W hen Rossini died in 1868, Verdi tried to arrange for a group of composers to pen a requiem mass in memory of their illustrious predecessor. It never got finished, and Verdi went on to use his intended contribution in his own Requiem, dedicated to the memory of someone quite different. But such a reaction to Rossini’s death before long became perplexing in itself, because Rossini was soon only being remembered for his sparkling comedies. Was this essentially lightweight figure really such a significant trailblazer, later generations were to ask.
The truth was that the opera world had, after the musical earthquake caused by Wagner, forgotten the non-comic operas that had made Rossini famous as a young man. It’s only when you listen to them that you begin to understand why Verdi was so overwhelmed at his predecessor’s death.
Rossini’s two big early successes were Tancredi, a dramatization of a tragedy by Voltaire, and Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra (Elizabeth, Queen of England), and both are well worth investigating.
Tancredi, composed when Rossini was 21, launched him onto the international stage. There are now several versions available on DVD, and the 2005 release of a production from the 1992 Schwetzinger Festival can be recommended. The visual quality is excellent, and so is the sound.
The role of Tancredi is taken by a contralto, Bernadette Manca di Nissa, and she sings with finesse. Maria Bayo is outstanding as Amenaide, as are Raul Gimenez as Argirio and Ildebrando d’Arcangelo as Orbazzano.
Rossini wrote two different endings to the opera and, after performing the work with the tragic one, conductor Gianluigi Gelmetti gets up on stage and announces that the company will now perform the happy one. It only lasts three minutes, but it’s nice to have them both all the same. The director and designer of this admirable venture, played here on a very small stage, was Pier Luigi Pizzi.
E lisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra is only available in a single DVD version, filmed in Turin in 1985, and compared with Tancredi the visual and sound quality are poor. Even so, it shows why the young Rossini became confirmed as a celebrity when it was first produced in Naples in 1815.
It opens with a shock — the overture to The Barber of Seville! The explanation is uncomplicated — Rossini simply re-used it for his later comedy. Then the curtain rises on the drama of Elizabeth and Leicester — her successful general but also her lover. The scheming Norfolk soon reveals to Elizabeth that Leicester secretly married while campaigning against the Scots, and that his wife is one of the Scottish prisoners the queen has pardoned and made her household pages.
This pair of DVDs lacks the sophistication we expect these days — it’s as if someone had simply pointed a camera at a stage and then added a few close-ups. But the singing is generally excellent. Lella Cuberli as Elisabeth produces all the necessary vocal flourishes and also acts extremely convincingly. American tenor Rockwell Blake is exceptionally strong as the villainous Norfolk, notably in the scene with a chorus of guards on the second DVD. And Antonio Savastano as Leicester does justice to the music’s complexity and verve.
The opera ends abruptly, without the expected ensemble. And it’s true the story veers away from what was probably the historical reality. But this was drama, not documentary, and the product as a whole is of value in demonstrating again what Rossini’s serious early operas were really like.