Matilde di Shabran
Decca 475 7688 (CD)

Rossini: Matilde di Shabran, The Guardian, 8 September 2006
From Guts To Grandeur, The New York Sun, 10 October 2006
Hitting high notes, The New Statesman, 16 October 2006
Hearts broken, Bay Area Reporter, 16 November 2006
Rossini: Matilde di Shabran, Massis/ Florez/ Orquesta Sinfonica di Galicia/ Frizza (5/5 Stars)
Tim Ashley, The Guardian, 8 September 2006

(Also reviewed: Rossini: Torvaldo e Dorliska )

These two Rossini operas, poles apart in quality and mood, are both about male sexual brutality and female responses to it. Torvaldo e Dorliska is a deadly serious, revolutionary drama that echoes both Beethoven's Fidelio and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Torvaldo and Dorliska, happily married, are flung into prison by the local Duke when Dorliska rejects his attentions, an event that triggers a peasants' uprising which leads to their eventual release.

The score, however, falls short of the subject. The Duke isn't nearly malign enough. The peasants are too comically portrayed to make convincing revolutionaries, and the emotional weight is placed entirely on the central couple with their achingly sincere duets and arias of fierce protest.

Matilde di Shabran, however, is one of Rossini's finest scores, and a comedy of almost Shakespearean depth. The plot is similar to The Taming of the Shrew, though the sexes of the protagonists are reversed. Matilde, a soldier's daughter, takes it upon herself to break down the prejudices of the misogynist bully Corradino Cuor di Ferro ("Corradino Ironheart") in order to get him to propose marriage, though at one point she nearly loses her life in the process. The ending is ambivalent: Matilde celebrates her triumph to music that suggests a military victory; Corradino, shorn of his coloratura bravado, is suddenly relegated to a supporting role in the accompanying ensemble.

Both recordings were taped live. Torvaldo e Dorliska, from the 2003 Wildbad festival, is an appropriately rough-hewn affair, conducted with considerable grit by Alessandro de Marchi. It's well sung, but not greatly so: the casting of the genteel-sounding Michele Bianchini as the Duke regrettably highlights the work's principal flaw. Huw Rhys-Evans is the dreamily lyrical Torvaldo. As Dorliska, Paola Cigna hurls invective at Bianchini with tremendous ferocity.

Matilde di Shabran, meanwhile, was recorded in Pesaro in 2004, and pits Annick Massis's Matilde against Juan Diego Florez's Corradino, the pair of them flinging coloratura at each other like weaponry, and singing like gods. Massis superbly captures Matilde's manipulative hauteur. Florez becomes increasingly touching as Corradino's macho certainties are gradually toppled. Riccardo Frizza's electrifying conducting adds immeasurably to the excitement of it all. Jaw-droppingly good, it's one of the finest operatic recordings of recent years.

From Guts To Grandeur
Jay Nordlinger, The New York Sun, 10 October 2006

Are you ready for some Rossini? And not only some Rossini, but a rarity? From the Decca label we have a complete recording of "Matilde di Shabran." What's it about? The plot is Rossinian, and therefore too complicated for me to explain. Suffice it to say that the opera is a "melodramma giocoso," a comedic melodrama.

Rossini wrote about 40 operas, and "Matilde" comes near the end: It was written in 1821, and Rossini stopped writing operas in 1829. Of course, he lived for another 40 years after that. He simply wanted to retire.

"Matilde di Shabran" is filled with marvelous music, including those tricky ensembles in which the composer specializes.The new recording comes from the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy. We are told that the performance was recorded live in August 2004. The young Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza does a commendable job leading the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia and the Prague Chamber Choir.

See how music has internationalized?

And the star of the show is the number-one Rossini tenor of our age: Juan Diego Flórez. (Incidentally, he will star in "The Barber of Seville" at the Metropolitan Opera beginning November 10.) In the role of Corradino Cuor di ferro  Corradino Ironheart!  he is, as ever, nimble and fiery, with that little quiver in his voice.

And in the title role of Matilde is a French soprano named Annick Massis. Her voice is light, light, light, and acrobatic. She is a bird that can turn somersaults as it flits from twig to twig.

A "new" Rossini opera performed with heart and skill, by one and all  Rossini lovers must welcome these discs with open arms.

Hitting high notes
Peter Conrad, The New Statesman, 16 October 2006

Opera is a blood sport: its duets are duels, and high notes - especially those of the strutting, swaggering Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez - triumphantly announce a kill. Flórez justifies the revival of Rossini's long, odd Matilde di Shabran, in which the vocal skirmishes dramatise the age-old battle of the sexes. As the iron-hearted warrior Corradino, Flórez vents tirades of factitious fury and apoplectically bans women from his realm. The sly heroine Matilde (deliciously sung by the soprano Annick Massis) succeeds in humbling him, and concludes with her own anthem in praise of indomitable womanhood. Flórez is silenced, his D-flats and E-naturals dampened: this, for a tenor, is equivalent to emasculation.

