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A Master Already at 23: Vincenzo Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini, Now Superbly Recorded

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A Scene from Bellini's Adelson e Salvini

A Scene from Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini

Vincenzo Bellini, Adelson e Salvini (1824)

Simone Alberghini – Lord Adelson
Nelly – Daniela Barcellona
Enea Scala – Salvini
Maurizio Muraro – Bonifacio
Rodion Pogossov – Colonel Struley
David Soar – Geronio
Kathryn Rudge – Fanny
Leah-Marion Jones – Madama Rivers

BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniele Rustioni

Opera Rara ORC56 [2 CDs] 154 minutes

This past year, I was privileged to get to review a flood of wonderful CD releases of little-known operas. I summarize my impressions of fifteen of these in a separate article here. But I feel that two of these unfamiliar works deserve special discussion because the quality of the music—and its dramatic applicability—so surprised me: the recent adaptation of the beloved novel Jane Eyre, by a composer I had never heard of, John Joubert; and, the work discussed below: Bellini’s first opera, composed during his last year as a conservatory student and already showing remarkable mastery.

Indeed, there were not one but two big discoveries for me in this CD recording: Bellini’s first opera (here receiving its first fully adequate recording) but also Enea Scala (seen at left in the photo above), a splendid, heroic high tenor who can perform the extensive coloratura fluently.

Adelson e Salvini is surely one of the best operas written by a composer who was a mere 23 years old. (Mozart was slightly older, 24, when he wrote the amazing Idomeneo and all of 26 for Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Handel got an even earlier start than either Mozart or Bellini: he was 20 when his Almira held audiences enchanted at multiple performances in Hamburg.)

Bellini composed Adelson e Salvini while finishing his studies at the Naples Conservatory. The work was first performed there in the Conservatory’s teatrino in 1825 as that year’s “graduation opera.” Yet it did not receive a professional staging until 1985 (in Bellini’s hometown, Catania). A piano-vocal score appeared in 1854 and another in 1903, but both scores were based on a version that had been greatly altered by other hands (and that turned the spoken dialogue into recitative). The present recording is the first to make use of the forthcoming critical edition of Bellini’s original version, whose main features are described in a booklet-essay by Bellini authority Fabrizio Della Seta.

The musical style of this 1825 work is, not surprisingly, similar to that of the leading Italian composer at the time, Gioachino Rossini. There are the familiar patter-songs, crescendo passages over a dominant pedal-tone, propulsive cabalettas, and of course a second-act ensemble where time seems to stop and the characters comment on their confusion and distress. But to all these Bellini adds passages whose sweet-sad lyricism points to moments in one or another of the nine operas that he was to write over the next ten years. (He would die in 1835 at age 34.) Opera lovers have some sense of this from a few excerpts that occasionally get recorded on recital discs: here, for example, is the tenor’s “Ecco, signor, la sposa,” sung meltingly by a youngish José Carreras (from an aria collection recorded ca. 1975).

The operatic conventions of the day are chosen and adapted with keen dramatic sensitivity. For example, the Act 1 duet between Salvini and his servant Bonifacio (who sings and speaks throughout the work in Neapolitan dialect) is set primarily as an aria for the tenor, against which the comic bass offers wiseacre commentary, which Salvini is too self-obsessed to hear. Perhaps the librettist and composer had in mind the quasi-trio “Ah, chi mi dice mai” in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in which Donna Elvira sings a similarly agitated soliloquy about her unrequited love while others unseen by her—Giovanni and Leporello—make light of her woes.

Adelson e Salvini has spoken dialogue between the musical numbers, something that rarely occurs in operas in Italian, except certain ones composed for (or adapted for) Naples. Spoken dialogue had of course long been the norm in French comic operas (e.g., in two works that received splendid recordings this past year: Uthal, by Méhul, and Le pré aux clercs, by Hérold) and even in some French serious operas, such as Cherubini’s Médée. And Naples had been under French control during the years 1806-15. Naples would continue to mount spoken-dialogue operas well after Bellini’s day. (The last important such spoken-dialogue opera in Naples was probably Nicola De Giosa’s marvelous Don Checco, which is another of the wonderful surprises brought by this year’s flood of opera CDs.)

For this graduation opera, Bellini was assigned a libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola that had been performed in Naples in 1816 (in a setting by Valentino Fioravanti). Tottola, rather forgotten today, contributed effective libretti to important serious operas by Rossini and Donizetti. The booklet essay by Benjamin Walton explains in rich detail the genesis and resonances of the work’s libretto and music. So does, more briefly, a review by Claire Seymour—at OperaToday.com—of a concert performance given by the same performers heard here. (In a separate post at OperaToday.com, Seymour offers a perceptive review of the present CD recording.)

