Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Rossini - Matilde di Shabran

Gioachino Rossini - Matilde di Shabran

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2012

Michele Mariotti, Mario Martone, Juan Diego Flórez, Olga Peretyatko, Paolo Bordogna, Chiara Chialli, Simon Orfilia, Anna Goryachova, Marco Filippo Romano, Nicola Alaimo, Giorgio Misseri, Ugo Rosati, Dario Sallusto

Decca - Blu-ray

Whatever you might think about the plausibility or the dramatic merits of the plot of Matilde di Shabran, musically it's an absolute delight, with an abundance of melody and a number of meaty singing roles. It might be Rossini on autopilot, composing at breakneck speed and getting full value out of a few simple rehashed tunes repeated at a variety of speeds, but the fact that he manages nonetheless to fashion an entertaining musical entertainment out of the most meagre and ludicrous of librettos with limited means is near miraculous. At least, it is when its potential is fully realised at the Rossini Opera Festival by some of the best Rossinian performers in the world today.

No-one however could possibly lay any kind of claim for there being anything like a credible plot or even credible characters in Matilde di Shabran, but if writing for entertainment alone is justification enough for an opera, then that's certainly what Rossini delivers here. Corradino ("Ironheart") might be a fearsome warrior ("a lion, an ogre, a devil") and a heartless hater of women who resides in a dark castle on a hill, who issues dire pronouncements to strike fear into the hearts of the local villagers, but he finds his power-base crumble when faced with a disarming creature of the opposite sex. There is however no Bluebeard-like dark cautionary fairy-tale here. It's not some psychological exploration of the fatal attraction of female passions and the dangerous allure of masculine power. (It might be interesting to see Claus Guth let loose on this, but even he would find this work a challenge).

The woman who is going to storm Corradino's castle (metaphorically speaking) is of course Matilde di Shabran. Matilde has been left as a ward to Corradino by her father on his deathbed. Quite why the old man did this isn't entirely clear, but clearly he must have been insane or in a delirium if he thought it was a great idea to entrust his only daughter to a notorious hater of women, a man devoted entirely to war, havoc, slaughter and inflicting as much misery and fear into the world as is humanly possible. Corradino is however clearly good at his job, receiving tributes of vegetables from cowering villagers, showing his merciless character by having an unwary poet called Isidoro locked up for straying on his property and just because he finds his name effeminate. He's a baddie all right, this Corradino, and he chases Isidoro around the stage just to scare him a bit more.

There's a good hour of all this (comic-)macho posturing before Matilde arrives on the scene, or even before we hear a female voice in the opera. Even then, it's a mezzo-soprano singing the trouser-role of Edoardo, the son of Corradino's arch-enemy Don Rodrigo, who is locked up in the dungeon. When Matilde does turn up on the scene, Corradino obviously wants to slaughter this hateful but curiously attractive example of the fairer sex, but - what is this? Something stays his hand. Could it be love? Could the Ironheart be melting? Well, much to the delight of the scheming Countess, it's only a temporary aberration, since his mistrust of all women is proven to be justified when it appears that Matilde has released his prisoner Edoardo from chains. Faithless woman! So why then does Corradino still feel such pangs at the betrayal and even a hint of regret that he has had her executed...?

If you find that you're fully entertained for over three and a half hours by the thin ludicrous plot that passes for drama (or indeed comedy), then it's almost entirely down to Rossini's galloping, spinning and spiralling score. He may have written Matilde di Shabran in haste - even more than usual - to fulfil a commission, but you'd almost think that the speed of writing has found its way into the score, which rattles along at that familiar Rossinian pace, rattling out variations of the theme in a manner that works nonetheless in perfect accompaniment with the over-the-top situations and the behaviour of the characters. That of course is also expressed in the singing, and accordingly you'll find some of the composer's most extravagant bel canto writing here.

All of which wouldn't amount to much however if we didn't have the right people in place at the Rossini Opera Festival to make this 2013 performance of the work compellingly and thrillingly entertaining. Really, you only need to see the names Juan Diego Flórez and Olga Peretyatko here to know it's going to be sung as well as it can be. Even then though, both singers more than surpass expectations. Dramatically they don't have a lot to work with, and there's unfortunately a lot of mugging going on, but Flórez's singing is still without peer in this tenor register and he never once falters in the extremely difficult passages, even making them look easy. The same goes for the gorgeous songbird flutterings of Olga Peretyatko's flawless coloratura, but her unparalleled brilliance of this type of Rossini role is evident in her entire performance. It would be apparent to anyone that you are witnessing two of the best Rossini performers in the world here at their best.

You would be hard pressed to find flaws in the other performances either with Paolo Bordogna providing a good comic turn as Isidoro, Anna Goryachova a fine Edoardo and Chiara Chialli a suitably mean Countess. Simon Orfilia also makes a good impression as Ginardo, but is rather wasted in such a small role. Michele Mariotti races the orchestra through the work with no great subtlety, which is exactly the manner in which it should be played. There's not a lot to say about Mario Martone's direction or the stage design other than it's functional and perfectly suitable. The setting is generically period, the depiction of Corradino's castle, towers and dungeon is created through an all-purpose large double spiral staircase that remains static in place throughout, although it spins for effect at one or two key moments.

Decca's Blu-ray release of Matilde di Shabran looks and sounds pretty good in High Definition. The Blu-ray is region free, full-HD, with subtitles in Italian, English, French and German. The enclosed booklet includes a full track-by-track synopsis (which is more than the plot merits), and there is an essay on the creation of the work, although I'm not sure about the claim that this work conforms to the opera semiseria style. There are no extra features on the actual disc, but you have an entertaining three and a half hour opera here, with extraordinary performances and a solid presentation.