The biological combat is observed by the mendicant poet Isidoro (Bruno de Simone), who delivers a scurrilous commentary. As a professional faker, he manufactures emotion to order, improvising amorous sonnets on request; he even kills off Matilde, then brings her back to life so the work can remain officially a comedy. Through Isidoro, Rossini ironically derides the mad, obsessive artifice of his own opera.

Flórez bounces back in Decca's new DVD of Donizetti's La Fille du régiment, filmed in Genoa. Here he joins the army to accompany his girlfriend, who is a vivandière, and celebrates his enlistment with a notorious aria that contains nine successive high Cs, popped like champagne corks. Briefly miming modest reluctance during the ovation, Flórez then gives an encore, with nine more of the effervescent notes. Later, after a soulful lyrical lament, he emerges from character to blow kisses to his fans. This may not be music-drama, but it's certainly opera, at its most crudely and irresistibly thrilling.

Hearts broken
Stephanie von Buchau, Bay Area Reporter, 16 November 2006

Exactly 10 years ago in Pesaro, a town on Italy's eastern seaboard that takes opera in general and Rossini in particular very seriously, everybody was excited about the exhuming of Matilda di Shabran, a Rossinian melodramma giocoso that had not been heard since the 1820s. Why? Because it was a dog? No. More likely because it required a large cast with the virtuoso vocal skills that had long been regarded as "old-fashioned." Reading the score, one might come to the conclusion that the leading male role was impossible to sing.

Yet on this occasion, not one but two tenors were up to the task. Bruce Ford, the suave American Rossini expert, had been cast in the leading part of Corradino, a comic tyrant and major misogynist. At the last minute, Ford did not sing and was boldly replaced by a slender, handsome young Peruvian named Juan Diego Florez. Apparently, Florez learned the fiendish part at the last minute  which, when you hear him, also seems impossible. For this is literally the most athletic, convoluted, brilliant tenor role I've ever heard. Needless to say, Florez scored a triumph in 1996, and was soon an international darling.

I do not wish to knock Bruce Ford, who is a valuable, stylish singer, but he also has a soft-gained, mellow sound typical of what we mistakenly thought of as "the Rossini tenor." Ford sang Rodrigo in the 1994 SFO Rossini Otello and was great, but the title part fared better with the burly-voiced Chris Merritt, who at that time had both the technique and the cojones to make you believe he could murder his wife. (Though he doesn't, in this happy-ending version of Shakespeare's tragedy.) The mellifluous Ford is not the least murderous-sounding. I can't imagine him as the nearly-psychotic Corradino, who readily tosses his subjects in a dungeon when they annoy him, and even condemns his beloved Matilda to death.

Florez, on the other hand, makes his entrance 20 minutes into the piece and, while hurling abuse at his "friends" and ordering others to the dungeon, fires off round after round of coloratura vehemence that is exciting, sexy, totally captivating. You'd not only go happily to his dungeon, you'd follow him anywhere. In other words, this is not just a male canary warbling ecstatically, but a real character, a man who may be crazy, but is compellingly so. A former critic of this paper said to me, "I'm just glad I live in a world in which Juan Diego exists." Yes, indeedy. That opening explosion, which occurs at the beginning of the Act I quartet "Alma real," almost sounds like a joke, as if the 29-year-old composer were chuckling, "How far can I go?" Surely that is not a real human throat making those spectacular noises? And I say this being a major, fairly experienced Florez fan. Yes, he is making those noises, and continues to make them for three hours, with no help from recording engineers, because this is a live performance from the 2004 Rossini Festival where they revived and recorded Matilde.

All the rage

At this point, you might be wondering what the opera is about. I've heard it three times and read the libretto by Giacomo Ferretti, and I'm still not sure. The subtitle is Beauty, or a heart of iron, the beauty being Matilde (Annick Massis) and the Ironheart, Corradino (Florez). An orphan entrusted to his care, Mathilde shows up at Corradino's castle with its famous dungeon, planning to captivate him with her feminine charms. She succeeds, and they fall in love. But misunderstandings, suspicions and unfounded jealousy when he thinks she favors young Edoardo (Hadar Halevy, in a pants part) lead to the terrible moment when Corradino orders the poet Isidoro (Bruno de Simone) to throw Matilde off a cliff into a raging torrent. Of course he doesn't, even though he pretends to, and all ends well when Matilde forgives Corradino and concludes the opera with a shiny burst of fioratura on the subject that "Women were born to conquer and rule."

Massis has never sung at SFO, though she's been scheduled in the past. Her lyric soprano is compact and a tad lemony, yet her pitch is pure, her phrasing natural and her technique as sparkling as the most brut of champagnes. She also has that slight smile in her voice that reminds us this melodrama is "giocoso." She's an excellent partner for Florez, whose delivery is so "sincere" he's almost scary. If you recognize the names de Simone and Halevy, it is because they are cast in this SFO season. Simone was the sharp Dr. Bartolo in Barbiere while mezzo Halevy will portray Carmen in the second cast conducted by George Cleve, opening December 2.

Why everybody in this cast doesn't drop dead from exertion in these tremendous ensembles is beyond me. That they stay in tune and in phase is due to the scholarly-looking young conductor, Riccardo Frizza.

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