Here are two of Rossini's "secular" cantatas: "The Lament of Harmony on the Death of Orpheus" for tenor, male chorus, and orchestra, written when he was a 16-year-old conservatory student, and the far more substantial "Wedding of Thetis and Peleus," one of many such pieces he composed for special occasions, commissioned for the marriage of an Italian princess to a French prince. Both consist of primarily short, separate, contrasting numbers, most of which would be perfectly at home in the opera house.
This compilation of selections from a number of Cecilia Bartoli's recitals from between 1994 and 2009, plus several newly released tracks, is unified by the theme of sighs, "sospiri." The music expresses a variety of moods, including sighs of resignation, relaxation, grief, ecstasy, and romantic pleasure. The first of the two CDs is devoted to secular music, much of it operatic, and the second to sacred pieces. The album should offer few surprises to anyone who has a preconceived opinion of Bartoli's vocalism. Fans of her exuberant personality and dramatic temperament will find just what they would expect, as will detractors who are put off by what they feel to be her excessive flamboyance. In any case, whatever one's opinion of the outcome, there's no denying that Bartoli throws herself into all her projects with absolute abandon. She is so deeply invested in wringing the emotional truth out of a piece that she is not afraid to let her voice stray from the principles of bel canto singing that require that tonal beauty be maintained at all times.
Countertenor performances of 19th century opera are a historical and, ultimately, true novelty. This said, for those who love the sound of the countertenor voice and want to give it a try, there are several factors that recommend this release by countertenor Franco Fagioli, with the small orchestra Armonia Atenea under George Petrou. First is that castrati were still around in Rossini's time, although on the decline, and the composer was reportedly intrigued by their voices. Second, Fagioli, unlike the vast majority of other countertenors, studied bel canto singing rather than Baroque repertory exclusively, and a certain distance present in the work of other countertenors is absent here. And third, and most important, is Fagioli's voice itself. Of the countertenors active today, he's the one with the range, the power, the attitude to make you suspend disbelief and think for a moment that you're actually listening to a castrato. He enters into the various Rossini roles represented on this recording, several of which were mezzo-soprano "pants" roles; this adds to the layers of identity-switching happening, and the parts hit Fagioli's vocal sweet spot. A bonus is that several of these are from Rossini opere serie that are little played or recorded.
This was to be the end of the line for Italian word-setting by Viennese composers: once the confident sentiments that belonged to the poet Metastasio's opera seria felt the chill and threatening wind of Enlightenment and Revolution, their time was up. Even we, for the most part, prefer to remember the German-speaking Beethoven, Schubert and Haydn. So it is good to be reminded of their responses to the Italian muse (usually as part of their craft-learning student work) in this particularly well-cast recital. Central Europe, in the person of Andras Schiff meets Italy, in Cecilia Bartoli, to delightful, often revelatory effect.
The Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli is one of the most charming and talented singers to appear on the scene in recent years, and this collection of Italian songs by three great opera composers–Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini–is a most deserving bestseller. There are many small pleasures in the selections, which reflect the bel canto predilections of their authors, and Bartoli renders them artfully. Some will be familiar even to casual listeners (Rossini's La Danza, the famous tarantella); others will be new to most, but equally deserving of a hearing. The sensitive and skillful accompaniment is by conductor-pianist James Levine.
“This is a truly marvellous performance on all counts - staging, conducting and singing. Sir Peter Hall… manages to breathe new life into the routines without ever slipping over into farce, while exploring each character in some depth. The sense of an ensemble on top form is underlined by Vladimir Jurowski's exacting, pellucid and vivid interpretation, so that the music, like the libretto, is presented afresh. The superb cast has no weaknesses and many strengths, Ruxandra Donose may not have the idiomatic Italian timbre of Cecilia Bartoli… but she is the more consistent singer, using her wide range and rich tone to startling effect. Her youthful (24-year-old) partner, Russian tenor Maxim Mironov, proves an ideal Ramiro, fluent in every aspect of his role and delivering its appreciable demands in a light, pliant voice of delicate beauty.”(Gramophone)
Early Rossini has something buoyant, vibrant, youthful about it – even when it is a “dramma per musica” such as “Sigismondo”, a dark swirl of an opera revolving around a mad king and his delusions, his wife who is allegedly dead but very much alive, the fate of Poland and much more. Premiered in 1814 but rarely played thereafter, the work deserves to be resurrected, if only for its many beautiful and original arias and ensembles, some of which were such brilliant little masterpieces that he reused them in his later successes such as “Il turco in Italia”, “La Cenerentola” and “Il barbiere di Siviglia”. The work was given its first performance from the critical new edition at the 2010 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro. The press hailed the production as a “perfect symbiosis of music and stage work” that yields “truly brilliant theater”.