Donizetti: Parisina

Giannattasio; Bros, Solari; Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, LPO/David Parry (Opera Rara ORC40)

5 November 2009 3 stars

ParisinaDonizetti's brooding and tragic Parisina is one of those rare operas that is both superior in construction and dramatic effect, yet remarkably underperformed. Most 'forgotten operas' have fallen into neglect for a reason: the list of flaws that can diminish the popularity of an opera is endless, and yet Parisina seems to have everything going for it. It is a true masterpiece of high-Romantic bel canto drama with both a superior libretto (one of Felice Romani's finest) and vividly dramatic, emotional music. It has taken more than forty years since the first modern revival (1965) for an uncut studio recording to appear, and it comes – no surprise here – from the superb team at the bel canto specialist label Opera Rara.

Modern revivals of Parisina have not been frequent. Luckily for fans of Donizetti, recordings of most of the few live productions have either circulated privately or been released commercially. All of these prior versions have one or more fatal flaws, meaning this new, lovingly produced edition easily becomes the recording of choice for this fascinating opera. While Opera Rara's recording has several important virtues that ensure its value as a document of Donizetti's genius, it is hardly without flaws, and misses the mark of greatness by a good margin.

The story, an adaptation of Byron's Parisina (1816), is both believable and full of emotionally charged conflicts, and thus, is a perfect plot for a Romantic bel canto opera. In brief, the soprano heroine Parisina has loved the tenor Ugo from the time they were children. Unfortunately, she is obliged by her father to marry the jealous, powerful, and much older Azzo (baritone). Eventually, the unrepentant (yet innocent) lovers are confronted by Azzo, who angrily has Ugo murdered (despite finding out at the last minute that the tenor is in fact his own son by a previous liaison). Azzo sadistically shows Ugo's corpse to Parisina, and she collapses dead from grief. Though this may at first sound melodramatically overwrought, Donizetti's ability to imbue his music with powerful emotion gives striking life to the many scenes of grief and conflict.

Unfortunately, Donizetti's contract to produce the work in Florence (1833) happened to coincide perfectly with one of the busiest periods of his librettist's career. Romani was widely considered a master of his craft, and was in great demand for his affecting verses. He also had a reputation for tardiness, and in the case of Parisina, his libretto was delivered (unfinished) to the composer more than six months behind schedule. This meant both a slight postponement of the date of the premiere, as well as the need for some of the most condensed, concentrated compositional wizardry Donizetti was ever required to produce. The resulting opera was received rapturously, providing a resounding public success for the composer – his second major career success after Anna Bolena.

Donizetti composed Parisina for three of the greatest singers of his day. Unfortunately, the protagonists for this Opera Rara recording – though largely proficient in traversing this demanding score – often fall short in the verisimilitude of their characterizations, leaving many opportunities for dramatic frisson unexplored. All three leading roles require excellent vocal technique and vivid acting skills in almost equal measure. The title role was composed for the great Austrian 'contralto' Karoline Ungher, well known at the time for her wide range (from A below middle C, to high D) and her vivid characterizations. By all accounts, her high range was often forced, but otherwise her timbre was beguilingly attractive and she wielded incisiveness of rhythm and attack. In this new recording, soprano Carmen Giannattasio offers a tone of burnished bronze, with a voice that seems almost artificially darkened. The sound, per se, is unfailingly attractive, but her vocal technique does not allow her to keep up with the demands of Donizetti's music when the pace quickens or the line rises above upper G. In several of the concerted passages (e.g., the finale of Act 2), the forward momentum of the vocal line is compromised by slight hesitation on Giannattasio's part, robbing the music of thrust and excitement. She encounters similar problems whenever she must ascend to her high register (upper A through C) – a surprising flaw, since once she gets there, these notes ring out with beauty and clarity, and betray no hint of strain. Perhaps she simply needed more time to find comfort in her role. These flaws aside, Giannattasio contributes a good deal of handsome vocalism and her 'plain-Jane' Parisina is both believable and sympathetic. It is a shame that she could not take greater advantage of the many opportunities for bel canto display: a bit of properly placed vocal showmanship would not be out of place here.

The tenor role of Ugo is cruelly demanding. The creator of the role, Gilbert-Louis Duprez, though well known for his 'invention' of the full-voiced high C, was still singing his highest notes in falsetto at the time of the Parisina premiere. Thus, Ugo's high tessitura is terrifically challenging, and Jose Bros copes quite well. Not blessed with the most ingratiating tone, Bros dives into his music with gusto, occasionally betraying a pronounced beat on sustained notes and a worrisome tendency to veer off pitch at unexpected moments. On the positive side, he does his best to highlight Ugo's sympathetic nature, and his strong vocal profile carries nicely through even the thickest ensemble singing. The many high Cs and even D-flats cause no alarm, as he nails one after another (mostly accurately) with fearless, if slightly vulgar, attack. In many ways, the baritone role of Azzo is the most interesting of the leads, as he is given the dramatic opportunities to span a wide range of emotions from loving tenderness to blind rage. The CD booklet shows Dario Solari to be a fairly young man, and indeed he sounds too young to inhabit the role of Parisina's significantly older husband. He brings an evenly produced lyric baritone to the role, although his character's music and dramatic temperament seem to call for a more substantial sound – probably what we would now refer to as a 'Verdi baritone'. Solari produces the most uniformly solid, mellifluous singing among the principals, and he does his best to flesh out the drama that his music requires. Still, some extra thrust and incisiveness along with a more forward vocal placement would have helped to further delineate his character.

In the two smaller roles, Nicola Ulivieri is impressive as the 'father-figure' Ernesto, but mezzo Anne Taylor is uneven as Imelda. Like Solari, Ulivieri is young, and brings a lightweight sound to what should be an authoritative role. Still, he offers solid technique and holds his own during Ernesto's many ensemble moments. Taylor is rather more frustrating, starting off a bit blowsy, but she settles down to more evenly sustained vocalism after her opening scene. Her portrayal of Parisina's confidante illustrates more of a 'concerned advisor' rather than an innocent lady-in-waiting. David Parry's relaxed, generalized conducting offers little in the way of insight where the exciting intricacies of Donizetti's musical structures are concerned. Just as one example, when Azzo goads Parisina into confessing her love for Ugo in the first half of Act 2, Parry and his orchestra seem to stumble and lurch forward (along with the singer), rather than driving ahead toward the launch of Parisina's exciting 'Non pentirti…'. This is one of the most thrilling moments in the opera and is still wonderful here, due to Donizetti's genius, but it should have been milked for maximum impact rather than staggered through rather perfunctorily. There are no big problems with Parry's leadership, but it all sounds more workmanlike than illuminating. The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Geoffrey Mitchell Choir offer playing and singing of the highest quality: their contributions are marvelously detailed, and certainly Parry should take some credit here.

As an overall achievement, Opera Rara's recording succeeds in giving us a reasonably balanced, professional, and polished view of Parisina. As far as I am aware, it is uncut, and therefore provides a complete view of Donizetti's musical intentions, and much of the excitement contained therein. However, as I've indicated above, it's a pity that plenty of detail and drama have been left unexplored. Still, the whole is certainly greater than the sum of its parts, and for this, we must pay tribute to Donizetti himself. Parisina was one of the composer's own favorites, and with this new recording, it is easy to see why.

By David Laviska