04 Jun 2007


I was never much impressed by the Russian performances of this most famous of Rubinstein’s many operas.

The music always sounded a bit too eclectic to me; too much a mixture of Western European romantic sounds peppered with some Russian influence, while at the same time clearly lacking in original melodic ideas. Therefore I hoped this Italian language performance would remedy some of the weaker parts of the score. And, as this version was specially prepared for the St.Petersburg Italian Theatre just after the world premiere in 1871, it clearly has Rubinstein’s approval. This came about three years after the famous Mefistofele première at La Scala and more than once I was reminded in the Demon’s arias of that other devil’s monologues. It may be a coincidence as Mefistofele was a famous fiasco and Boito withdrew the score after the premiere, reworked it and offered it again to the public seven years later. And I have no idea if Rubinstein was at that first performance.

His demon here is sung by a famous Mefistofele. By 1971 Nicola Rossi’s career at the top was only a memory. The voice was often throaty and had some holes in it. Roughness had replaced the necessary smoothness for roles he had sung with success in the fifties like Faust or Mosé. And yet, Rossi succeeds in making hay from his vocal failures. He was always more of a singing actor than an acting singer but the snarling, the rough spots, the hollowness that wouldn’t do in Italian roles suit the demon’s despair to a tee. With his vocal weaknesses, Rossi creates a fully credible portrait of a lonely being.

His wife Virginia Zeani was not exactly a fresh newcomer either at the time. She had been singing for 23 years at the time of the radio performance and her bel canto days were long gone as from the sixties on she specialized more and more in verismo or even modern roles (a fine Magda Sorel). Her vocal aging doesn’t work out so well as with her husband. She doesn’t sound at all like a young and innocent princess. The voice is too mature, quivers with emotion from the first note and has a small wobble in the first act. Zeani fans won’t mind but I think her Tamara overripe and not very convincing.

Agostino Lazzari as the prince does the listener a pleasure by dying in the first act so that we don’t have to suffer his whining sounds for too long. And Mario Rinaudo as Gudal (Tamara’s father) only has to offer a big but very vile sound. Maurizio Arena, maybe influenced by Rossi and Zeani, makes the score more noisy than it really is. He prefers big orchestral outbursts and treats it more like a verismo drama than a romantic opera.

Jan Neckers