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Giovanni Simone Mayr: Ginevra di Scozia
Elisabeth Vidal (Ginevra), Daniela Barcellona (Ariodante), Antonio Siragusa (Polinesso), Luca Grassi (The King of Scotland), Giuseppina Piunti (Dalinda), Marco Lazzara (Lurcanio), Aldo Orsolini (Vafrino), Damiano Locatelli (Gran Solitario)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Lirico 'Giuseppe Verdi'; Tiziano Sevirini (conductor)
Opera Rara ORC23

The episode of Lodovico Ariosto's epic Orlando furioso concerning the slandered Ginevra and her hero Ariodante was a favorite operatic subject throughout the 1700s. Among these 18th-century versions are settings by High Baroque master Händel and French Revolutionary idealist Méhul. With Ginevra di Scozia (1801), Giovanni Simone Mayr was the first to see the tale into the 1800s. For several decades the piece was a great success and often performed, yet inevitably performers encountered problems with the score's fierce demands. Mayr took the lead in rewriting much of the score, with outside hands following suit, but the loss of the autograph brought the piece's distinguished performance history to a screeching halt. Thanks to the efforts of musicologists, the many surviving scores have been compared and assembled into a painstaking reconstruction of Mayr's original version: the edition preserved on this recording.

In its musical and dramatic outlook, Ginevra is a product of the classical mind. Here performed as a contralto trouser role, the hero Ariodante was written not for tenor but for castrato. Recitatives are accompanied by keyboard instead of full orchestra, as secco recitatives had not yet been solely delegated to comic opera. Finally, the work ends happily, with all wrongs redressed instead of a tragic catharsis. The finale is a vaudeville, in which a refrain punctuates each character's solo turn, the same structure which Rossini would later use to wrap up the follies of Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1816).

Yet in his very specific musical dramatization of the characters and their situations, Mayr can be heard stretching towards Romanticism, towards bel canto. Within the score of Ginevra can be found three specific examples of Mayr's progressiveness, which later composers emulated and made part of their own musical vocabulary.

First, instrumentation: Mayr introduced the English horn to the Italian opera orchestra to accompanying the villainous Polinesso's first act cavatina. Later Italian composers from Rossini to Puccini would exploit the instrument's suavely expressive timbre in their scores, proving themselves indebted to Mayr's brilliant stroke. Secondly, virtuosity: at the end of the first act, Ginevra is libellously accused of infidelity and voices her distress in extravagantly florid excursions above the staff. Her distraught pyrotechnics set the model of the emotional coloratura sung by the imperiled heroines of bel canto (Lucia, Elvira, Amina). Lastly, structure: the entire third scene of the second act is an extended scena for Ariodante. At first he bemoans Ginevra's infidelity, but when warned about her impending execution, he resolves to fight in her honor. This musical structure in which a character reacts to a turn of events became the cavatina-cabaletta form used by composers throughout the bel canto period all the way through middle Verdi. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, what Mayr accomplished in Ginevra di Scozia served as an inspiration for the young composers of the budding Romantic era.

This recording is taken from April 2001 performances at the Teatro Lirico 'Giuseppe Verdi' in Trieste, the same city where Ginevra premiered 200 years earlier. Being Opera Rara's first live release, the engineers had to overcome the problems inherent in live recording. Their efforts have paid off immensely, resulting in one of the clearest-sounding live recordings ever issued commercially. Voices are caught with the forward presence familiar from studio recordings yet are given the necessary breathing room of a theatre acoustic. Applause is retained at the ends of set pieces and acts, yet noises from the stage and audience are kept at a discreet minimum.

