OP0356. INES DE CASTRO (Persiani), Live Performance, 1999. Mazzola Cond. Marchigiana Ensemble; José Sempere, Lisa Houben, Massimiliano Gagliardo, Maria Dragoni, Gianni Mongiardino, etc. (Italy) 2-Bongiovanni 2263/64, incl. two 36pp. & 47pp Brochures, w.Libretto. Very long out-of-print, Final Copy! - 8007068226320
“It is generally agreed that classical singing reached its apogee during the age of bel canto. The style was new and current, and composers like Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Mercadante, Vaccai, Coccia, and Persiani were turning out operas as fast as they could to satisfy the public’s hunger to hear the likes of Pasta, Sontag, Tamburini, Grisi, Lablache, Duprez and Malibran in their latest hit shows. We’ve learned much of what we know about the quality of the singing in the primo ottocento by the demands these composers have written into the scores they created for the singers of that day. It is a tribute to the singers of today that so many have mastered the musical and dramatic demands of bel canto. Operas that were virtually uncastable in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s are performable now; multiple casts can even be assembled simultaneously in different cities.
The music of the first three composers named above is well known to us now as their masterpieces and even their marginal works are often performed. The last four composers were just as popular in their day as the first three, household names to those who followed opera. Today, however, we know Vaccai only because his vocal exercises are widely used; Mercadante, Coccia and Persiani are all but forgotten along with several others whose work was in wide circulation. Of these forgotten composers, Giovanni Persiani is perhaps the most neglected of all. His name lives today primarily because his wife Fanny Tacchinardi Persiani was a great singer with a long, successful career; she was the first Lucia di Lammermoor.
For the 1835 Carnival season at the Teatro San Carlo in Napoli, Persiani wrote the opera history judged to be his greatest: INES DE CASTRO. There was only one singer in the world who could have sung its title role, fiendishly difficult because it was tailored especially for the singular gifts of Maria Malibran. That year, la Malibran was at her zenith, the most famous, most admired operatic artist on earth. Even today, her legend towers above the other singers of the primo otticento, in part because it is so difficult to imagine how she sounded both in spite and because of the many contemporary descriptions of her voice and her use of it. Of all the great singers of the past, it is Malibran one wishes most to have heard; her talents were described as ‘wild’ and ‘eccentric’. We know of her heart-wrenching pathos, her daring and spontaneity. We have been told that her voice was basically a mezzo soprano of what at least one contemporary critic called ‘less than first quality’ over which she nevertheless had gained total mastery due to the fierce teaching of her father Manuel Garcia, who also taught her fluent improvisation and ornamentation. She had an upward extension that allowed her to sing the top E flat in performance and a downward, contralto extension of thrilling warmth. Her trills at the very bottom of the voice were described as ‘terrifying’. She drove audiences (and composers!) to frenzy.
Prior to the 1999 performances from which this recording was derived, INES DE CASTRO, the opera that Persiani wrote for Malibran, had not been given since 1851. At the time of its premier, Violinist Charles de Beriot, Malibran’s second husband and musical partner, wrote to a close friend, ‘INES DE CASTRO is an opera largely tailored for the effect of a big theatre. There is not one weak piece; there is in particular a scene with trio in the second act which brings tears to the eyes. It is at the moment when Ines embraces her sons, whom she will never see again. The role is one of the most beautiful in [Malibran’s] repertoire’. Well, there is no need to speculate further on the musical and dramatic merits of INES DE CASTRO; at last we can hear it for ourselves on this thrilling new recording. To begin with, De Beriot is right about that second act trio, a warmly generous melodic theme that carries much of the emotional and musical impact of the final scene of Bellini’s NORMA. The entire opera is extremely accessible to anyone familiar with the conventions of bel canto, and yet Persiani had many aces up his sleeve that reveal a uniquely gifted composer who is not just following the successful flock. Far from it. The three rising, oddly modulating figures that open the Sinfonia signal a work of unusual construction and style, a work just a bit different from the other bel canto operas with which we are so familiar. For the title role, Persiani has written a part that throws into confusion our modern idea of Fach. Ines’ general tessitura is slightly lower than most soprano roles. There are extensions above the staff (to a D natural in the first act, then higher with each successive act) as well as telling plunges down into the depths of contralto territory. This role and its requirements makes me wish we could do away with our notions of Fach and simply sing the works as they suit our individual voices as they did in the good old days, rather than constantly trying to standardize an arbitrary, one-size-fits-some criteria. Inez has an entrance aria, a second act romanza, and a full-fledged mad scene in a cemetery as the finale. The fioratura, like the tessitura, gets more complex and bizarre as the work unfolds. Malibran had to be one heck of an accomplished singer to pull this off.
The tenor role was written for Gilbert-Louis Duprez, who invented the ‘do di petto’ — the high C from the chest that is the norm today. José Sempere handles the soaring line with its frequent upward zooms with musical aplomb and plenty of vocal glamour. The baritone role is more conventional, but Massimiliano Gagliardo’s performance is anything but. His warm, soft textured tone and supple musicality make sympathetic and human what could have been just another thwarted, disapproving operatic heavy. Lisa Houben’s rich soprano is a major asset as Bianca, the scorned princess who becomes forgiving when moved by Ines’ plight. Like the title role, Bianca’s sits in the mezzo range and this doesn’t bother Houben at all or prevent her artistry from making Bianca’s sudden compassion completely convincing. Enrique Mazzola’s expert conducting delineates the various complexities of this beautiful score with telling effect. For students of the bel canto age, this new recording is not to be missed. It reveals a work ripe for revival. I wish Eve Queler would consider giving it its first American performance.”
- Freeman Günter