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A look through Opera Rara’s catalogue of recordings is to rediscover the lost, the unloved, the neglected and, sadly, sometimes the derided. It is like an opera version of The Undateables. If the standard repertoire is based on ABC – Aida, Bohème, Carmen – then Opera Rara is more Adleson e Salvini, Belisario and Caterina Cornaro. There are titles that can make even the most jaded operatic train spotter raise an eyebrow. If anyone has a yearning for Mercadante’s Emma d’Antiochia then look no further – it is already in the bag, recorded in 2004.

Founded 50 years ago in 1970, the company presented its first opera in 1972 – a concert performance of Meyerbeer’s Il c rociato in Egitto, which meant really going out on a limb by choosing not just an unfashionable composer (and in 1972 Meyerbeer was little more than a joke to many) but an incredibly obscure piece by him. It was the brainchild of an American with a passion for 19th-century opera, Patric Schmid, and advertising executive, Don White. They started by setting up an agency, but soon promoted their own concerts, leading to their first complete opera – the Meyerbeer. Encouraged, they ploughed on with more performances. Then, realising that their offerings were reaching cult status with people pirating off-the-air recordings, they launched a record label for their own releases, starting with Donizetti’s Ugo, Conte di Parigi in 1977. Forty years of funding from the Peter

Moores Foundation helped anchor the company, and it is now a flourishing concern, essentially having become a tastemaker for people who relish the opportunity to hear lost pieces from the historic musical byways. The casts are top drawer, and as a bonus the recordings are generally excellently engineered and beautifully packaged, with libretto and a welter of information about the piece plus many illustrations. You can even purchase CDs or downloads, it is up to you. There are complete operas (some recorded live), recitals and collections.

The catalogue currently boasts over 175 recordings to choose from, so where to start if you are interested but perhaps daunted by the choice? Don’t really know your Rossini from your Pacini? Read on. Here is a representative Top Ten that I would recommend to get you started.

10
Ugo, Conte di Parigi - Donizetti
Let’s start at the very beginning, an ideal place to commence, with Opera Rara’s first recording. In some ways Donizetti’s 1832 opera is a mess. It was premiered at La Scala in the same season as Bellini’s Norma, and starred the same two divas, Giuditta Pasta and Giulia Grisi. Whether due to warring singers squabbling over their roles or censorship of the regicide in the story, the libretto was mangled. Even Opera Rara calls the plot ‘convoluted’, and they are being polite. But as a listening experience it is excellent – 20th-century divas 10 battling it out through their arias and ensembles include Della Jones, Eiddwen Harrhy, Yvonne Kenny and the cult soprano Janet Price, all in great form. Price wins the day as the crazed Bianca, (the Pasta role) with a final suicide scene that upstages everyone and everything including her own sister’s wedding. Talk about attention seeking.

9
Il crociato in Egitto - Meyerbeer
Opera Rara got around to recording Meyerbeer’s early Italian opera in the early 1990s, by which time some of his works were seeing the light of day onstage. It contains the last role written for a castrato, Velluti, here taken very capably by the mezzo Diana Montague. Though heavily influenced by Rossini – some passages could pass for that composer – it also displays Meyerbeer’s interest in developing large-scale drama through his musical structures – the finale to Act I is particularly complex. Yvonne Kenny returns, in limpid voice in the soprano role of Palmide. The plot takes place during the crusades of the 13th century, and concerns secret Christianity in the Sultan’s palace leading to a surprisingly happy conclusion.

8
Rosmonda - Donizetti
Patric Schmid stumbled across this forgotten manuscript in Naples, and Rosmonda was consequently revived. It is based on the legend of Rosamund Clifford, Henry II’s mistress supposedly kept hidden in a tower within a maze which was solved by the Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who offered her a choice of suicide using dagger or poison, Rosamund choosing the latter. Here the queen is called Leonora and she stabs Rosmunda – I suppose if you want a thing done well, do it yourself. A young Renée Fleming is charming in her first opera recording, and Nelly Miricioiu, the star of many an Opera Rara set, spits fire as the queen. Another stalwart, tenor Bruce Ford, is mellifluously indecisive as Enrico.

7
Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra - Pacini
Another example of bel canto’s obsession with English history and its tragedies. Pacini was overshadowed by Rossini and then Verdi, so although he certainly churned out enough operas and had some hits he has become somewhat forgotten. But he could certainly write a role for a star, and here Nelly Miricioiu seizes her opportunity as Mary Tudor, a queen spurned by her lover who then finds out and loses all, a plot based on a play by Victor Hugo. Ford appears again as the duplicitous bounder Fennimore, a role with some graceful music for his tenor. Mary Plazas is a bright-voiced seconda donna, and baritone José Fardilha reveals a quick tone as Ernesto Malcolm, who gets caught up in the machinations.

