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Gioachino Rossini: Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra
Serena Farnocchia (Elisabetta), Patrick Kabongo (Leicester), Mert Süngü (Norfolk), Veronica Marini (Matilde), Mara Gaudenzi (Enrico), Luis Aguilar (Guglielmo), Kraków Philharmonic Chorus, Marcin Wróbel (chorus master), Kraków Philharmonic Orchestra, Antonino Fogliani (conductor)
Recording: Juliusz Slowacki Theatre, Kraków, Poland (July 3‑4, 2021) and Offene Halle, Bad Wildbad, Germany (July 21, 2021) – 135’41
Naxos 8.660538-39 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in English

Rossini’s Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra dates from 1815 and is these days rarely given outside festivals such as that at Pesaro and this at Bad Wildbad. The reasons behind its paucity of productions are numerous but are possibly associated with the convoluted and dramatically stolid plot, the writing for three tenors without a baritone or bass in the male cast, the lengthy recitatives, or, perhaps, the fact that so much of the music is known or at least partially familiar from other operas. Regardless, this opera is historically important in the career of arguably the greatest operatic composer of the early nineteenth century. It represents Rossini’s move to the Teatro San Carlo in Naples and the commencement of a run of opera serie which he developed into an original and distinctive style. In this opera, we hear Rossini quoting his earlier writings from operas such as Aureliano in Palmira, Sigismondo, Il turco in Italia, Ciro in Babilonia and his first Demetrio e Polibio. It is important to note also that he continued to use many of these phrases, even complete melodies much later into his career; developing and extending the style and exposition. One very notable example being the development of Elisabetta’s Act 1 cavatina, “Quant’è grato all’alma mia”, which recurs in a more developed and arguably more satisfying guise as Rosina’s Act 1 cavatina “Una poce poco fa” from Il barbiere di Siviglia.

In terms of its plot, the opera derives from a late 18th century novel by English novelist Sophia Lee which was turned into a stage play in the early nineteenth century and upon that play Rossini’s librettist Schmidt based his work. Leicester, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, has returned to the capital from war in Scotland with hostages among whom is his secret wife Matilde. Elizabeth longs for his return as she has fallen for him. Unknown to Leicester, his wife is in fact a daughter of Mary Queen of Scots, and he confides this to Norfolk when he realises the extent of his dilemma. With heavy shades of the Iago from Rossini’s yet to be written Otello, the duplicitous Norfolk betrays the confidence to the queen who, furious, vows revenge. Norfolk’s treachery does him little good and he instigates an attempt on her life during a visit to the prison of the condemned Leicester. The attempted assassination is foiled by Matilde and her brother leading to the reinstatement in favour of Leicester. The opera concludes with the Queen foreswearing love and vowing to live only to enhance the glory of her reign. It is a relatively straight forward plot as far as early nineteenth century theatre is concerned and one which is to be used again by Donizetti.

Much of Rossini’s writing focuses on recitative, giving extensive time to the development of the character of Elisabetta. In contrast, most of the other lead characters are scantly written, offering a few stellar moments but nothing in comparison with the titular character. This role was the beginning of the relationship between Rossini and Isabella Colbran who created it. In this recording, the role is sung by Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia who is splendidly voiced despite several unfortunate high notes which are captured by the recording as sudden and harsh. The microphone placement favours her throughout and this comes often at the expense of the other soloists and also consistently at the expense of the chorus.

Patrick Kabongo tackles the role of Leicester with vigour and urgency. He wields a fine instrument which lends itself well to this role. Again, the capturing of the live performance is uneven and he is sometimes reduced to an almost ‘off-stage’ presence. The finale is a mixed rendition with the division of presence on the stage that is obvious and confusing to the listener. So too, the conducting, as the pace of the orchestra, feels about to lose the singers at one point.

The other soloists support the main characters well with the most enjoyable musical moments coming during ensemble passages. The Act 2 duet for Elisabetta and Matilde is notably well paced and modulated. Both soloists maintain a suppleness of vocal line and, in so doing, provide a highlight of the recording. The second duet of Act 2 is written for two tenors in the characters of Leicester and Norfolk. Rossini’s writing in this passage is some of the scant original composition in this opera. Mr Kabongo and Turkish tenor Mert Süngü make a good paring for this brief section of the opera, but, again, inconsistent microphone coverage of the performance space renders some lines harsh and others muffled.

Overall, this recording is of interest for bringing to attention this little performed and generally little known stage work. Being taken from a series of live performances there are the inevitable stage noises and shuffles, but they interrupt the listening experience and render substantial sections disappointing. As previously mentioned, the chorus is often completely lost into an indistinct mumble at the back of the stage. The orchestra, on the other hand, is often so prominent that it dwarfs the other performers and within that, the percussion and bass strings are pronounced to the point of drowning the other players. I felt that the positioning of the microphones and the selection of the recorded material to patch together into a final performance were the weakest aspects of the recording. Nevertheless, it is a worthy cause to capture the work of this second of the great European Rossini Festivals. The opera itself is of interest to allow us to identify the elements which Rossini self‑quoted from his earlier operas and felt worthy of re‑deployment and to look forward to the ultimate realisation of some of his ideas in operas such as Otello and Il barbiere di Siviglia which were to follow in later years.

Gregory Pritchard




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