Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Divas and Scholars aroused my interest in Rossini whom I always thought of as the end of Neapolitan opera style. I now realize it’s more complicated than that.

A Neapolitan--the style and the city-- would have written the main male roles for castrato. Wikipedia says: “In Naples several barbershops had a sign that castration was performed there.” The French occupation of Italy seems to have put a stop to the practice of castrating boys for the benefit of singing, though a few could be heard up through the 1830‘s. Rossini still wrote Tancredi, his earliest big success in serious opera, for a mezzo, but this time it’s a female mezzo who creates the role. So all of Rossini’s treble voices were women, something I didn‘t know. Like a true Neapolitan, he still craved the sound of two high voices singing together and composed some of the most beautiful music ever written for two sopranos.

He still composes secco recitative--or as Professor Gossett points out, his assistant composed them. But when he starts to compose in French for Paris, the secco recitative disappears.

Neapolitan opera seria traditionally had only happy endings which were felt to be more edifying for the soul. Tancredi is conflicted. Shall we be traditional with a happy ending, as the opera was created for Venice? Or shall we take a modern approach and allow the hero to die, as was the case when the opera was rewritten for Ferrara? Rossini is transitional in this as well.

Neapolitan opera seria was just a row of da capo arias with recitatives between, and Rossini begins to vary the structure.

The focus on coloratura ornaments points to the past. It was the whole point of Italian opera, after all. The fact that so much of the ornamentation was written by Rossini himself, I think must be a look to the future. In the long Neapolitan tradition the singers provided their own ornamentation, a fact that inhibits the revival of many earlier Italian composers’ operas.

Critical editions of Rossini operas began to appear coincident with the career of Marilyn Horne. I have purchased Tancredi with Horne from HofO It’s taped in France with French subtitles from someone’s home TV, with the constantly adjusting gain that home TV sets have. I suspect Tancredi is the most antique and formal, the most Neapolitan of all Rossini’s operas.

Or perhaps it’s not a coincidence. The career of Marilyn Horne is responsible for our awareness of Rossini’s serious operas. It is to see and hear her wonderful performances that one would want to purchase them in this inadequate format. As Tancredi Marilyn has a curious lopsided hairdo that makes her look rather attractively like a Shoney Big Boy. The singing is out of this world, and Marilyn is in her prime.

Picture of Big Boy is for readers outside the US.

The rest of the cast is excellent: Dalmacio Gonzales is the King of Syracuse, and Katia Riccarelli is the heroine. The production is very formal.

I suppose I will have to buy the recordings with Ewa Podleś and Vesselina Kasarova now.

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