Editor’s Choice, Jan/Feb 2016 – Opera

Francesco Benucci was the star singer of Vienna’s Italian Opera Buffa Company, founded in 1783, and was renowned for his splendid vocalism and good taste – novel qualities for most exponents of the buffa style. He placed musical values first and foremost, characterising roles with elegance and sophisticated wit without descending into vulgar comic shtick.

Mozart was delighted by his portrayal of the title role in Le Nozze di Figaro during those nine niggardly Viennese performances before its runaway success in Prague. Benucci later played Leporello when Don Giovanni was revived in 1788 and Mozart whipped up a special comic duet for him and the Zerlina.

Hyperion here continues its smart “Arias for…” thematic programming with this tribute to Benucci and has wisely chosen Matthew Rose to convincingly channel the spirit of the original. His dark but nimble tone is ideal for this repertoire, yet not overweight making it fit well within the scale of Jonathan Cohen’s period direction. His musicanship is impeccable, but most importantly he sings ‘on the words’ with subtle changes of colour and emphasis so that the expression is carried across to us with no need for the visuals. 

At the beginning of the Catalogue Aria you hear Leporello’s impudent delight at laying out the facts in front of poor Elvira before he reveals his misguided admiration for the rake. I like how he concludes the aria with just a slight emphasis on the final word rather than the usual bellowing of the line – a simple touch but typical of Rose’s subtle choices. Se Vuol Ballare is slyly seditious at first, until Figaro’s simmering rage breaks the surface before he gains his self-control with some well-integrated ornamentation. 

Rose is a little reticent in the scene from Salieri’s La Grotta di Trofonio, which perhaps needs more bluster, while Sarti’s I Contrattempi could be funnier. The arias from Vincent Martín y Soler’s Una Cosa Rara are a delight; one can hear why the opera took Vienna by storm – it was definitely a cut above the usual buffo standard. 

The period wind players are remarkable in their security of intonation and weave a fine tapestry of sound around the soloist. However the strings, although pure and sweet, are a little anaemic. The sound is the usual high standard of the house with transparency and presence, but those strings could have done with a boost. Documentation is exemplary.