From the casting to the packaging, this new release of Rossini's little-known opera Matilde di Shabran is immaculate in almost every way.
It's very comforting in these depraved times of few new classical music recordings to see Decca turning its attention to complete operas from the bel canto period; apart from its star tenor, Juan Diego Flórez, this must be a high-risk project for them. Yet it deserves to do well: the singing is mostly good, and the conductor and orchestra are more than competent. It is even free of the normal stage obtrusions associated with live recordings.
The opera was begun in 1820 and it was to have been premiered on Boxing Day, 1820. But the composer had various problems - with the libretto, for example – and its premiere was delayed until February, 1821. In addition, several of the numbers had to be written by Rossini's colleague Pacini because the former was running out of time. Rossini came to replace these later in the year for its November premiere in Naples, however, and this complete version is represented in Decca's new recording.
The story is an unusual one – it's certainly a different cup of tea to La Cenerentola and Il barbiere di Siviglia. Corradino, also known as ‘Iron Heart', hates women and lives in a Spanish castle. He is trapped into loving Matilde in Act 1. Richard Osborne's excellent liner notes summarise the rest with admirable concision: ‘Act Two finds him in a series of even bigger fixes, from which he is eventually rescued by the father and son whom he regards as his biggest enemies, the poet he once threatened to liquidate, and the woman he has loathed, loved and tried to put to death'.
So it's no more Mr Nice Guy from Flórez in the role of Corradino. After all those insipid romantic leads, it's great to have him playing a character with guts, and he clearly relishes the opportunity. In fact, this is the role with which he originally made his name, back in 1996 at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro. At that time, he replaced Bruce Ford at the last minute, making a sensation at the age of 23. He returned in 2004 to play the role again, and this recording comes from the later performances.
Flórez's voice has its customary flexibility here, from the quartet in which he first emerges to the stratospheric demands of the two finales. He also brings a darker edge – almost a snarl – to those parts of the text where his character is gruff or violent.
But it's not just Flórez's opera; in fact, Matilde has the larger role. Annick Massis is quite a discovery in this part: we'll surely be hearing more of her secure coloratura. She's particularly good in the Matilde-Aliprando duet in Act 1, and her voice is distinct in the big concertatos as well.
For me, Hadar Halevy, in the trouser role of Edoardo, is a bit of a blot on the set. Her intonation is insecure, and her voice just isn't beautiful enough. That said, her characterisation is strong.
More impressive is Bruno Taddia as Edoardo's father, Raimondi. This is a powerful basso voice, with precise control of the complex passages. Marco Vinco makes much of the small role of Aliprando; Bruno de Simone is a vivid Isidoro (the poet); and both the Prague Chamber Choir and the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia perform with elegance for Riccardo Frizza, even if his tempi are just occasionally on the slow side.
In all, it's a marvellous recording, and one which deserves a place in the collections of all Italian opera lovers.