Mayr was generous in giving most of his characters, even the less prominent ones, at least one aria. As the King of Scotland, lyric baritone Luca Grassi is stretched by the role's Verdian tessitura. Yet without ever forcing his clear, pleasant instrument, Grassi acquits himself most admirably and imbues the role with sympathy and authority. Marco Lazzara's thunder-toned countertenor is heard to better advantage here in Lurcanio's relatively unembellished writing than in the florid Rossini duo recital (Forlane 16807) where he partnered French virtuosa Annick Massis. The maidservant Dalinda is taken by the ripe-toned Giuseppina Piunti, whose lush, sometimes unsteady tone is mismatched to Mayr's clean, clear lines. Also known for her Verdi and Puccini, one would like to hear her in that repertoire which better flatters her instrument. In the one aria of Polinesso's valet Vafrino, the vocally unglamourous Aldo Orsolini does not have the most graceful way with fine detail, but demonstrates a strong sense for text and line. Briefly appearing in recitative with Ariodante, Damiano Locatelli is a weathered Gran Solitario (great hermit), appropriately dusty of tone.

The principal roles were designed for three of the early nineteenth-century's foremost virtuosi, and Mayr laid the score's most fearsome technical demands on their shoulders. The evil Polinesso, written for tenor daredevil Giacomo David, is here taken by the stylish bel canto tenor Antonio Siragusa. Siragusa's timbre is light yet colorful, carrying a flicker of vibrato, and easily imaginable in roles both sympathetic and malevolent. He makes light of the wide-ranging coloratura writing, yet never underlines Polinesso's sly venality with such vulgarities as snarling or barking. In fact, his very elegance makes Polinesso even more detestable, a credit to Siragusa's musicianship and sense of character.

Designed for the notoriously vain castrato superstar Luigi Marchesi, the role of Ariodante is tackled with assurance and flair by mezzo-contralto Daniela Barcellona. Her buttery timbre remains astonishingly homogeneous from unforced Gs below middle C to clarion top Cs two-and-a-half octaves above. Her rich, long-breathed legato can be savored in cantilena, and when the emotional temperature rises, her dashing runs are the very stuff of heroism.

Last but not least, there remains the virtuous yet passionate heroine Ginevra, designed for young high soprano Teresa Bertinotti-Radicati. Much of the role lies within a lyric soprano's grasp, but Ginevra's penchant for tempestuous bravura calls for a Queen of the Night, in fact quoting that character's vengeance aria in the act one finale 'Le mie barbare vicende'. The role is taken by French coloratura Elisabeth Vidal, whose short shrift from international record companies will hopefully be corrected in the wake of this performance. Not only does her creamy timbre satisfyingly flesh out the role's lyricism, but she fearlessly tears into trills and scales. Her strikingly clear top is a singular thrill, scaling up to the top Es Mayr wrote in addition to interpolating several of her own. Vidal further astonishes by interpolates a sustained G in the act one finale 'Le mie barbare vicende' and another one in the act two duet with Ariodante 'Per pieta', virtuosic excursions which heighten the drama of each moment. Generous not only of voice but also of temperament, Vidal makes the pure Ginevra a red-blooded heroine capable of great joy as well as torment.

While the hermits' chorus 'Quale orror!' suffers from ensemble untidiness, the chorus performs with enthusiasm throughout. Their contributions to the finales of each act carry spirit and conviction. The orchestra plays with precision, refinement, and gusto, not only emphasizing the score's classical element but the nascent romanticism within its pages. Kudos to the ensemble's soloists (English horn in Polinesso's 'Se pietoso', cello in Ginevra's 'Tu che vedi', violin in Ginevra's 'Ah! sarai paga') for their graceful handling of obbligato passages.

At the head of the entire operation stands Tiziano Severini, whose sure baton maintains dramatic urgency without ignoring his soloists' needs for support. He thereby creates a perfect blend of discipline and freedom which enhances the score's many beauties.

A three-fold bravo to Opera Rara for this release. Artists too little recognized from major international recording releases are captured here in fantastic live performances. Furthermore, this recording is Opera Rara's first attempt at live recording, a successful piece of first-rate engineering. By reintroducing this fine work to today's audience, Opera Rara has enjoyed another success in their long line of 19th-century revivals. Keep your eyes and ears open: their next live release is Meyerbeer's Margherita d’Anjou, starring Annick Massis, scheduled for this fall...

Doug Han




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