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Enea Scala and Daniela Barcellona with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Opera Rara Chorus and conductor Daniele Rustioni<br/><br/>Photos © Russell Duncan
13 May 2016

Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini, London

A foiled abduction, a castle-threatening inferno, romantic infatuation, guilt-laden near-suicide, gun-shots and knife-blows: Andrea Leone Tottola’s libretto for Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, certainly does not lack dramatic incident.

Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini, London

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Enea Scala and Daniela Barcellona with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Opera Rara Chorus and conductor Daniele Rustioni

Photos © Russell Duncan

 

This opera semi-seria also has a counter-element in the form of Bellini’s only comic operatic role, although just as much laughter is generated by the more farcical improbabilities of the melodrama — a knife swung in a desperate frenzy gets caught in a cloak and misses the heart; a lover prepared to kill himself in unrequited misery is cured of his infatuation in the twinkling of an eye.

If the comic and serious elements don’t knit into a coherent whole, the fault probably lies with the minor French writer François-Thomas de Baculard d’Arnaud (1718-1805) whose novella Anecdote anglaise provides the raw material for Tottola’s libretto (which had previously been used by Valentino Fioravanti for the Teatro dei Fiorentini in Naples in 1816). D’Arnaud’s sappy text is less a narrative than a series of implausible episodes but it is typical of the sort of sentimental drama so popular in Neapolitan theatres during the early nineteenth century — indeed, several of d’Arnaud’s novels and verse dramas were the sources for opera plots, including Donizetti’s La Favoriteand we should probably not judge librettist or composer too harshly for the undeveloped characterisation and haphazard dramatic development.

As always, Opera Rara deserve credit and gratitude for once again mining the archives in order to resurrect forgotten works of the past and allowing us to re-assess composers’ reputations and development. This fine performance at the Barbican Hall, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniele Rustioni, has resulted in the production of a new critical edition using Bellini’s original score. And, the concert staging revealed a young Bellini keen to impress the Neapolitans — his teachers, fellow students and, he hoped, the paying public — absorbing elements of the new ‘Rossinian’ style and showing distinct, if only intermittent, signs of his own musical voice and of the long-breathed melodic curves that would earn him the nickname, ‘the Swan of Catania’.

Kathryn Rudge, Leah Marian-Jones & David Soar with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Opera Rara Chorus and conductor Daniele Rustioni_(c) Russell Duncan.png

Kathryn Rudge, Leah Marian-Jones and David Soar

Bellini must have had high hopes for this ‘graduation piece’ for the Real Collegio di Musica di San Sebastiano in Naples. Performed originally by an all-male cast — even though there are three female roles — it proved so popular that it was reprised at the Conservatory every Sunday for a year, and the Intendant at the Teatro di San Carlo was prompted to commission Bellini’s first professional opera. It has also been suggested that the opera was also designed to impress the parents of Maddalena Fumaroli, a singing pupil of the composer, whom he hoped to marry.

There was disappointment all round though: the Fumarolis were not moved by the opera’s success and Bellini’s attempt to secure a professional production proved fruitless. He revised the original three-act score (which was never published), creating a two-act opera buffa version which remained unperformed. Bellini must have recognised the work’s musical merits though, for he plundered it, cherry-picking some of the best bits for re-cycling in later works. So, Salvini’s cabaletta turns up in Il pirata, the cantabile interlude ‘Ecco signor la sposa’ from the Act 2 finale was recast for La straniera, and Nelly’s romanza ‘Dopo l’oscuro nembo’ was reshaped into Giulettia’s ‘Ah, quante volte!’ in I Capuleti e i Montecchi.

The action is set in seventeenth-century Ireland and concerns the melancholy Lord Adelson and his impassioned protégé, the Italian painter Salvini, whom Adelson has befriended. Unfortunately, back on M’Lord’s Irish estate Salvini becomes starry-eyed when he meets Nelly, Adelson’s betrothed. Nelly’s exiled uncle, Colonel Struley, uses Salvini’s adoration as a means to get revenge on his ‘enemy’ Adelson: while the latter is in London, the first of several false letters arrives. Apparently written by Adelson’s father, it tells of Adelson’s impending marriage to a London noblewoman. Salvini, who has been charged by his master with the care of Nelly, tries to comfort her in her distress but as his ardour grows he becomes increasingly distraught, bordering on insane. With the help of Adelson’s unscrupulous servant, Geronio, Struley attempts to abduct Nelly so that he can force to her wed a rich French friend. Salvini foils his plot but during the chaotic kidnapping and chase, fears that he has killed Nelly. Adelson’s return ensures a happy ending. Despite Salvini’s fears, Nelly is safe and sound and preparing to marry Adelson. Salvini, miraculously purged of his romantic fixation, is given an allowance and despatched back to Italy. He vows to return in a year, to wed his young pupil, the orphan Fanny — his compensation prize.

