It’s unusual to find an A-list conductor like Riccardo Chailly recording such (generally) obscure music on an equally A-list label. Good for him! A few years ago he recorded a CD of some of Verdi’s non-operatic obscurities and this release co-incides with his arrival at La Scala, where 11 of these works were premiered. I didn’t find any neglected gems, but there are no duds either and the La Scala orchestra is wonderfully idiomatic in this fare.
The programme is well arranged, with plenty of contrast between succeeding tracks and serves to demonstrate the development of the overture throughout the 19th century and on into the 20th. The earliest work here is Rossini’s Overture to La Pietra del Paragone (1812) (aka the overture to Tancredi) which illustrates the then typical slow introduction followed by a rowdy allegro, which was succeeded by examples like Verdi’s Overture to Il Finto Stanislao (1840) – still a real romp – and Bellini’s more famous Norma (1831), both of which could be termed typical “medley” overtures, offering snatches of themes from the operas ahead.
Chailly and his orchestra are especially impressive in the Norma. (They’re also alive to every nuance in the Madama Butterfly Act III Prelude). The Prelude to the finale of Act III to Verdi’s I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata is like a miniature violin concerto.
The liner notes emphasise that Italian opera composers were increasingly inspired by Germanic influences (especially Wagner) in the latter decades of the 19th century. The writer cites examples of the Prelude to the Prologue of Boito’s Mefistofele with its echoes of Lohengrin and shades of Tristan and Isolde in Leoncavallo’s I Medici and Pagliacci, a fair point, but I doubt whether the average listener would notice. True, there are touches of Parsifal in Giordano’s rather bleak Prelude to Act II of Siberia (not to mention the first four notes to The Song of the Volga Boatmen).
For me, the best piece is the best known: The Dance of the Hours from Ponchielli’s La Giaconda, perhaps the last example of the ballet divertissement. The title means “The Happy Woman” in Italian, despite her being probably the most wretched person in all opera. The ballet, which depicts times of the day, occurs in a ballroom next to the torture chamber of the local branch of the Spanish Inquisition. The final line of the opera is a cracker: the villain says to the now dead Giaconda: ”Your mother upset me, so I drowned her.”
This collection is a fine calling card for one of the most versatile of the world’s greatest conductors, who happily remains at the zenith of his powers after three decades, in yet another leading role.