7
Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra - Pacini
Another example of bel canto’s obsession with English history and its tragedies. Pacini was overshadowed by Rossini and then Verdi, so although he certainly churned out enough operas and had some hits he has become somewhat forgotten. But he could certainly write a role for a star, and here Nelly Miricioiu seizes her opportunity as Mary Tudor, a queen spurned by her lover who then finds out and loses all, a plot based on a play by Victor Hugo. Ford appears again as the duplicitous bounder Fennimore, a role with some graceful music for his tenor. Mary Plazas is a bright-voiced seconda donna, and baritone José Fardilha reveals a quick tone as Ernesto Malcolm, who gets caught up in the machinations.

6
Robinson Crusoe - Offenbach
A shift in focus for Opera Rara, moving away from its bel canto roots to take in some Offenbachian froth for light relief. Performed in Don White’s witty English adaptation it is fun, even if the dialogue sometimes veers a touch towards Gilbert and Sullivan rather than opéra comique – it’s a bit Carry On up the Orinoco... But many lines do get a laugh. ‘You take a gallon of water and an onion or two, and though it’s sad I’m afraid I’ll have to add both of you. ’ Behind the daftness is some seriously accomplished singing, with John Brecknock displaying much lightness of style in the title role, and Yvonne Kenny as Edwige, making mincemeat of her fiendish coloratura waltz, which you may know from Joan Sutherland’s famous recording.

5
Michael Spyres - Espoir / Joyce El-Khoury - Écho
Two stand-alone albums that were released together and greatly complement each other. Young stars, tenor Spyres and soprano El-Khoury, make light work of a selection of arias made famous by two legendary singers of yesteryear, Gilbert Duprez and Julie Dorus-Gras, who were megastars in Paris in the 1830s and ’40s. Spyres nails his colours to the mast with a thrilling opening aria from Rossini’s Otello and El-Khoury dazzles in arias by Donizetti, Meyerbeer and Halévy among others. The singers also duet on both albums. This is high octane and exciting stuff – play these discs for people and watch jaws drop.

4
Zazà - Leoncavallo
Another curveball from Opera Rara with an excursion into the world of verismo. Zazà is the bittersweet story of the music hall star who is strung along by a cad and gives up her love for the good of his existing wife and family. Ermonela Jaho stars, and trust me, nobody can suffer quite like her – plus her soprano is silvery, and its delicacy hides its inner steel that she can unleash to devastating effect. Add Riccardo Massi’s ardent tenor and Maurizio Benini’s idiomatic conducting, and it makes a major case for Leoncavallo’s overlooked opera.

3
Semiramide - Rossini
The clarity of Mark Elder’s conducting plays a major part in this recording’s success, as he relishes Rossini’s textures and shows that the opera is more than just a vocal warhorse. Not that the singing is to be sneezed at. Albina Shagimuratova’s soprano doesn’t just have the glittering notes, but she also delineates the Babylonian queen’s hubris and emotional descent. Daniela Barcellona’s mezzo is in fine and lithe form as Arsace, and Barry Banks’ tenor and Mirco Palazzi’s bass are also excellent. Not just an enjoyable recording, but a release that made many people rethink their opinion of Rossini’s great opera.

2
Les Martyrs - Donizetti
Some late Donizetti, a reworking for Paris by him of Poliuto, and all the more exciting. The score is large-scale and thrilling, sometimes startling, and the plot, doomed Christians in ancient Rome, has pace and tension. Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury reappear here as Polyeucte and Pauline whose relationship is going to the dogs until they are fed to the lions in a gripping finale. Both stars are on top form and have great chemistry, and Spyres essays some spectacular high notes. Mark Elder’s conducting ratchets up the atmosphere.

1
Orazi e Curiazi - Mercadante
Mercadante was once derided as Verdi’s footstool, but this recording reveals him to be a major composer in his own right. He doesn’t just have the knack of a memorable tune but his orchestral effects are exciting, particularly his use of brass. He is also ambitious in his development of operatic form, not content merely to plod through its formulae.

The storyline features more tragedy from ancient Rome, with a young woman caught between warring families, brother against lover. The end of Act II reaches great emotional heights, not least because of Nelly Miricioiu’s performance of the role of the doomed Camilla, which is potentially a killer. Miricioiu triumphs, with some stunning high pianissimi, confidently biting into phrases and floating lines with almost apparent ease. It’s a strong cast all round, and the opera proves one of Opera Rara’s most exciting and revelatory exhumations under David Parry’s baton.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica


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