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Drama queen

Say what you will about Naxos, but this company has created a sizeable number of recordings of works on the periphery of the standard repertory and have managed to document quite a few interesting singers in the bargain-and at bargain prices. Such is the case with this very enjoyable recording of Semiramide from the Wildbad festival in Germany captured in July of last year and culled from three of the performances.

The last of ten operas Rossini would write for the woman he considered the greatest interpreter of his works, Isabella Colbran, premiered at the Fenice for the Carnival season of 1823.  Sadly, although he had tailored the role of the Babylonian Queen to his muse’s waning gifts, she did not find favor with the public.  The opera thought, was a resounding hit, racking up 28 performances in its first run. Having achieved the pinnacle of the baroque tradition in Italian opera, Rossini would shortly decamp for Paris, grandeur, and retirement.

Odd though it may seem, the town of Wildbad has been holding an annual Rossini festival since 1988. The musical performance here is of the highest order and much of the credit must go to the Virtuosi Brunensis in the pit and their leader Antonino Fogliani. The Sinfonia sets the tone with delicious pizzicato strings, fleet winds, and a strong timpani with a light touch on the triangle. The horns seem a tad muted but that may be a stylistic choice. Playing on the whole is extremely seductive throughout the evening and reminds us how much Rossini benefits from a strong but transparent conception. In the critical edition prepared by Philip Gossett and Alberto Zedda, it’s a glorious reading of the opera just from orchestral standpoint alone.

The Camerata Bach Choir has been imported from Pozna? in Poland for the occasion and they do a spectacular job with Rossini’s choral writing. They sound like an unusually youthful group and give a very alert and nuanced performance that shows Rossini to be more gifted at choral writing than perhaps I had appreciated before.

It’s no secret that in Semiramide the composer demands his singers to be at the top of their game from the start and there we have this recording’s one Achilles heel. For although they are an accomplished group, the quartet of soloists are all much better once they’ve gotten their first scenes behind them.

I’m sorry to say that Andrea Mastroni as the High Priest Oroe sounds, from his dry tone,  to be be a much older man than he appears in his bio. He’s also dedicated to singing every note on the page regardless of the effort it takes at the evening’s outset. He improves as he progresses but its not a cure just an abatement of symptoms.

Lorenzo Regazzo has established a distinguished career as a basso cantante and here he tackles the tremendously difficult role of Assur with admirable success. He negotiates the old school bel canto line with ample breath and flexibility. The basic tonal quality sounds  a tad woolly, muffling his accuracy at times. He sings his final “mad” scene uncut with exemplary energy and muscle.

The most excellent liner notes tactlessly remind us that the tenor role of Idreno was really only written to give the three protagonists a break from the stage. It would then seem an embarrassment of riches to have John Osborn in this part. Not ideally firm at his first entrance, he smudges his runs but, given what those runs are like, it’s hard to imagine the tenor who wouldn’t.  Once he’s gotten his sea legs, after the opening scene, he’s flinging off roulades like the possessed and lightly pinging the stratosphere with avidity. His act I scena is stunning even if he does lurch at his climactic phrase. He’s even more dizzyingly agile in his second act aria when he’s so warmed up it doesn’t even sound like work.

Marianna Pizzolato in the role of Arsace was a revelation to me. She has a pungent merlot-colored mezzo and keeps everything beautifully on the breath. If she seems a tad careful in her opening scena she is always fleet and accurate. Her da capo is tastefully decorated until she pulls out the stops for a final high B, winning bravos from the house. Her slightly hooded tone allows for easy drops into the sepulchral depths of her range occasionally making her sound seductively like a contralto. “In si barbara sciagura” at the top of the second act finds her totally in the zone and it’s a great piece of singing.

here are a lot of reasons a soprano might want to change her name late career: marriage is one. An unfortunate accident at the costumier’s involving a rival diva from which you were completely exonerated and cleared of all charges is another. A third might be stuggling with a marquee-busting name like Alexandrina Pendatchanska— who now calls herself Alex Penda.

She made her professional debut at the tender age of 17 years old singing Violetta in her native Bulgaria. I remember being underwhelmed by her much-hyped live recording of Massenet’s Esclarmonde which appeared a mere 5 years later but did enjoy her recent Elettra for René Jacobs’ Idomeneo.

A singer not entirely in control of formidable gifts, Penda is especially tangy and vivid in recitative and her redoubtable technique allows her to meet, if not surpass, the vocal requirements of the titular character. If she’s not the mistress of accuracy Rossini demands her interpretation is so committed you don’t necessarily care about the means by which she succeeds. However, sustained cantilena in the upper part of the voice brings forward an unattractive oscillation and notes at the top of the staff turn vinegary.

