much in period with bare knees and togas for the men and long decorous red dresses for the women; the colour differentiating them from the white of the Egyptians. Cleopatra herself is dressed wholly in a black, somewhat voluminous dress. Her admirer, Diomede is also dressed in all black but with an ornament. The single set is very much standard Pizzi mainly comprising wide-stepped stairs with the odd black flat surface downstage where the eponymous heroine has some of her dramatic moments in clear focus.

I do not know which came first, the signing of Dimitra Theodossiou or the choice of opera. They certainly go well together. The work requires a big dramatic-voiced Cleopatra who can throw her voice and whole being into the portrayal. The downside of Dimitra Theodossiou in any repertoire of this type is an intrusive vibrato at dramatic climaxes. I would not wish to overstate this, as the impact is less than it might be. Her vocal contribution is significantly superior to that of her colleagues, most notably in Cleopatra’s act two-aria sequence starting with Lieto in raggio (Chs.9-11) as bereft in her palace Cleopatra yearns for Antonio. As her advisor and would-be suitor Diomede, Sebastian Catana, more bass than baritone, is among the best of a variable supporting cast (Chs.4, 5,12,13). The tenor Antonio, Alessandro Liberatore, is musical but lacks the required heft and clear ping to his voice (Chs.24-26). As Ottavio Cesare, who wishes Antonio to marry his sister in order that he can wage a successful war in the east, Paolo Pecchioli’s bass has more cover than clarity and the role loses some dramatic impact as a consequence (Chs.9, 28); one senses a good voice trying to escape. With her strong contraltoish tones Tiziana Carraro, as Cesare’s sister Ottavia, has too much dramatic impact than the role really calls for (Chs.16-18). David Crescenzi, the chorus master, conducts the performance. He stepped in at the very last minute and as a consequence the extant overture was not performed. Like the chorus he prepared, his achievement in Rossi’s little known opera is considerable.

The music itself falls somewhere between that of the Italian bel canto and the verismo composers. You will look in vain for the fibre and character of Verdi’s Aida, let alone of Otello. Nonetheless it is melodic and contains several dramatic confrontations and some notable scenes, including the thrilling ensemble that closes Act 3.

The DVD direction shows a little of the intimate theatre. During the opera itself not much is seen of the whole of the stage, the director focusing on close-ups or mid-shots. The sound and picture quality are good.

-- Robert J Farr, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 2110279

  • UPC: 747313527953

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Lauro Rossi

  • Conductor: David Crescenzi

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Coro Lirico Marchigiano V. Bellini, Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana

  • Performer: Alessandro Liberatore, Dimitra Theodossiou, Paolo Pecchioli, Sebastian Catana