From the first notes she sings in 'Cruda sorte! Amor tiranno!' from Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri, Spanish mezzo-soprano Silvia Tro Santafé presents a strong vocal profile. While her sound may be unconventional, it lends a precision to her characterizations, and will surely help this promising young singer stand out in today's crowded opera world, where accomplished, coloratura mezzo-sopranos have never been more plentiful.
On this new disc from the Signum label, Tro Santafé presents a collection of the most well known Rossini arias for mezzo-soprano, with a mixture of selections from both comic (L'Italiana and La Cenerentola) and serious operas (Tancredi, La donna del lago, and Semiramide). Since all of these arias have been recorded many times, it is beneficial that Tro Santafé's unique vocal qualities illuminate the music with fresh colors and interpretive accents to go with the novelty of her ornaments and freedom of expression.
A little research into Ms. Tro Santafé's biography yields a repertoire that ranges from Handel and Mozart to the giants of bel canto, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. Though she has earned some of her most significant career successes in Handel, it seems that Rossini roles comprise the bulk of her current and future engagements. In specific, she spends a lot of time with the lighter Rossini in his 'big three' comedies: L'Italiana, Cenerentola, and Il barbiere di Siviglia. This is not uncommon for coloratura mezzos, since these are – by far – the most often produced operas from Rossini's canon. Still, as well as Tro Santafé sings these comedic roles, surely she is destined for the great Rossini 'male' roles en travesti, as she reveals with striking vocal confidence on this disc. Her basic sound is not feminine in the traditional, soft-edged, dolce sense. Rather, it is a strong, columnar sound that is ideal for the warrior roles of Tancredi, Malcom, and Arsace. One can easily imagine her tackling further Rossini 'heroes' like Calbo (Maometto II) and Falliero (Bianca e Falliero) as well.
Tro Santafé offers all the athleticism and courage one could wish for in this music. She certainly doesn't hold anything in reserve. As mentioned above, her timbre is unusual: dark, but with an edgy vibrato that can turn the tone brighter in her high range or when the voice is moving quickly. One of the most impressive aspects of her technique is the seamless integration of her vocal registers. She moves in and out of her very impressive chest register with absolute ease, mixing the chest and middle voices perfectly. The same can be said of her (frequent) ascents into her high register, where she fearlessly attacks high Bs and Cs with total assurance (e.g., Malcom's two arias). Her implementation of legato is also superb, and remarkably, she carries this skill through her coloratura roulades, singing incredibly fast divisions without any aspiration. Frankly, the legato of her high-speed singing puts other singers who employ aspirates (e.g., Bartoli) to shame. It is also very pleasing to note that she displays excellent diction, even if she doesn't always make the most of the meanings behind the texts.
To go along with her youthful enthusiasm, she does present a few – not too damaging – flaws. The tone itself can turn rather foggy at times, obscuring the specificity of her Italian vowels. And for all the gusto she brings to her coloratura, she does manage to lose rhythmic solidity here and there – sounding a bit close to coming off the rails. There are no major errors in this regard, but the thrills inherent in Rossini's roulades rely on rock-solid rhythm and precise musical phrasing. Ms. Tro Santafé copes admirably, but loses the bigger phrase amongst the smaller notes on a few occasions (e.g., Isabella's 'Pensa alla patria'). Lastly, the singer tends to lean a little too heavily on her chest resonance, creating a somewhat curdled sound. This is most obvious during a couple of phrases in Arsace's 'Ah, quel giorno' from Semiramide, in which she gets carried away with the bravado somewhat at the expense of bel canto. It is important to emphasize that these are relatively minor flaws in otherwise terrific performances. Tro Santafé's gifts far outweigh the minor imperfections I have mentioned here.
Conductor Julian Reynolds holds things together beautifully, including good quality performances from the Orquesta Sinfonica de Navarra and the Lluis Vich Vocalis. It is vital, in this music, to allow the singer all the space she needs to cope with the difficult vocal lines, and Reynolds succeeds on all counts. In the purely orchestral sections (the long, atmospheric introductory sections in the selections from Tancredi and Semiramide), Reynolds successfully illuminates Rossini's masterful scene-setting skill, providing the singer with the perfect 'mood' for her arias. In all, this is an excellent disc that more than stands up to the competition. One can never have too many 'Rossini discs' in the collection, and here, Tro Santafé stakes a solid claim to several of his greatest roles.