Mercadante: Zaira (excerpts)

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COMPOSERS: Mercadante
LABELS: Opera Rara Essential
WORKS: Zaira (excerpts)
PERFORMER: Alastair Miles, Majella Cullagh, Bruce Ford, Garry Magee; Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra/David Parry
CATALOGUE NO: ORR 224
Nowadays Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870) is considered an also-ran to Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi, but during his lifetime he was widely regarded as a serious rival. Older than all but Rossini, he outlived all but Verdi, and his output was prodigious. Zaira (Naples, 1831), based on a famous play by Voltaire that shows a woman torn between her Muslim lover and her Christian family, comes fairly early on in his career, before he outlined a reform agenda for Italian opera that preceded Verdi’s first stage works.

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Not surprisingly, there’s some clear post-Rossinian influence and a good deal of ornate vocal writing, but Mercadante’s distinctive voice can be heard in many interesting and attractive orchestral and harmonic touches. One particularly fine duet has a Bellinian cast, and other ensembles regularly show him at his best, even though as a melodist he is rarely as memorable as his more famous colleagues.

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As part of its new ‘Essential’ series, Opera Rara here offers a selection of highlights that intrigue, but whet the appetite for more. The performers are very much a company team, with Majella Cullagh flaunting a to-die-for top register and providing accomplished and expressive singing throughout the title role. Tenor Bruce Ford is in his element as her brother, though Garry Magee sounds too young to be her Christian fanatic father. As her lover, Alastair Miles delivers impeccable singing while sounding a touch unengaged. Conductor David Parry secures a vivid performance with splendid playing from the Philharmonia. George Hall