Cross purposes

crociato_amazonThe subtitle for Il crociato in Egitto, the last of Meyerbeer’s great Italian operas, is “Historic Melodrama in Two Acts,” and boy is it!  A melodrama, I mean. I’m not sure about the historic part.

On one side you’ve got an AWOL castrato crusader fathering a child with, and secretly marrying, the sultan’s daughter, who is in turn loved by the evil Grand Vizier. On the other side you’ve got the Master of the Knights of Rhodes, willing to start a war to bring the miscreant back home and push him into the arms of the good Christian girl to which he is already betrothed — who just happens to be his niece.

Very entertaining melodrama it is, too, for the most part. I’ve never been a big Meyerbeer fan, but I have to confess I really enjoyed listening to this 2007 performance from Teatro la Fenice, conducted with a sure hand by Emmanuelle Villaume. Maybe that’s the secret; a conductor of French sensibilities at the helm of a French composer’s last foray into Italian grand opera. The performance has been available for some time on DVD but is just now being released as a CD on Naxos. So for many of you this is old news, but for those who have not seen the video, here we go.

First, the score is not what you think of when you first think of Meyerbeer. There is a lightness of touch, sureness of dramatic structure, and the beginnings of what would become the Italian “bel canto” style in the solos, duets, trios and larger ensembles. I found the whole thing very accessible, so if you’re unfamiliar with Meyerbeer, this is not a bad place to start.

Casting a Meyerbeer opera these days is always hard. The vocal writing is virtuostic in a very specific way, and we no longer have the voice parts for which he wrote some roles, and I mean that literally. Armando, aka Elmireno, was the last great role written for castrato. We can only imagine the power and virility that these monstres sacrés brought to their singing, but I am not convinced that casting a male falsettist in these roles is the best solution . In this performance, Armond is sung by “male soprano” Michael Maniaci (not to be confused with the pro football player Marc Maniaci).

For the first five minutes I was struck by the focus, quality, spin, range and high notes of Maniaci’s falsetto, but as the opera went on, it began to grate on my nerves. Based on the pictures, Maniaci is a tall, virile, handsome man — much like his chief rival in this repertoire, David Daniels. But when divorced from the visual, I just don’t think this type of casting works. For that matter, I’m not convinced it works with the visuals. No matter how good the falsetto, there is still a “whiteness” to the sound and a lack of real core and strength to the voice that effectively makes the sound “neuter” to modern ears.

When Rossini produced Il crociato in Egitto a few years after its London premiere, he cast the great Giuditta Pasta as Armando. No fool Rossini!  I’m likely to get crucified for this, but I have yet to hear a male soprano sing anything that I would not rather have heard sung by Marilyn Horne. There. It’s out. Run with it. That is not to say I don’t admire the work, artistry, musicality, intelligence, and frankly, balls of these guys, but as an opera-goer I do not find the sound satisfying. And I don’t for a minute believe that male falsetto singing is what a castrato sounded like.

For me, the chief pleasure of this recording is the gorgeous singing of Patrizia Ciofi. I keep coming back to words like limpid, lyrical, facile, etc., to describe her voice. As the Sultan’s daughter secretly married to Armando, she is the heart of the opera and it is a beautiful heart indeed.

As the Master of the Knights of Rhodes, tenor Fernando Purtari is okay, but nothing to write home about. He’s won several prestigious vocal competitions, but I found his singing provincial and decidedly lacking in the technical fireworks that would have made this part really stand out. In the best of all possible worlds, this role would have been sung by Juan Diego Florez, or going back a generation, Rockwell Blake. Alas, Mr. Purtari is not remotely comparable.

As Felicia, the erstwhile fiancee of Armando, mezzo Laura Polverelli is quite good. The voice has a nice chiaroscuro balance and an interesting timbre. Her fioratura is very good and her big show pieces are dispatched with aplomb. My only criticism is a lack of musical personality that tends to make her singing a little square. I think it could be an important voice and I would like to hear more of her in the future.

As the Sultan Aladino, Marco Vinco effectively declaims the part’s more somber passages but is at best stolid and reliable in the rest. (Note: Thought none of his bios state it specifically, I’m guessing Marco is Ivo”s son?)

In the small part of the duplicitous Grand Vizier Osmino, character tenor Iorio Zennario is very good. I only mention it because he doesn’t sound appreciably different from Mr. Purtari, so the needed contrast between the good guy and the bad guy, or if you prefer, leading tenor and character tenor, is missing.

The La Fenice chorus sound fine and for a live recording the sound is well balanced, if a little tinny for my taste. To sum it up: a nice way to acquaint yourself with unfamiliar but important operatic repertoire.