This imaginatively programmed disc is the ideal showcase for glamorous young mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca, soon to be seen at Covent Garden in Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi.
The latter is due for a complete release next month on Deutsche Grammophon with Garanca and Anna Netrebko, who will be united in the piece in the Royal Opera production, and Garanca sings Romeo's Act I scena on this recital as a taster for the full thing. It proves to be one of the highpoints of the disc, instantly foregrounding the mezzo's fervour, passion and vocal flexibility, the qualities that make her well-suited to the repertoire.
The delightful thing about the CD, however, is the fact that much of the music – all of it bel canto repertoire from the early nineteenth century (not the eighteenth, as suggested by Nick Kimberley in the liner notes) – is rarely performed and therefore unfamiliar. Excerpts from Bellini's Adelson e Salvini, Rossini's Maometto II and Donizetti's L'assedio di Calais rub shoulders with the slightly more familiar Maria Stuarda and Lucrezia Borgia to intriguing effect.
Opening with the jolly 'Il segreto per esser felici' from Borgia, Garanca at once impresses with her fearless delivery. One or two of the phrases are slightly snatched at – it's a fast-moving aria that requires stamina and control – but on the whole the performance is engaging. The evocatively-orchestrated 'Al mio core' from L'assedio di Calais, with warm wind and brass colours,is even better, with Garanca creating nice long phrases throughout. She does not quite have the required spin in the voice for the peak of the melody at 2'53, but that's a minor complaint.
'All'afflitto è dolce il pianto' from Roberto Devereux is a very comfortable fit for Garanca, the vehemence of the performance matched by a technical security despite the high-lying tessitura and slow tempo. This is followed by an outstanding excerpt from Dom Sébastien, roi du Portugal, Donizetti's final opera. 'Sol adoré de la patrie' tells of the secret woes of the heroine, Zayda, and Garanca communicates the character's inner intensity brilliantly. Nelly's 'Dopo l'oscuro nembo' from Adelson e Salvini is another cantilena showcase for Garanca's talents, exquisite in the ornamented final stanza, while she summons up a far more forthright attitude for Elisabetta's 'Si, vuol di Francia il rege' from Maria Stuarda (though I'm unconvinced by Ildebrando D'Arcangelo's blustery Talbot).
The great cavatina 'Di tanti palpiti' from Rossini's Tancredi is sung with an almost veristic level of expression, pulling about the music in order to underline the meaning of the text, but one has to admire Garanca's ability to bring it off at such a muted dynamic. It's great to have the trio 'In questi estremi istanti' from Maometto II in the programme, especially when it gives Garanca the chance to team up with such a sympathetic team as Ekaterina Siurina and Matthew Polenzani. Siurina is also an impassioned collaborator in the second-act duet between Aurelio and Eleonora from L'assedio di Calais, which closes the disc in style. Having these additional soloists has really paid off, because there is an added sense of the theatre in the extracts in which Garanca has been able to interact with other singers: this duet is an excellent end to an interesting selection of pieces.
For my taste, the conducting of Roberto Abbado is just a little too perfunctory, with the Filarmonica del Teatro Comunale di Bologna playing accurately but without much flexibility, warmth or flair. Overall, the choice of music slightly outdoes the performances: Garanca always sings beautifully and stylishly, but just occasionally she sounds as if she's pushing her voice in too dramatic a direction slightly too early, and one hopes that won't mean that her appearances in lighter pieces such as Il barbiere di Siviglia, which really suit her timbre, are a thing of the past. Nevertheless, there are glorious hints here of the direction in which her stage career could go over the next ten years, and the way in which Garanca is able to adapt her voice to different characters and vocal ranges bodes well for the future.
Elina Garanca in an Opera Gala from Baden-Baden on Deutsche Grammophon
Elina Garanca as Dorabella in Cosi fan tutte at Covent Garden
Elina Garanca guests on Anna Netrebko's latest CD
Donizetti's Dom Sebastien on Opera Rara