Both of these releases are part of Universal Classics' "Trio" series, which means that the three discs are offered at a bargain price. Unfortunately, this also means that booklet notes and a libretto have been omitted, although somewhat detailed synopses are included with each set. As neither of these operas is all that familiar, it is too bad that more couldn't have been done to help listeners coming to these works for the first time.
Massenet wrote Esclarmonde for American diva Sybil Sanderson, and it took Joan Sutherland, an Australian diva, to resurrect it a century later. The plot is a fantastical mixture of about five other operatic plots you know well, with a little bit of Shakespeare's The Tempest thrown in. Esclarmonde is the Princess of Byzantium, and she is given magical powers by her father on the condition that she remains veiled until the age of 20. (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.) She is in love with Roland, a knight, and she uses her magic to fly in a griffin-drawn chariot to a magic island where she has brought him. They pledge their troth, but she warns him not to lift her veil or to attempt to learn who she is. Roland goes off to the city of Blois to deliver them from the Saracen horde. King Cléomer offers Roland his daughter's hand, but he declines and politely refuses to explain himself. The Bishop of Blois suspects something odd, and threatens Roland with damnation if he doesn't come clean. Anguished, he does, but then Esclarmonde appears. The Bishop, thinking her a demon, attempts to detain her, but she disappears in fireball, cursing Roland for his faithlessness. She is summoned by her father, who reproaches her and tells her that Roland will die and she will lose her throne and her magic unless she renounces him. Sadly, she does so. Roland, caring nothing more for life, joins other knights in a tournament at Byzantium. He is the victor, and all's well that ends well, as Esclarmonde and Roland are rather suddenly and unexpectedly reunited with the approval of her father.
What has kept Esclarmonde out of the repertoire? I suspect it is because it lacks a famous aria or other set-piece that could have encouraged new audiences to explore the rest of the opera. However, Massenet's writing is consistently strong – a fine mixture of French sensuality and Wagnerian splendor. It's all a little bit over the top, like a cake with too many layers, but it is adorable and not at all tiresome.
This recording dates from 1975, while Sutherland remained in her prime. At times, La Stupenda was accused of dramatic droopiness, lazy diction, and a lack of emotional involvement. Massenet's strong yet impulsively teenager-ish heroine seems to have lit a fire under her, because here she is at her best. And Massenet asks a lot of her, as the role calls for the power of Brünnhilde and the coloratura of Lakmè. Aragall is a very attractive and credible Roland, with an exciting ping to his voice. Quilico is suitably oily in the bad-guy role of the Bishop. (Did Massenet mean to use Esclarmonde as a jab against the traditional Church?) The supporting roles are sung strongly; Clifford Grant is especially impressive as Esclarmonde's father, Emperor Phorcas. Bonynge and the National Philharmonic play the score like the box of liqueur-filled chocolates that it is. In its LP incarnation, this set was beloved of audiophiles, and on CD, the engineering still impresses. Pull down the shades, pour yourself a brandy, and disappear into Esclarmonde!
Like Esclarmonde, Maometto secondo is somewhat compromised by the absence of excerpts that have become famous on their own, although there is a fine trio in Act Two ("In questi estremi istanti.") If there's little about Rossini's opera that makes it stand out, the quality of his writing is consistently high. It's fairly typical of Rossini's work, in that even situations fraught with stress and danger often are set to music that is benign, and conducive to vocal pyrotechnics – of which there are many in Maometto secondo! When the titular Turkish sultan comes onstage for the first time in Act One, he speaks to his followers with music that wouldn't have sounded too strange coming out of the mouth of L'elisir d'amore's Doctor Dulcamara!
The opera takes place in the late Middle Ages, as the Turks are invading a Venetian colony in Greece. The governor, Paolo Erisso, is about to give up hope, but the young general Calbo (a trouser role), who loves Paolo's daughter Anna, continues fighting. Anna, for her part, loves a stranger she knows as Ubaldo, who is subsequently revealed to be Sultan Mahomet II himself! Hoping to save her father and Calbo, she goes off with the Turk, who, madly in love with her since seeing her in Corinth, offers her riches and power. In the end, Anna is able to make off with Mahomet's imperial seal of authority, which allows her people to trick and drive off the Sultan and his hordes. In a burial vault, Anna is married to Calbo, and when the Sultan comes looking for revenge, she admits her deception and stabs herself in the heart – death before dishonor. In other words, this opera presents a strong woman who saves the necks of the weaker men around her. It can be thought of as a tragic variation on L'Italiana in Algeri and Il Turco in Italia.
The recording in question – the opera's only commercial one? – dates from 1983, and the cast is a typical one for the period. Ramey is a standout in the title role. He is unfazed by Rossini's florid vocal writing, and if he rarely sounds threatening, perhaps that is the composer's fault. Zimmermann is effective in the Marilyn Horne role, and Palacio makes a young-sounding father. Anderson, usually not a strong personality, does little here to change that impression of her, although as vocalism per se, there's little to fault about her Anna. Dale offers good support in the opposing roles of a Venetian general and the Sultan's vizier. Rossini expert Scimone makes a good case for the score, and the chorus and orchestra add to the professionalism. The early digital recording is unexceptional.
Copyright © 2004, Raymond Tuttle