Anticipation is always great for new Opera Rara releases, because the mixture of excellent studio conditions and superb packaging always makes for a luxury product. On top of that, we get to know interesting works from a fascinating period of music history – ones which have fallen by the wayside, either because of poor librettos, difficult performance conditions at the premiere or a negative critical reception.
This new CD, Federico Ricci's Corrado d'Altamura, is no exception: it's beautifully produced and contains excellent playing and some high-quality singing. And for sure, the work deserves reconsideration – so much so that one wishes that Opera Rara could give the piece a complete recording rather than just highlights (though the whole libretto is included in the lavish booklet). We're told that this piece was a favourite of Patric Schmid, the late Artistic Director and former driving force of Opera Rara, and it's to him that the recording is dedicated.
One can see why he liked the opera so much. Ricci had written six operas when he came to compose Corrado, but he was still struggling to establish himself as a writer of opere serie. The failure of Un duello sotto Richelieu in 1839 upset the composer so much that he fell silent for two years, only returning to the fray in 1841 with Michelangelo e Rolla (notable for featuring Verdi's future wife, Giuseppina Streponi, in the lead female role). La Scala was then captivated later in the year with Corrado, putting Ricci on the map with the critics.
The work's serious tone is indeed striking, from the dark, grave prelude to the spellbinding final scene. Ricci is capable of great complexity, including the interweaving of the voices with different instrumental lines in the orchestra and sophisticated large-scale structures. Jeremy Commons notes in his liner essay that the choice of ostinato figures in Ricci's score is unusually nuanced, as well as a sense of the theatrical. Listen to the trumpet blares, trombone scales and cymbal crashes at the start of the first-act finale to witness a composer with a forward-thinking attitude to vivid opera orchestration. There is such promise in the work that it's a shame that Ricci did not take his career further; all but one of his remaining operas, it seems, was unsuccessful at his premiere, and as we know, his works have all but sunk into oblivion.
Top marks here to Roland Boer and the Philharmonia Orchestra for providing a near-ideal accompaniment in this recording. There's such vitality about the playing that one would imagine the orchestra had the theatre in its blood, rather than spending most of its time in the concert hall. Boer's tempo choices tend to be sprightly but never rushed, and he breathes with his singers.
The cast, however, is flawed compared to Opera Rara's normal standards. While James Westman's singing of the title role is excellent – both urgent and refined, as evinced by the Corrado-Giffredo duet, 'O ferro, lung-anni nel petto celato' – neither Dmitra Theodossiou's Delizia nor Dmitry Korchak's Roggero is ideal. Although they raise their game towards the end of the opera, both suffer strain above the stave, and Theodossiou's wide vibrato causes some tuning problems. Further down the cast, the performances are finer: Camilla Roberts' Isabella, Cora Burgraaf's Margarita and Andrew Foster-Williams' Giffredo, for instance, are nuanced and more brilliantly sung, just as this repertoire demands. The Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, too, makes a rousing contribution, and it's just a pity that the two lead characters aren't better cast. Nevertheless, it's not enough to prevent this from being a desirable and interesting release.
Opera News: Opera Rara announces 2009 recording plans
Opera Review: Ermione at the RFH with Opera Rara
Opera CD Review: La Cour de Celimene (Opera Rara)
Interview: Janet Price - 'Opera Rara's First Diva'