The Act II duet with Arsace,”Giorno d’orrore!” finds Fogliani on the brisk side but still receptive with rubato when his singers require it. Unfortunately his breezy pace ruins that delicious “time standing still” feeling that this duet normally induces. Ms. Penda attempts an ungainly high note right before the repeat of the cavatina and then the hell-for-leather cabaletta finds them both in full yodel due to its breakneck pace. An unfortunate volte face that must have been more exciting in the theatre from its reception.

The audience applauds long and loud and even does a bit of foot stomping for Ms. Pizzolato in the second act and at the finale.  Sonics are absolutely superb and the engineers are to be particularly commended. A very nice booklet that, although it lists all the cue points on a single page in magnifying glass print, does include singer’s bios. A full libretto is available online.

I cut my teeth, as I am sure we all did, on the Sutherland/Horne recording of this opera, which is 50 minutes shorter than this one, due mostly to their inadequate supporting cast. How the world has changed in 50 years! Though this new entry wouldn’t be my first choice for Semiramide, it’s an excellent value and worth owning for the uniformly stylish singing performances.

41 comments

  • Sanford says:

    Naxos was also the company that gave us Tancredi with Ewa Podles and Sumi Jo and Armida with Renee Fleming.

    • Patrick Mack says:

      I treasure that Tancredi but the Armida from Bologna was on Sony.

    • Marcello Finalmente says:

      I also adore my Naxos Barbiere Ramon Vargas at the start of his career, absolutely killing “Cessà di più resistere” like no tenor before or since. Roberto Servile is an average Figaro but Sonia Ganassi is an adorable plummy-voiced Rosina.

  • laddie says:

    Marianna Pizzolato in the role of Arsace was a revelation to me. She has a pungent merlot-colored mezzo and keeps everything beautifully on the breath. If she seems a tad careful in her opening scena she is always fleet and accurate. Her da capo is tastefully decorated until she pulls out the stops for a final high B, winning bravos from the house. Her slightly hooded tone allows for easy drops into the sepulchral depths of her range occasionally making her sound seductively like a contralto. “In si barbara sciagura” at the top of the second act finds her totally in the zone and it’s a great piece of singing.

    Ahem…flashback to opening night of La Donna del Lago in Santa Fe…Pizzolato as Malcolm comes on stage-her appearance is laughable as she is dressed as a man in a kilt and happens to be a rather short, round, curvaceous woman-she begins her aria and it quickly becomes apparent that this a true bel canto artist, beautiful phrasing, relaxed in her approach, impeccable coloratura and in tune! I assure you the ovation that followed was well deserved. We all forgot about the kilt.

    • Patrick Mack says:

      She’s also got an Italiana on Naxos which I’m going to order with Brownlee.

      • Batty Masetto says:

        For a minute there you had me all excited about a new Rossini-Strauss mashup: “L’Italiana a Nasso.” Or maybe “Die Italienerin auf Naxos.”

        • Patrick Mack says:

          I’m totally feeling that. Marilyn Horne stranded on some blasted rock waiting to be carried off by a tenore di grazia.

      • Evenhanded says:

        Well.

        Patrick: very nice review. I think I was rather more impressed with the recording (especially the leading lady) than you, but your comments are very balanced and accurate (IMHO).

        The Italiana is SENSATIONAL. It is certainly my favorite recording of the opera in a crowded field of excellent recordings. Pizzolato in particular is amazing, but Italiana is truly an ensemble piece, and all the singers (Regazzo, Brownlee, etc.) and conductor (Zedda) work together magnificently. Write in and let us all know what you think after you’ve had a listen!

        • Patrick Mack says:

          Can’t wait now ! I love Italiana.

        • Camille says:

          Very good to know. I am in an Italiana frame of mind as last night on Sirius they played what I felt was an wonderful one, from 2004, with Borodina, Florez, Furlanetto, and Patriarco.

          It is an opera, along with Don Pasquale, which never fails to put a smile on my face and a song in my heart. There is nothing better or funnier than the Act I finale in L’italiana, for my money.

          • Evenhanded says:

            Well.

            Your post made me smile, Camilliana! I feel the same. If you don’t feel like jumping up and cheering after BOTH Act finales of Italiana, then there’s something very very wrong with the performance.

            The Naxos is well worth the $16 on Amazon.

          • derschatzgabber says:

            Hi Camille, in times of great sorrow or stress, I listen to the Act I finale of L’Italiana. It’s one of the most effective cures for the blues that I know of.

    • Batty Masetto says:

      Well, um, I didn’t forget about the kilt. It was an outrage.

      But her singing was excellent.

      • laddie says:

        I especially forgot about the kilt during her rather sensual duet with DiDonato. Joyce looked a little scared. :)

        • MontyNostry says:

          I don’t think Joyce is scared of anything. Essentially, that is one of the secrets of her success.

