Monday, November 11, 2013

Getting a Grip on Rossini

Chez Buce has enjoyed the viewing of two Rossini operas in the last couple of weeks, with  lot on common. One, we'd never really heard of either. Two, they both showcase Juan Diego Flórez who (among other achievements) is on the shortlist of Mrs. B's operatic heartthrobs.  And three, they both come from the Rossini Festival at Pesaro, Rossini's  birthplace, on the east coast of Italy, downhill from Urbino and south of Ravenna.    Mr. and Mrs. Buce have never set foot in Pesaro.  I guess I've breezed by at 55 mph but without so much as a how d'ya do.  

But our inattention doesn't seem to have impeded them in any particular way.  Seems like they have established themselves as a major-league summer festival venue, with three theaters, a comfy state subsidy, and the mandate to keep alive--or better, to revivify-- some of the overlooked items among the 40-odd entries in Rossini's operatic catalogue.

The two new entries in our consciousness are Matilde de Shabran, #32 (1821)  if my count is correct,  and Zelmira, #33,  a year later in in 1822.  Zelmira gets a place in the larger constellation because it was the next-to-the last Rossini opera to open in Italy, and also the first to introduce him to a more general European audience (months later, in Vienna).

This makes about a dozen Rossini operas we've seen live or on disk.  We've perhaps as many Verdis, so we've reached a point where it is possible to put these individual items in a more general framework. Let me see what I can do.

One, it's increasingly clear how much Rossini must have dominated the Italian scene in his own time.   Stendhal brackets him with Mozart although the compliment verges on the back-handed:
I have bracketed [Mozart and Rossini]  together for, under the combined influence of distance, of he difficulty experienced in reading Mozart's scores, and of the average Italian's utter scorn for any artist of foreign origin, it ma legitimately be claimed that Mozart and Rossini made their début simultaneously in the year 1812.
So Stendhal, Life of Rossini 125 (Richard N. Coe trans. 1970).  It's actually not entirely clear what Stendhal has in mind here: of Mozart's juvenilia were produced at La Scala in the 1770s, and the Rossini catalog assigns five operas to the year 1812.  But the drift is right: Italians don't seem quite to have got the point of Mozart, at least in the 19th Century.  And at him, so it is said, even Donizetti and Bellini,  worked in Rossini's shadow (though poor Bellini, who died so young, scarcely had a chance).  

But the other side of the coin is to marvel at the things Verdi learned how to do that his predecessors, even at their best, simply didn't know how to do.   You can see the point on full display in Matilde di Shabran.  It brims over with wonderful ensemble work--even a love-duet with two active onlookers, all four participating in the music.  There's some glorious music here but almost invariably, what you see each character assigned to a role and then permitted to interweave their vocal lines without  breaking type.  This is precisely the sort of thing that Verdi figured how not to behave, as he learned to fill is characters with more nuanced and more nuanced destinies.

Remarkably, you see just a hint of what you might call Verdian character development in Matilde di Shabran--specifically in Flórez role as Corradino, the lord of the manor.   The plot point is that Corradino has the public face of a monster but we learn in the first act that he's actually a pussycat.  The upshot is that Flórez, for one, is able to put some nuance and variety into his character in  way that it nobody really found again until Verdi smoked it out 40 years later.

Fun fact:  if I read the notes right, this is Flórez' third appearance in this role in this place--and that his first one came classic storybook opera fashion in 1996, when he got his great breakthrough by stepping in (at age 23) for a more established talent who was taken sick.  The other singer was Bruce Ford who had a respectable run in the Bel Canto repertoire, although a skim of his webpage suggests that  he may be out of action.

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