Thanks to their unerring sense of adventure, Opera Rara have uncovered another hidden gem with their latest release, Pacini's Alessandro nell'Indie. And while I don't suppose that productions of the work will be spreading all over the world, the opportunity to hear the score in such a high-quality recording is irresistible.
With over eighty operas to his name, Giovanni Pacini is one of the most genuinely under-rated composers of the first half of the nineteenth century. He wrote his first opera at just seventeen (in 1813); by the time of the premiere of Alessandro nell'Indie in 1824 he had already composed thirty operas.
Yet this piece represented a new departure for him: it was the first time he had personally appeared at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples to supervise one of his new scores. Naples was one of the two main Italian operatic centres of the day, and acceptance by this audience almost guaranteed a composer's success. After a shaky premiere, which was greeted by hissing, the second night became a success thanks to the intervention of the Bourbon king of Naples, Ferdinand IV, who was an admirer of the prima donna, Adelaide Tosi, whom he applauded warmly. As a result, the opera became a success and ran for between forty and seventy performances. Later, Pacini took over as musical director of the Naples theatres, a job previously held by Rossini. The association continued for many years and resulted in some of the composer's greatest pieces, including Saffo (1840), Stella di Napoli (1845) and Berta (1867); the latter was his final opera, premiered eight months before his death.
Alessandro nell'Indie's libretto is the handiwork of Pietro Metastasio, the most influential librettist of the eighteenth century, during which time it was used by numerous composers including Handel (in an adapted version, Poro); its 1824 setting is inevitably a mixture of early Romantic musical style and baroque formality. The story deals with Alexander the Great's wooing of the Indian queen Cleofide, whose fiancÚ, Poro (Alexander's enemy), is believed to be dead. Cleofide is prepared to sacrifice herself in memory of her drowned lover, but when Poro appears at the last minute and offers to die with her, Alexander forgives him and allows them to marry. The scenario of the 'benevolent despot' and his last-minute clemency is typical of other operas of the eighteenth century, from numerous examples by Handel to Mozart's Lucio Silla and La clemenza di Tito. Yet Pacini's score goes far beyond the possibilities of the baroque, at least in terms of the large-scale forms he employs. The beginning of the first act is perhaps a little perfunctory in its series of bravura arias, but the finale is dramatically tense and the second act features a fabulous opening choral set piece, a quartet and a stirring aria for Alessandro. Thanks to a close melding of the text with the music in these numbers, the opera at its best is almost the equal of Donizetti's finest works; it's just a shame that its rich orchestration, melodic invention and strong vocal writing were not put to the service of a more contemporary libretto.
Opera Rara's cast is typically top-notch, giving the opera its best chance of revaluation. Bruce Ford's voice no longer has quite the same firm tone at the top but his impassioned delivery and slightly grittier tone are perfect for the character of Alessandro, one of the most imposing figures in history. His delivery in the second act is particularly commanding, but it's indisputable that he always sounds as if he means what he's singing. Laura Claycomb, fast becoming one of the most accomplished and flexible opera singers on the circuit, is excellent as Cleofide, the queen. She is a little stretched in the ridiculously high tessitura of the opening number but really comes into her own in the fiery duet with Poro and presents as complete a psychological portrayal of this strong character as one could hope for.
The strongest singing, however, comes from Jennifer Larmore, whose nimble coloratura, full-blooded attack and feel for the text make all her appearances as Poro utterly compelling. Dean Robinson's Timagene (Alessandro's confidant) and Mark Wilde's Gandarte (the General of Poro's army) complete a strong cast, supported by the ever-reliable Geoffrey Mitchell Choir and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, whose experience in the pit at Glyndebourne is evident in their sensitive and theatrical playing. David Parry remains the conductor of choice for this repertoire, knowing where to find nuance in the score and when to let the energy of the music proceed unabated.
With excellent recorded sound and the usual extravagant Opera Rara booklet filled with informative essays and full libretto (putting the bigger record companies to shame), this is a must-have for all who admire the bel canto repertoire.
Forthcoming highlights on Opera Rara include Donizetti's Imelda de' Lambertazzi (Feburary 2008) and Bellini's La Straniera (September 2008).