Works of Young Rossini Reflect Immense Sophistication

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The Rossini bicentennial on recordings was saved from being a non-event in its final weeks by Philips’ superb release of “Il Turco in Italia” (434 128, 2 CDs) and, on a somewhat lower level, “La Pietra del Paragone (The Touchstone)” in two different editions.

“Turco” (1814), the 21-year-old’s thirteenth opera, reverses the central notion of “L’Italiana in Algeri,” its sensationally successful predecessor. In “Italiana,” Europeans find themselves in an alien Middle Eastern milieu, while in “Turco” the Turk is the odd man out in Europe. But the differences are more significant than the similarities, a fact unrecognized by the hypercritical Italian opera-going public of Rossini’s day, which regarded “Turco” as secondhand goods.

“Italiana” is a brilliant farce, peopled by stock characters. “Turco,” to a clever libretto by Felice Romani (later Bellini’s collaborator), deals in the identity crises ofthe comedy of manners rather than the mistaken identities of farce.


Romani’s dramatic conceit is set in motion by the character of the poet Prosdocimo, who, strapped for a plot for his next comedy, decides to let his acquaintances create the plot for him with their real-life actions, which he subtly manipulates. The foreshadowing of Pirandello is inescapable.

Rossini responded with a score of immense sophistication, bubbling with energy and wit, but responsive as well to the tale’s darker undercurrents.

The music is breathtaking, from the delicately billowing opening chorus to the love-conquers-all ensemble finale, two-and-a-half dazzling hours later, with a surprising harmony or modulation in virtually every gracefully sculpted measure.

Philips’ recording is uncut, unlike the (unjustly) celebrated La Scala-EMI edition of the mid-’50s, and consistently alive to dramatic and musical subtleties, unlike the more recent, all-star version on CBS/Sony under Riccardo Chailly.

Neville Marriner’s conducting for Philips is impeccably light and rhythmically alert, the crisp playing of his Academy of St. Martin in the Fields reminiscent of the palmiest days of their relationship 20 years ago. And there are elegant contributions from John McCarthy’s Ambrosian Opera Chorus and slyly inventive recitative accompaniments by fortepianist John Constable.

Most important, this “Turco” is blessed with one of the best Rossini vocal ensembles in memory, headed by baritone Simone Alaimo’s lushly sung, richly characterized--and not caricatured--Turk and basso Alessandro Corbelli’s worldly Poet, both relishing every textual syllable and inflection, with Sumi Jo’s pure, pliable soprano brilliantly encompassing the tricky turns and dizzying altitude, if not the emotional complexity, of the principal female role. (Note: Jo, a hot property these days, is scheduled to make her local operatic debut shortly in Music Center Opera’s “Zauberflote.”)


Rossini was barely 20 when he produced “La Pietra del Paragone,” his first huge hit after several sizable ones.

The touchstone of the title, “Let’s prove whether she loves me for myself or only for my money,” was already a hoary operatic device by 1812. But even if “Pietra” is built on a slim premise, there’s sharp social observation in the libretto by Luigi Romanelli and keen musical delineation of the characters, some quite offbeat and one verging on the sinister: the venomous critic, Macrobio.

In a reissue of “Pietra” from 1972 (Vanguard 8043/5, three CDs, mid-price), Newell Jenkins leads the Clarion Concerts Orchestra and Chorus, first-rate New York pickup ensembles, with grace and sparkle. And there are outstanding vocal/dramatic contributions from bassos Justino Diaz and Andrew Foldi.

But the young Jose Carreras brings surprisingly little charm or vocal honey to his part, while the late John Reardon is rather a stick as the wealthy Count and Beverly Wolff, as his faithful love, is defeated by the role’s fioritura.

The other edition (Nuova Era 7132/3, two CDs) documents live performances, last April, at the Teatro Comunale in Modena: less tidy than Vanguard, but ultimately the more stylish and entertaining of the two.

Claudio Desderi, the veteran Mozart/Rossini baritone, here trades greasepaint for tails and conducts a commendably sharp, mobile reading in which he is not overindulgent of his singers: a decent lot with one outstanding member, the young baritone Roberto Scaltitri, who offers a strong, subtle and still amusing portrayal of the Count, a man whose basic decency keeps the temptations of vengefulness in check, but just barely.