Meyerbeer: Il Crociato in Egitto

Orchestra e Coro del Teatro La Fenice/Emmanuel Villaume (Naxos 8.660245-47)

2 July 2010 2.5 stars

CrociatoDespite the melodic invention and remarkable variety of his music, the operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791 – 1864) remain unknown to most of the opera-going public. There are several reasons for this relative neglect, not the least of which is the grand scale on which he wrought his stage works: his Robert le Diable, premiered in Paris in 1831, practically defined the term 'Grand Opera'. Given the sheer length of many of his scores, combined with the requirement for large casts able to meet fierce vocal demands, it's not surprising that Meyerbeer's operas aren't staged with much frequency in modern times.

In his day, however, Meyerbeer was an international superstar, and his operas were popular enough to make him an enormously wealthy man. His French operas in particular (from the last phase of his career), set the standard for pageantry, narrative complexity, and musical extravagance (both orchestral and vocal). His operas were the Cecil B. DeMille epics of their time.

In more recent times, Meyerbeer's French works have been intermittently produced, often with star singers such as Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Franco Corelli, or Placido Domingo assuming leading roles. His earlier Italian works have, however, remained comparably neglected except for isolated performances and recordings. To date, we haven't had much chance to hear extracts from his Romilda e Costanza or Emma di Resburgo. But his Semiramide riconosciuta has been issued twice on CD (live performances from Bad Wildbad, Germany – 2005 on Naxos, and Martina Franca, Italy – 2005 on Dynamic), and Margherita d'Anjou, L'esule di Granata (highlights), and Il crociato in Egitto have all been recorded in the studio by the invaluable British label Opera Rara. The present recording was taken from a series of live performances at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in 2007. Completely destroyed by fire in 1996, the refurbished theater has been the site of several important revivals since the re-opening in 2004. While I am grateful to have a budget-priced recording of this fascinating opera in the catalog, it ultimately falls short of the attractive Opera Rara version (for reasons discussed below).

Il crociato in Egitto was Meyerbeer's final Italian opera, and was premiered in Venice in 1824. There are several reasons that the opera was significant, including the fact that Meyerbeer fashioned the leading role of the crusader Armando d'Orville for the famous castrato Giovanni Battista Velluti. At the time, castrati were fading from public popularity, and the option of employing mezzo-sopranos costumed as men (en travesti) had become fashionable. Velluti was nearing retirement by the time Meyerbeer composed Il crociato, and it turned out that Armando was the last starring role composed for this unique and mysterious voice-type.

The opera was also significant in its scale: its expansive structure comprises only two acts, but they are musically massive, combining to tally over 210 minutes in total. Very long for Italian opera of the period, Il crociato clearly foreshadows Meyerbeer's transition into composing opera in French for Paris and becoming the first master of the 'Grand Opera' format. Within its two acts, Il crociato also breaks away from the traditional Italian closed forms, with scenes running together amorphously, and dozens of individual motivic ideas blending and changing continuously throughout. It makes for exciting listening, since the musical inspiration is so amazingly fertile, and the melodies evolve along with the moods and plot developments. While there are isolated moments when Meyerbeer's imagination seems to have lagged a bit, most of the score is first rate and provides a feast for the ears when presented by a group of virtuoso singers.

The plot has many twists and turns, but is easy to understand. Since all the characters sing about their thoughts, feelings, and motives (at length), there is plenty of time to absorb the events as they unfold. In a nutshell, Armando (castrato) is a Christian crusader stranded in Egypt and is disguised to protect his true identity. While there, he has all but given up hope of being rescued and has fallen in love with Palmide (soprano), the daughter of Sultan Aladino (bass). Palmide and Armando are secretly married and have a young son. A ship arrives, carrying Armando's uncle Adriano (tenor) and former betrothed Felicia (mezzo-soprano). The latter are of course shocked to find Armando masquerading as a Muslim and married to the Sultan's daughter. After much intrigue and anger on all fronts, Aladino concedes to allow Palmide return to Armando's homeland as his (Christian) wife, Adriano is satisfied with Armando's rededication to the Christian faith, and Felicia graciously accepts disappointment and releases Armando from his previous commitment. Similar to the plots of Bellini's Zaira, Rossini's Maometto secondo, and Mercadante's Pelagio (recently reviewed on here), the conflict between religious faiths is exploited as a motive for operatic plot development. Unlike the other three, however, Meyerbeer's protagonists live happily ever after.