    • MontyNostry says:

      Pizzolato was the singer who perhaps made the most positive impression in the dreary Nabucco earlier this year at Covent Garden. She was the only one who combined a voice in peak form with a strong sense of style. Fenena is hardly a starry part, but her little prayer was really rather lovely.

      • Cocky Kurwenal says:

        Um, lovely though Pizzolato was, we also had Monastyrska tearing it up as Abigaille, Nucci showing why he’s still first choice after all these years, and an excellent debut from a very impressive, Prevedi/Bergonzi-alike tenor. Yes it was a lousy production and Monastyrska in particular had no idea what to do in the absence of any helpful direction, but to suggest that the Fenena stole the show against all that brilliant singing doesn’t seem like an accurate reflection of what I saw.

        • MontyNostry says:

          That’s not quite what I said, Cocky. Monastyrska certainly has the notes and can do some impressive vocal antics, but, as I’ve said on here before, I find her unexciting as an artist and the voice itself has some dull and gassy patches, while Nucci, who was certainly more than respectable, is simply no longer in peak form (as I implied). I liked the tenor too, but you can’t really tell much about a singer from a part like Ismaele.

        • RosinaLeckermaul says:

          Prevedi/Bergonzi-alike?? I’d hardly compare Bruno Prevedi to the incomparable Bergonzi!

  • Orlando Furioso says:

    Genuine question: What is it that the anti-Naxos partisans (referred to in the opening sentence) say?

    • Patrick Mack says:

      Naxos started out, IMHO, with some decidedly bush-league casts and conductors and orchestras who really weren’t necessarily deserving of documentation. As well the sonics and engineering were notoriously dull..

      • Marcello Finalmente says:

        It’s why Norman Lebrecht got sued and his book pulped.

        Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

  • phoenix says:

    Don’t worry about Pendatchanska’s [is she losing her voice as well as her name] recalling the declining days of Colbrandt -- banish such thoughts: La Penda’s upper register is no more vinegary than that of the recently (last week, to be exact) celebrated Met Norma.
    - The conducting is consummate, La Penda is the most dramatically expressive of Semiramides and Arsace is victorious on all counts!
    - I enjoyed the live radio broadcast of this performance very much and I’d recommend it to anyone who loves Rossini’s Semiramide (as a work in itself, NOT as a vehicle for Joan Sutherland -- RIP).

  • jimupde says:

    Back in the mid-60s when Sutherland and Horne made their recording of Semiramide there was no such thing as a Rossini tenor, or even a Rossini mezzo for that matter. How times have changed.

  • Cocky Kurwenal says:

    Thank you for a helpful and informative review. I think I’m going to buy this on the strength of what you’ve written. But how can Penda’s technique be ‘redoubtable’ if she is vinegary, afflicted by an unattractive oscillation, lacking in accuracy and not entirely in control of her formidable gifts?

    I’m sorry to use your review as a spring board for this, but nothing gets my goat quite as much as people assuming the ability to sing tolerable coloratura equates with having a good technique. Penda, based on what you’ve written, doesn’t seem like she has a great technique -- otherwise, why the vinegary top? Based on what I’ve heard, she doesn’t, but she is a compelling, exciting, vibrant performer all the same.

    • pobrediablo says:

      Excuse me, she doesn’t just sing a “tolerable” coloratura. Her coloratura is very good and accurate and spans a great range including chest voice unlike many chirpers. Her timbre is not conventionally beautiful and she herself has said that she doesn’t have a beautiful voice.

      Here is the Bel raggio from last year (different concert)

      And a studio recording from (I think) the 90s with an E at the end.

    • Patrick Mack says:

      Technique doesn’t give you a beautiful voice and it’s interesting to read the comments of the poster below as well. Callas didn’t have a beautiful voice either but she started out with maybe the greatest technical facility of any soprano of the modern era. Penda’s top was unattractive when she was 22. Frankly, I think from overuse at a too young age. Her line isn’t really clean but she knows what she’s doing. Not everyone has a gorgeous, blooming voice above the staff.

      • Cocky Kurwenal says:

        Technique doesn’t give you a beautiful voice, no. But it allows you to sing a clean line, and prevents unattractive oscillations and the absence of control you mention.

  • derschatzgabber says:

    Thanks for the review Patrick. Based on your review (and the comments on your review), I intend to purchase this Semiramide and the Naxos Italiana. I love both of these operas and I am always excited to find good recordings of them.

    Naxos also recorded Fidelio with Inga Nielsen and Gosta Winbergh. I saw them in Berlin in 1998. Nielsen as Chrysothemis and Winbergh as Walther. They were both incredible artists who died at tragically young ages. Does anyone know if Nielsen recorded any other complete operas.