Gioachino Rossini (born Pesaro, 29 February 1792; died Paris, 13 November 1868)
Play Il paggio di Leicester by Carlo Federici derived from a novel The Recess (1785) by Sophia Lee.
First performance: Naples (Teatro San Carlo), 4 October 1815.
First UK performance: London (King’s Theatre, Haymarket), 30 April 1818.
First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (King’s Theatre), 4 September 1972.
Scottish Opera première: N/A.
The revival of this, the first of Rossini’s Naples operas, was greeted with enthusiasm in Palermo in 1971, that enthusiasm being based on the novelties of composition introduced in this largely experimental work. Unfortunately, its presentation in Edinburgh the following year became notorious. It must be said that the prima donna was in uneven voice. But even though Opera is the least realistic of all the arts, some aspects of the production went down badly. In particular, the designs (including crimson miniskirts, pork-pie hats, and war-trophies more appropriate to the orient), meant that the opera itself suffered before an unprepared audience that alternated stunned silence with giggles. More recently, recordings have permitted Elisabetta to be evaluated on its own terms. From these it has been revealed as an interesting work, full of new ideas the development of which stood the composer in good stead later in his career. Even so, it seems unlikely that it will be presented before a British public in the near future.
Elisabetta, Queen of England (soprano)
Earl of Leicester, general of the armies (tenor)
Matilde, his secret wife, daughter of Mary Stuart (soprano)
Enrico, her brother (mezzo-soprano)
Duke of Norfolk, grandee of the realm (tenor)
Guglielmo, captain of the guard (tenor)
The cast list reveals the problem. We are asked to accept that Mary Stuart has, during her imprisonment, secretly married Norfolk, and given birth to two children, one of whom then marries Leicester. In the libretto, Norfolk’s involvement is not made explicit; indeed he becomes the villain of the piece.
Leicester returns to court after a victory against the Scots. Only Norfolk is unhappy, being jealous of his rival. A number of Scottish hostages are brought in, including Leicester’s own wife Matilde (in male attire) and her brother. He tells Norfolk in confidence that he is married to Mary’s daughter, but the Duke tells the Queen. Elizabeth then offers marriage to Leicester, forcing him to decline. He is imprisoned, as are his wife and brother-in-law. The Queen suggests to Matilde that Leicester and Enrico will only live if Matilde renounces her claim on Leicester. Matilde agrees, but Leicester refuses to accept this, and they are both imprisoned once more. Norfolk tries to foment rebellion in the populace. He tries to involve Leicester in the rebellion, but is turned down. Elizabeth interrupts this meeting, and Norfolk’s perfidy is exposed. When he attacks Elizabeth she is saved by the intervention of the newly released Matilde and Enrico. Norfolk is arrested and the Queen pardons everyone else.
OPERA RARA (3 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 2002
Conductor: Giuliano Carella
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Jennifer Larmore (Elisabetta), Majella Cullagh (Matilde), Bruce Ford (Leicester),
Antonino Siragusa (Norfolk), Manuela Custer (Enrico), Colin Lee (Guglielmo).
As usual with the issues by Opera Rara, the presentation is immaculate, with fascinating historical notes, performance history, and so on, as well as full text and translation. The LPO play as if they were completely familiar with a score they were seeing for the first time, and the conductor really does make this sound as though it was the grandest opera Rossini had composed up to that point.
PHILIPS (2 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1975
Conductor: Gianfranco Masini
London Symphony Orchestra
Montserrat Caballé (Elisabetta), Valerie Masterson (Matilde), José Carreras (Leicester),
Ugo Benelli (Norfolk), Rosanne Creffield (Enrico), Neil Jenkins (Guglielmo).
The invaluable listing of performances provided in the Opera Rara booklet shows that Caballé, Masterson and Benelli sang in performances at Arles in the summer of 1975 as part of the Aix-en-Provence Festival, and this recording was made immediately before or afterwards. Valerie Masterson was a late replacement as Matilde, and this successful engagement marked the start of her illustrious international career. She more than holds her own with Caballé and Carreras, and the others give excellent performances – Benelli was one of the leading tenors in this repertoire for many years, coming to Edinburgh several times. Rosanne Creffield did not record much, but she appeared frequently with Scottish Opera around this time as Dorabella, Cherubino, and Hansel, among other roles.
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