Donizetti: Maria Stuarda

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COMPOSERS: Donizetti
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Maria Stuarda
PERFORMER: Laura Polverelli, Maria Pia Pisciteli, Roberto De Biasio; Marchigiana PO/Riccardo Frizza; dir. Pier Luigi Pizzi (Macerata, 2007)
CATALOGUE NO: 2.110268

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These Naxos issues swell the numbers of available Donizetti and Rossini operas lying just outside the mainstream.

All are recent products of Italian opera festivals: Bergamo (Donizetti’s birth city) supplied the Roberto Devereux and Lucrezia Borgia, Pesaro (Rossini’s) the Cambiale di matrimonio and Turco in Italia; Maria Stuarda was mounted for Macerata’s summer arena-opera season.Another common factor is the appearance of singers regularly encountered in Italian theatres but relatively little known outside Italy.

Though all give acceptable-to-good value, no big star is on display – something of a drawback especially in the Donizetti works, which depend to a considerable extent on star power. Given also the workaday nature of some of the productions and variable orchestral playing and choral singing, these DVDs have to be accounted library-shelf items rather than must-haves.

Nearest thing to a star is the Greek soprano Dimitra Theodossiou, Bergamo’s 2006 Queen Elizabeth (in Roberto Devereux) and 2007 Lucrezia Borgia. She’s a bold artist of unconventional looks and striking but often uneven vocal accomplishment, capable of finely judged bel canto effects – her soft singing in the Devereux final scene, one of Romantic opera’s highest peaks, is wonderfully telling – but also of sour, edgy outbursts.

If Lucrezia Borgia’s brilliant contrasts of light and dark are to operate on full power, the leading lady needs to come across as complex and multifaceted, glittering with glamorous menace as well as melting in moments of maternal affection. The dominant impression here is lacklustre, underlined by a general reliance on stand-and-deliver among the other principals.

In the Devereux, bolstered by strong if monochromatic singing from Massimiliano Pisapia in the tenor title role and Andrew Schroeder as leading baritone, the electricity is at least on throughout.

Maria Stuarda, more often featured in the regular repertory nowadays than the other two Donizetti operas, is in fact a patchier piece than either. Its designer-director Pier Luigi Pizzi skilfully carves the open-air spaces into distinct locations; as spectacle this proves the most enjoyable of the Donizetti performances, reinforced by Riccardo Frizza’s energetic but also surely controlled conducting.

But the opera’s crucial demand for two contrastingly large-scale stage personalities as Mary and Elizabeth is incompletely answered, though the singing is never less than appealing; the pairings in other available DVDs of Janet Baker and Rosalind Plowright (Warner) and of Mariella Devia and Anna Caterina Antonacci (Arthaus) show what’s missing.

There’s more polish in Pesaro’s Rossini – the musical standards somewhat higher overall, the productions more precisely executed. Il turco, among the richest and subtlest of the earlier comedies, goes with zest, if sometimes too much stage clutter, graced by a delightfully sharp-pointed, cleanly sung account of the capricious Fiorilla from young Alessandra Marianelli. Max Loppert

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The leading men are mostly unremarkable, which matters above all in the case of Fiorilla’s middle-aged husband Geronio, one of Rossini’s ripest characterisations. In Pesaro’s Cambiale the male comic talent on display is more potent and evenly spread, the ensemble interplay livelier. Except to opera historians, however, Rossini’s first opera is, frankly, of limited interest.