Previous recordings of Adelson e Salvini were made during staged performances (1985, 1992). The 1992 performance has also has appeared as a DVD. I did not know the opera before listening to the new recording, and I now love it, from start to finish. Bellini must have been fond of the work as well: he subsequently revised some of the numbers and started to enrich the orchestration, all with an eye toward a professional production in a normal-sized theater. Alas, he never brought the revision to completion. (The so-called second version, with recitatives, includes whatever Bellini managed to complete, plus changes that others had made, in part based on instructions he had given to his friend Florimo.) Instead, the composer ended up lifting various sections of the score, adjusting them somewhat, and placing them in new operas. For example, most of the overture got re-used in the one to Il pirata (1827, only two years after Adelson). And the heroine Nelly’s aria “Dopo l’oscura nembo” (in Act 1) was tightened, transposed upward for soprano, and given a new text, to become Juliet’s “O quante volte,” in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi (1830). “O quante volte” is one of the most popular arias from any of Bellini’s operas, and indeed among the most quintessentially “Bellinian” in style—and here we find it, somewhat different in shape yet instantly recognizable and dramatically apt, in his very first opera.

In addition to the use of spoken dialogue, the work has at least three highly unusual features:

1) Because it was written for students at the all-male Conservatory to perform, the female roles were written in contralto range and were presumably sung by young males who went into falsetto for any notes above their comfort zone. (Nelly was sung by a fourteen-year-old who would go on to a significant career as a tenor.) In the present recording, the female roles are taken by mezzos and altos.

The fact that the opera’s eight roles include three in the alto range, one tenor, and four baritones/basses produces some unusual couplings, most notably a friendship duet for tenor and baritone that may remind listeners of friendship duets for two female voices in Rossini’s Semiramide (a recent hit, 1823) and Bellini’s own Norma (1831). (Of course, one of the two female voices in Semiramide is a “pants role”: the warrior Arsace.) The men’s duet of mutual affection and sympathy is filled with dramatic tension because we know something that they do not know (yet): they both love the same woman, Nelly.

2) The work is an example of Italian-language opera semiseria. A semiseria work generally involves everyday characters (rather than, say, ancient military heroes), entangles them in misunderstandings and menacing situations, and then resolves matters happily (at least for the characters who have been presented as sympathetic). The mixed tone of an Italian semiseria opera can be hard for modern audiences to accept. Only a few such works have managed to survive on modern stages, notably Bellini’s La sonnambula and, lagging a good distance behind (except for its beloved overture), Rossini’s La gazza ladra. Somehow operagoers more readily accept a similar mixture in works from the German Singspiel tradition: Entführung, Zauberflöte, Fidelio, and Freischütz.

3) The tenor—Salvini, a painter and painting-teacher from Italy—is far from heroic. Indeed, he is self-centered and unstable. In one crucial scene, Nelly faints at a false report concerning her fellow Briton Lord Adelson, whom she loves (and who has long been Salvini’s closest friend). Salvini takes her fainting as an opportunity to embrace her. She regains consciousness, frees herself from his grasp, and calls him a wicked man who has betrayed Adelson’s trust in him, and he, momentarily undaunted, replies that his love for her is too strong for him to resist. Soon after, he tries to commit suicide, but is prevented by Adelson, and the two then join in the friendship duet mentioned above. The tenor also, on one occasion, compromised Nelly by moaning aloud about his unrequited love for her, oblivious to the fact that he might be overheard (as indeed happened at that very moment). Later, and worse still, Salvini, attempting to kill the villainous Colonel Struley—who is in the midst of abducting Nelly under cover of darkness—accidentally turns his dagger on Nelly instead. When Salvini hears Struley cry out (maliciously) that Nelly is dead, he realizes what his rashness has led to. He now begs Adelson to kill him. But it is revealed that Nelly is perfectly alive: Salvini’s dagger got tangled in the cloak that the evil Struley had wrapped around her. As the opera ends, Nelly sensibly pairs up with her beloved baritone Adelson instead of with the hotheaded tenor Salvini. As for the latter, he gets instructed by Adelson to return to his native Italy to live out “una vita tranquilla,” presumably in lonely regret. There is a hint that Salvini may, after a year’s delay, marry Fanny, an art student of his who—as she revealed in a lovely aria at the beginning of the opera—loves him desperately.

I have not mentioned all the plot complications (for example, two startling letters are read, one of them forged), but I invite you to discover and enjoy them for yourself. Because enjoy them you will, if you have any taste for early nineteenth-century opera and for the somewhat melodramatic culture that gave birth to it. (Salvini feels like a younger brother of Goethe’s Werther.) And of course if you like Bellini’s other works, or indeed Rossini’s, this one is definitely for you.

Salvini is sung by Enea Scala. I first encountered, with pleasure, his clean and intense singing in the recent recording of Simon Mayr’s Medea in Corinto, as Egeo, the shorter and lighter of that opera’s two tenor roles. The role of Salvini is stratospheric, going up to high C multiple times. Most tenors today would be advised to take the highest notes in falsetto as tenors regularly did in the worlds of French and Italian opera until the 1840s. Scala sings the whole role in full voice, and thrillingly: he here jumps into the class of Juan-Diego Florez and Lawrence Brownlee.