Armando is a difficult role to cast since it was composed for an extinct voice type (the castrato) and as such, it requires a very wide range. The specific emphasis on the low range makes it somewhat uncomfortable for modern-day mezzo-sopranos, while the high end is beyond the reach of many countertenors. Michael Maniaci labels himself a 'male soprano', and boasts a range that extends higher than that of a standard countertenor. Indeed, he reaches for quite a few high Bs and encompasses the wide range of the role remarkably well. Unfortunately, his basic sound – slightly tremulous, feminine, and lacking in color – doesn't suit Armando's status as a Christian warrior. In Maniaci's assumption, Armando sounds merely petulant, rather than virile and charismatic. We will never know what Velluti sounded like in the role, but he must have displayed a stronger command of bel canto style than Maniaci is able to muster here. Due to the extreme musical demands, Maniaci sounds like he is working very hard just to hold it all together, rather than using the vocal line as a platform from which to launch bravura displays of technical acumen. He also tires by the end of the long opera, pretty much making hash of his flashy final scene. While he deserves kudos for getting through Meyerbeer's obstacle course with dignity, Maniaci's performance leaves a lot to be desired.

This is emphatically not the case with the Palmide, soprano Patrizia Ciofi, who beguiles the ear in her every appearance. In a role composed for the great dramatic coloratura Henriette Méric-Lalande, Ciofi offers a light lyric timbre that is somewhat too soft-grained and small-scaled for the character's more virtuoso outbursts. But her performance is full of grace and beauty, and she has a sure command of bel canto style. Despite lacking a cutting edge to her voice, Ciofi manages to shine forth above even the thickest ensembles, carrying Meyerbeer's melodies aloft with sure pitch and a firm line that never falters. Hers is a first-rate performance of an extremely difficult role, and almost warrants purchasing this set solely for the chance to hear it.

Bass Marco Vinco sings strongly as the Sultan Aladino, though his characterization is a bit anonymous. He handles the low tessitura well enough, but doesn't bring the authority and gravitas that would make the Sultan appropriately threatening. Laura Polverelli offers plenty of energy as the spurned Felicia, but her often blowsy vocal production robs Meyerbeer's vocal lines of elegance and polish. She also encounters pitch problems from time to time, though she manages strong contributions to the several lengthy ensembles involving her rather taciturn character. As Armando's uncle Adriano, tenor Fernando Portari falls rather short of Meyerbeer's stringent vocal demands with vocal registers that are poorly integrated and ungainly coloratura.

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume succeeds winningly in drawing a convincingly virtuosic performance from the Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice. As mentioned above, the musical structure of the opera is massive: tempi ebb and flow unexpectedly and 'set pieces' are constructed as strands of short, interconnected melodic motives that constantly shift and change. Villaume's expert vision and interpretation of Meyerbeer's musical ingenuity is the most impressive aspect of this recording: his strength in the pit is vital and serves the piece heroically.

For listeners whose primary concern is financial, this set on Naxos is the clear winner among available versions. At budget price on three discs, it's a bargain and gives a strong suggestion of the grandeur of Il crociato. Beyond cost, however, the discerning collector will certainly choose the Opera Rara set. At full, deluxe price (and with packaging and notes to match), the latter set comes on four discs that include the entire opera as well as many of the revisions and alternate versions of arias Meyerbeer composed for various revivals after the original Venetian premiere. The performance itself is also decidedly superior on the Opera Rara set, most especially in the role of Armando, as sung by mezzo-soprano Diana Montague. Her performance is exemplary, as is that of tenor Bruce Ford as Adriano, who gives a stupendously virtuosic display of bel canto singing. Della Jones also easily outshines Laura Polverelli as Felicia, though I find Patrizia Ciofi's dulcet timbre marginally preferable to Yvonne Kenny's more astringent tone. True Meyerbeer fanatics will desire both sets, of course, and the new edition from Naxos remains a welcome addition to the catalogue.

By David Laviska