Maurizio Muraro, Daniela Barcellona, Simone Alberghini, Kathryn Rudge, Leah-Marian Jones & David Soar with conductor Daniele Rustioni_(c) Russell Duncan.png

Maurizio Muraro, Daniela Barcellona, Simone Alberghini, Kathryn Rudge, Leah-Marian Jones and David Soar

There were several changes of cast from the originally advertised line-up, but fortunately Italian bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro stepped into the shoes of Salvini’s servant, Bonifacio, as planned, for he instantly leapt light-footedly to life and created a three-dimensional character whose irreverent pragmatism in the face of the prevailing over-emotionalism was entirely winning. Bonifacio sings in Neapolitan dialect and Muraro relished the text, dealing deftly with the patter in his Act 1 cavatina, ‘Bonifacio Beccheria qui presente’ and resonantly questioning why Salvini believes he’ll never find another girl as sweet and beautiful as Nelly. After all, whether named Nell-y, Mariann-y, Ros-ì, Pepp-ì, Che-cchì Fann-y, or Caro-lì … all those who end with ‘i’ are equally devilish [diavol-i]! Muraro’s full-voiced artistry was as subtle as his acting; this was a superb performance.

Replacing Lawrence Brownlee as the would-be Werther (Goethe’s eponymous novella was published two years after d’Arnaud’s Anecdote), Italian tenor Enea Scala was fittingly handsome and ardent, but he didn’t get into his stride until the second act. Perhaps this is forgivable for Salvini is introduced to us in a wickedly stratospheric cabaletta which forms part of a duet with Bonifacio — but which is the first full solo statement for the lead tenor and so functions like an entrance aria — and which includes an outlandish surfeit of high Cs, Ds and even an E. Scala nailed them all and the hypersensitive painter’s extravagant vocal roulades — ‘Pietà crudele!’ — but not without some strain and a rather hard edge to the tone. The elegance of line required rather more mellifluousness.

However, the tension in Scala’s tenor lessened markedly once the testing opening was under his belt and his Act 2 duet with Simone Alberghini’s Adelson, ‘Torna, o caro, a questo seno’, was moving and dramatic: unaware that they are rivals in love, Adelson asks Salvini to safeguard Nelly in his absence while the painter is increasingly destabilised by the thought of the forthcoming nuptials. Best of all was the Act 3 aria in which Salvini begs to be killed; this number was meltingly beautiful and utterly entrancing, and Scala revealed a greater flexibility and polish than Act 1 might have led us to imagine he possessed.

Alberghini (who replaced the scheduled Nicola Alaimo) initially lacked vocal colour and impact, and he did not seem entirely comfortable embodying an Irish patrician, but the Italian baritone was technically secure: muscular in the broader phrases, nimble in the more elaborate passages.

Daniela Barcellona was a gentle-natured Nelly. She sang her Act 1 romanza with delicacy and a soft-grained mezzo which, while beautiful and affecting, needed greater ampleness to travel through and over the orchestral fabric. Barcellona was quite subdued, too, in more florid passages but she imbued the role with great dignity.

In the minor roles, bass David Soar (Geronio) and Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov (Struley) were a dastardly pair whose characterisations were energetic, but whose attractive tone and vocal restraint prevented them slipping into parody. Mezzo-sopranos Kathryn Rudge (Fanny) and Leah-Marian Jones (replacing Patricia Bardon as Madam Rivers) had little to do except satisfy the conventional balance of vocal forces but they both acquitted themselves well.

The (scaled-down) BBC Symphony Orchestra were on sparkling form under Daniele Rustioni’s baton, playing with impressive rhythmic bite, bright tone and varied colours, obviously inspired by their conductor’s lively engagement with the drama. The playing of the four horns particularly impressed: we were treated to spot-on intonation, appealing tone, impressive clarity and subtle pianos. Rustioni bounced and bopped on the podium, constantly involved with the characters, glancing over his shoulder to cue, coax or embolden his cast. The overture was full of interest — harmonic, rhythmic and dynamic. Rustioni demonstrated equal instinct for the eloquence of the bel canto idiom and the score’s Rossinian gestures. The graded crescendos and hastenings were perfectly judged, though at times I felt that the conductor wanted to push even harder on the accelerator pedal, but was sensitive to his singers. The male voices of the Opera Rara Chorus (replacing the BBC Singers) were strong of tone as Adelson’s servants, and if the basses and baritones tended to out-sing the tenors, then the ensemble had been well-marshalled by chorus master, Eamonn Dougan.

This was a concert staging, but stage director Kenneth Richardson’s slick managing of the singers’ entrances and exits created a sense of dramatic continuity that would not have been achieved had the cast been seated on stage — and which was often not present in the libretto! Somewhat oddly, Bellini chose to employ the French opéra comique convention of spoken dialogue rather than secco recitative, but with the majority of the spoken text delivered by native Italians, dialogue director Daniel Dooner must have had a fairly easy task.

Bellini’s score may be a rather loose dramatic concoction and have more than a few melodic clichés but it contains much of interest too. It points intriguingly to the composer’s all too brief future career. And, with only ten other operas for the Bellini aficionado to enjoy, it’s good to add another to the list.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production details:

Nelly — Daniela Barcellona, Salvini — Enea Scala, Bonifacio — Maurizio Muraro, Madame Rivers — Leah-Marian Jones, Lord Adelson — Simone Albergini, Fanny — Kathryn Rudge, Struley — Rodion Pogossov, Geronio — David Soar; conductor — Daniele Rustioni, stage director — Kenneth Richardson, dialogue director — Daniel Dooner, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Opera Rara Chorus. Barbican Hall, London. Wednesday 11th May 2016.

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