Critics who have listened to the 1992 performance in Catania judged the tenor brave but inadequate. I summarized that reaction of the critics in the present review when it was first published in American Record Guide and then, online, at the Boston Musical Intelligencer. One reader of the Boston Musical Intelligencer version wrote in to inform me (click here and scroll down to “Comments”) that the singer in question—Bradley Williams, who is now on the faculty of the New England Conservatory—learned the role on very short notice and thereby salvaged the performance. This makes me want to emphasize Williams’s determination and artistry-under-pressure rather than any apparent shortcomings. Furthermore, the Catania performance was, I am told, poorly recorded, not fully revealing what Williams succeeded at doing. I am happy to correct here any misimpression that I gave!

But let me return to the new CD recording on Opera Rara!

The wily servant Bonifacio—this is the only comic character in any Bellini opera—is embodied to perfection by Maurizio Muraro, whose rendering of Dr. Bartolo, in Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s recent recording of Le nozze di Figaro, has been much admired.

The rest of the singers were new to me. Daniela Barcellona (an Italian from Trieste, despite what her last name may lead some to suspect) is a gratifying and reliable presence; her coloratura is liquid, and she makes each melismatic passage feel appropriate to Nelly’s emotional state at that moment: from sad to fearful to joyous. I did notice some incipient wobble on sustained notes (as often happens with singers in their late 40s). Still, she manages to come across effectively as a lovesick young woman. The result is quite a contrast in vocal persona to her impressive rendering of the rebel chieftain Malcolm in Rossini’s La donna del lago at the Met in 2015.

Kathryn Rudge sings with beautiful, steady tone in the smaller role of the besotted Fanny. Simone Alberghini sings the Lord Adelson role vividly when it goes into high, sustained notes; his coloratura is huffy. Baritone Rodion Pogossov (from Russia, but now a regular at the Met and other major houses) sings with splendid firmness and edge, conveying Colonel Struley’s nastiness without going overboard. The role of his servant Geronio is taken by a young bass-baritone, David Soar, whose solid voice has been heard as Masetto and Colline at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Leah-Marian Jones does all that is needed as the housekeeper Madama Rivers. (She has sung such roles as Ježibaba in Dvořák’s Rusalka at British opera houses.)

The spoken dialogue is handled superbly by the native Italian speakers and more than capably by the non-Italians. The choral singing, from the men of the Opera Rara Chorus, is spirited if sometimes a little amateurish-sounding.

The BBC orchestra plays wonderfully: I loved how the pizzicato strings conveyed the needed sneakiness in the duettino for Struley and Geronimo that opens Act 2, and how various solo wind players relished their moment in the sun (e.g., clarinet, horn, and—in an extended and dramatic passage—English horn). Bellini scored the work without brass, presumably concerned not to overpower the young singers who were available to him at the Conservatory. An appendix to the second CD contains four substantial passages that Bellini fully revised for the ill-fated second version. Several of these appendix numbers include entirely new music, and we now get to hear Bellini’s fuller orchestration (i.e., trumpets, trombones, timpani, and extra woodwind lines). Bellini also adds a chorus of male retainers to the Act 2 duettino, in which Struley announces his evil plan to his hesitant henchman Geronimo, and this makes the number even more menacing than it was originally.

The numerous color photos in the booklet show the singers interacting, often with evident amusement. I share their delight. This is surely one of the best opera recordings of the year. And, if you are ever not in the mood to hear a lot of Italian spoken dialogue (no matter how well performed and how crucial for understanding the characters’ motivations and machinations), you can always skip to the next track.

The booklet essays are in English only. The plot summary is in English, French, German, and Italian. The libretto is in Italian and in a largely skillful English translation by Emanuela Gustella and Sue Rose. But the translators misunderstand one passage (p. 77): Nelly is not saying that her heart is doubtful but that Adelson’s words of assurance have restored calm to her formerly doubtful heart. Biographies for most but not all of singers are given at OperaRara.com.

The new critical edition of Adelson e Salvini was used in a series of staged performances in November 2016 in the town of Jesi (in the province of Ancona), which resulted in a commercial DVD. The role of Colonel Struley was played by Rodion Pogossov, as on the CD recording reviewed here (but his name is spelled Pogossiov on the DVD box). All this augurs well for the work’s increased, and well-deserved, presence in the world’s operatic life.

The present article first appeared, in slightly different form, in American Record Guide and then, online, as the second section of an extended article in Boston Musical Intelligencer. It appears here by kind permission of ARG and BMInt.

About the author

Ralph P. Locke

Ralph P. Locke is a professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music (located in Rochester, New York, USA). He is the founding editor of Eastman Studies in Music, a book series published by the University of Rochester Press. His writings include Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections (2009) and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (2015), his most recent (both Cambridge University Press). The first is now available in paperback, and the second soon will be (and is also available as an e-book). His essays and reviews can be read in American Record Guide and at OperaToday and MusicologyNow. His previous pieces for New York Arts were on slavery in Mozart’s operas and on a 3-CD set of surprisingly inventive works by Marie Jaëll, a major composer and pianist closely associated with both Saint-Saëns and Liszt. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music.

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