DVD review: The Rossini Festival’s ‘Ricciardo e Zoraide’

Pretty Yende Shines in Challenging Rossini Work

By Mauricio Villa

The Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro has long championed the operas composed by Rossini, including many of his forgotten works.

Among those forgotten is “Ricciardo e Zoraide,” which was first performed in 1846 before disappearing from the stage until 1990 and then 1996. The festival revived the work in 2018, promptly releasing a DVD of the production; all of these productions (save for one at the Wildbad Festival in 2013) have been at Pesaro.

Long Forgotten

Why has this opera been forgotten over time? One could say that the plot is weak, since the libretto is essentially a serious version of “L’italina in Algeri.” The score is not one of the most inspired works of its composer, but it does contain three enchanting duets (Zoraide and Ricciardo’s in Act two is one example), a delightful quartet ”Contro cento, e cento prodi,”  and tuneful and energetic choruses.

That said, the score is very demanding for the interpreters, and for more than a century, there were no voices that could confront the vocalita of the score.

“Ricciardo e Zoraide” belongs to the “Naples Operas,” a period when Rossini wrote for Teatro San Carlo with a stable cast of singers (operas like “La donna del ago,” “Armida,” “Elisabetta,” and “Ermione” belong to this period) that included Isabella Colbran (who would become Rossini’s wife), tenore di grazia Giovanni David and the baritenor Andrea Nozzari.

Putting together the right cast for this revival production is no small feat. In this case, the Pesaro Festival has managed to gather an extraordinarily strong cast led by superstar Juan Diego Florez, rising star Pretty Yende, and surprising Russian tenor Sergey Romanovsky; the production also features Xavier Andagua, who shines in the secondary role of Ernesto.

Disappointing Star Performance

Juan Diego Flórez, who debuted the role of Ricciardo, was once the best Rossini tenor in the world. His singing always featured a bright timbre throughout his whole register and a facility for throwing off secure ringing top notes as well as clean coloratura.

In recent years, he has started to shift the direction of his repertory, moving into more lyric roles such as the title role in “Werther” or Roméo in “Roméo et Juliette;” he has also delved into different Italian repertory by Donizetti and Verdi. Those roles require a different vocal approach and it is clear that his new shift in style has taken its “toll” in his Rossini interpretations.

For starters, he has lost some of the flexibility in the upper range as is demonstrated in his entrance aria “S’ella mi è ognor Fedele;” here, he misses the written high D in one cadenza, and, during the variations of the Da capo in the cabaletta, he chooses lines which facilitate the several ascensions to high C (we are talking about an aria which has 23 high Cs written in the score).  Flórez has a vibrant and strong high C, but his voice from high A and upwards is getting heavier; multiple close-ups in this recording reveal a tenor working very hard to reach and hold high notes, a far cry from the same artist who once held high E flats effortlessly.

The quality and timbre of the high notes have changed too, and even if they sound more morbid, obscure, and forceful, they are really showing tension and effort. At times they sound pushed.

This isn’t to discredit Flórez’s performance by any means, but to bring attention to the fact that this recording, while exemplary, doesn’t quite show off the best of the singer in this specific repertory.

While one might focus on Flórez’s high notes and how they don’t quite flutter as they used to, the tenor’s coloratura is as versatile as ever.  He’s invincible in the bravura scales written twice at the coda of his cabaletta “Qual sará mai la goia.”

This is not the tenor’s strongest character portrayal and it seems that the focus is mainly on managing the high notes and coloratura rather than digging into the psychology of Ricciardo.

 

Opera D'amore world premiere ft. José Carreras

 

Rising Star

Pretty Yende, as Zoraide, puts on a marvelous performance in which she displays total control of her velvety strong voice, interpolating thrilling high notes with taste and style.

Yende’s voice is a natural lyrical instrument, with a strong center and an equal timbre from her low C to high B flat.

In writing this role for Collbran’s declining vocalittá at the time this work was premiered, Rossini, aware of the situation, opted giving her vocal parts in major ensemble, waiting until the end of Act two for her solo aria “Salvami il padre almeno.”  Rossini could, with this structure, give enough time for the soprano to warm up the voice gently throughout the opera without risking vocal exposure.

Yende’s voice is full of brightness and warmth from the very beginning and she shows ease while navigating the florid score. Yende’s high notes have a crystal ringing quality, and although they sound manufactured and change the timbre of her voice, they sound easy and strong; her well-interpolated D sharps during “Che veggo…ceda nell petto” are delivered with good taste and Rossinian style in the variations.

She has a tremendous stage presence and manages to create a believable character, hypnotizing the audience at every appearance. She seems conscious of the unimaginative stage direction, but uses these limitations to build her own way through the role. As such, she creates up a forceful woman who fights for her love. She is the true success of this performance of the opera.

Sergey Romanovsky has the extremely challenging task of singing the part of Agorante. Andrea Nozzari (the tenor who debuted the part) had begun his career as a contraltino tenor, an agile tenor whose voice extended to a stratospheric high register. However, after an illness, he lost his top notes and the flexibility to navigate a high tessitura. His voice became obscure and robust and extended into his lower range while still keeping some high tones. This is what has been called a “baritenor,” a rare voice to find nowadays (we might still remember the great American tenor Chris Merrit who best managed these roles).

Romanovsky is very successful in undertaking this monstrous task, with his dark timbre and strong, low register extending to a low A during his entrance aria “Minacci pur;” in contrast, he manages some strong high B naturals and several high C’s during his cabaletta with true virtuosity. He also manages a solid balance with Flórez during their Act two duet “Donala a questo core” where he hits several high B naturals and low A naturals flexibly before coming into perfect synchronization with the Peruvian tenor on a climactic high C. That said, there are moments where his voice sounds guttural and his timbre lacks consistency below the passaggio, but his coloratura sounds clean and easy enough.

Also brilliant are Victoria Yarovaya and Nicola Ulivieri in the roles of Zomira and Ircano, respectively, but it is Xavier Andagua who truly shines in the minor role of Ernesto. He displays a beautifully balanced timbre and natural vocal production, singing his lines with exquisite style.

Giacomo Sagripanti conducts the Orchetra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai with determination, giving special attention to the strings, and making Rossini’s simple orchestration strong and lively; this is most notable during the short, dark prelude that opens the opera. The synchronization with the singers is perfect during the quick fragments of coloratura and fast ensemble numbers, and the tempi are exquisite throughout, maintaining a sense of tension in the orchestra.

A Poor Production

The production by Marshall Pynkoski and Gerard Gauci is unfortunate. The whole opera is set inside a Moorish palace with a corresponding “exotic” atmosphere, but the sets are pretty plain and lacking in creative flair. Meanwhile, the direction of the singers is non-existent, leaving the artists to their own devices. The result is an unbalanced display of varied levels of performance. While some artists seem intent on delving deeper into the psychology of their characters, others are reduced to cliched physical gestures.

The use of the ballet, with classical choreography by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, comes off as old-fashioned, outdated, and does not add anything to the staging. The costumes designed by Michael Gianfrancesco are beautiful and glamorous, but lacking any cohesion with the rest of the staging, they feel like party costumes.

Overall, the production has no artistic consistency.

The recording is nicely produced, though there is a tired tendency to overuse closeups (which inversely does take away the attention from the poor production). It is a pity that the set does not include much behind-the-scenes content as is often the case with releases from the Pesaro Festival.

This is undoubtedly a great buy for Rossini lovers who enjoy discovering unheard gems. While Flórez is commendable in this release, the real star is Yende. She’s also the main reason to add this recording to your collection.

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