Devoted entirely to one composer – Gioacchino Rossini – the thirteenth volume of Opera Rara's 'Il Salotto' series is one of the most uniformly satisfying issues to date. Begun around a decade ago with songs by Saverio Mercadante, this important series of recordings has illuminated many hidden corners of repertoire composed by the world-renowned operatic masters of the nineteenth century for the intimate venue of the 'salon'. Judging from their website, Opera Rara seem to have scaled back their recording plans for the next two years, and no further releases in the 'Il Salotto' series have been announced. The issue presently under review – Rossini Songs – offers a typically broad spectrum of musical forms, styles, and moods, all presented with polish and professionalism. As always, the Opera Rara team has assembled a posse of strong vocalists and split up the musical assignments cleverly, in order to present an engagingly diverse program that flows smoothly from start to finish.
The eighteen selections presented here, are taken from Rossini's Péchés de Vieillesse ('Sins of Old Age'). These are small-scale works he composed very late in his compositional career, long after he had abandoned the operatic genre. Living comfortably in Paris, Rossini apparently was quite popular on the social circuit, and after a long hiatus (a couple of decades), began composing songs, duets, and music for small chamber ensembles to be performed privately for friends. The inventiveness he displays in these pieces should come as no surprise, yet the sheer breadth of form and style is remarkable. In the theater, Rossini was known for lavishing his creativity on both the singers and the orchestral musicians, frequently asking for the utmost in virtuosity. In the salon, the burden of colorful accompaniment falls to the pianist, and Malcolm Martineau meets every demand with relish and technical perfection. He guides the listener through an evening of musical story-telling, running a fascinating gamut of moods, colors, and styles, all while supporting his singers impeccably and coaxing excellent quality performances from all. Allowed a single solo selection, Martineau opens the disc with flair in 'Danse Sibérienne', and then moves from strength to strength, giving life to these vividly detailed, miniature set-pieces.
Among the singers, tenor Lawrence Brownlee makes the best impression, singing throughout with a firm line and superior dynamic control in all registers. While most of the songs were composed to French texts, a few Italian selections are also included, and we hear that Brownlee sounds significantly more comfortable in the latter. Though the French language seems to encourage him to produce a muted tone, his soft-grained voice takes on an altogether brighter, more animated, vibrancy with the Italian texts. He is especially impressive in 'L'Esule', a touching homage to the Italian countryside, and even more so, in 'Addio ai viennesi' which is probably the highlight of the entire program. The latter selection requires plenty of coloratura and repeated ascents to high D, all of which Brownlee handles with ease. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore also brings secure vocalism and a wonderful sense of fun to her selections, betraying no hint of the heavier operatic repertoire she has recently begun to explore. Indeed, her voice sounds more freely produced than ever, with a range up to a secure high C and superb clarity of diction throughout.
I was rather less impressed with the remaining singers, but their contributions were never less than competent. The French soprano Mireille Delunsch is new to the Opera Rara label, and offers firm, tangy tone, but a lack of interpretive flair leaves her sounding slightly anonymous. She also shows some unwelcome strain toward the top of her short upper extension. Catherine Wyn-Rogers is characterful enough, but her idiosyncratic vocal colouring betrays too much 'age' in the voice, which prevents her from blending effectively with the other, more youthful voices on the disc. Brindley Sherratt makes a fine showing in 'La notte del Santo Natale', collaborating with Nicholas Bosworth on the harmonium while offering appropriately prayerful solemnity and descending impressively to low e-flat. He also anchors the only overtly 'operatic' selection on the disc, the quartet 'Ridiamo, cantiamo che tutto sen va', fashioned on a theme from Rossini's Neapolitan opera Armida. The refined contributions of the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir in the three chamber-like, choir-only selections add further texture and variety to the musically diverse program. Overall, this disc offers a vivid glimpse of the musical evenings enjoyed by Rossini and his those in his social circle. Hopefully, this fine series of recordings will continue to flourish, but if not, this disc makes for an impressive final chapter.