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Robert Farr
MusicWeb International, December 2011

Not a composer we hear much about today. Even if in this opera he was overshadowed by Verdi’s Aida, Pier Luigi Pizzi’s set, alongside a reasonably sung and acted performance, gives a rare chance to see and hear what has been long neglected. © MusicWeb International

Robert J Farr
MusicWeb International, February 2011

Dates tell you an awful lot when it comes to opera. Take Lauro Rossi for example. Born two years after Verdi, he died two years before the premiere of the great Italian master’s Otello. His Cleopatra, based on an Egyptian theme, was premiered four and a half years after Verdi’s Aida, also based on an Egyptian theme. Although Rossi seems not to merit even a mention in Michael and Joyce Kennedy’s Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (Fifth Edition, 2007), he was no operatic or composer ingénue. On the contrary, he was among those chosen by Verdi to compose a section of the proposed Messe per Rossini—in his case the Agnus Dei. It is also true that his name does not feature, along with seven others of the twelve chosen by Verdi for that composition, in the esoteric list of operatic composers found in the Opera Rara catalogue. This is perhaps forgivable as even the vastly experienced Pier Luigi Pizzi, director of this production, claimed not to have heard of him until this production! He should have done more home-work. I have a performance of Rossi’s comic opera Il Domino Nero recorded live with the Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana, the same as here, on 28 September 2001. Nor should Pizzi have been surprised given the name of the theatre where this performance of Cleopatra took place, rather than in the open-air arena normally the venue of the large-scale opera performances of the Sferisterio Festival (See reviews of Maria Stuarda, Macbeth and Norma from the 2007 Festival). Meanwhile, we should be grateful that Pizzi’s efforts at fund-raising saved the Festival, albeit with some changes of programme after the withdrawal of state funding; perhaps shadows of things to come nearer home in the UK.

Fortunately the essay in the accompanying leaflet is highly informative. Rossi premiered a shared composition at the San Carlo, Naples, in 1830 after which his compositions came thick and fast. On Donizetti’s recommendation he was offered an appointment at the Teatro Valle in Rome. His tenth opera was premiered at La Scala in 1834 indicating that Rossi composed at a similar pace to Donizetti and Rossini, as was necessary to earn a living in an era when the diva was paid more than the composer. After the failure of a commission for the great diva Maria Malibran in Naples in 1834, Rossi took his talents to North and South America where he was music director and organizer of several opera companies. After a return to Europe Rossi was not short of work, composing both comic and tragic operas. His comic opera Il Domino Nero, presented in Milan in 1849,was a great success. But when the security of an academic post was offered in Milan in 1850 he took it and his pace of composition lessened. Even so six of his works were a success during this period. He moved to Naples Music Conservatory in 1870, working there until 1878 during which time he wrote his penultimate work Cleopatra, and after which he retired to the musical town of Cremona.

Premiered at the Teatro Regio, Turin, on 5 March 1876, Rossi’s Cleopatra caught the public’s imagination. Whether or not Verdi’s Aïda premiered five years earlier influenced his composition, or its reception, is conjectural. Whilst the musical style lacks the bravura of Verdi’s creation it is composed with the dramatic situations well supported by the music, be that in aria, duet or ensemble. Despite the well-known nature of the love of Anthony, Antonio here, and the eponymous heroine, Rossi’s Cleopatra requires a clear and easily comprehensible production. In this respect none does that better than the vastly experienced Pier Luigi Pizzi, especially as—his norm these days—he also designs the sets and costumes. The costumes of the Roman contingent are very much in period with bare knees and togas for the men and long decorous red dresses for the women; the colour differentiating them from the white of the Egyptians. Cleopatra herself is dressed wholly in a black, somewhat voluminous dress. Her admirer, Diomede is also dressed in all black but with an ornament. The single set is very much standard Pizzi mainly comprising wide-stepped stairs with the odd black flat surface downstage where the eponymous heroine has some of her dramatic moments in clear focus.

I do not know which came first, the signing of Dimitra Theodossiou or the choice of opera. They certainly go well together. The work requires a big dramatic-voiced Cleopatra who can throw her voice and whole being into the portrayal. The downside of Dimitra Theodossiou in any repertoire of this type is an intrusive vibrato at dramatic climaxes. I would not wish to overstate this, as the impact is less than it might be. Her vocal contribution is significantly superior to that of her colleagues, most notably in Cleopatra’s act two-aria sequence starting with Lieto in raggio (Chs.9–11) as bereft in her palace Cleopatra yearns for Antonio. As her advisor and would-be suitor Diomede, Sebastian Catana, more bass than baritone, is among the best of a variable supporting cast (Chs.4, 5,12,13). The tenor Antonio, Alessandro Liberatore, is musical but lacks the required heft and clear ping to his voice (Chs.24–26). As Ottavio Cesare, who wishes Antonio to marry his sister in order that he can wage a successful war in the east, Paolo Pecchioli’s bass has more cover than clarity and the role loses some dramatic impact as a consequence (Chs.9, 28); one senses a good voice trying to escape. With her strong contraltoish tones Tiziana Carraro, as Cesare’s sister Ottavia, has too much dramatic impact than the role really calls for (Chs.16–18). David Crescenzi, the chorus master, conducts the performance. He stepped in at the very last minute and as a consequence the extant overture was not performed. Like the chorus he prepared, his achievement in Rossi’s little known opera is considerable.

The music itself falls somewhere between that of the Italian bel canto and the verismo composers. You will look in vain for the fibre and character of Verdi’s Aida, let alone of Otello. Nonetheless it is melodic and contains several dramatic confrontations and some notable scenes, including the thrilling ensemble that closes Act 3.

The DVD direction shows a little of the intimate theatre. During the opera itself not much is seen of the whole of the stage, the director focusing on close-ups or mid-shots. The sound and picture quality are good.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2010

You have probably never heard of the name, Lauro Rossi, let alone a single note of his music. I certainly hadn’t. So I went to Groves Music Dictionary, and, lo and behold, there is one and a half pages dedicated to a highly respected name in 19th century Italian Music. His achievement in education led to the position, at different times, as head of the Conservatoires in Milan and Naples, and though that brought a reduction in compositions, he had completed 29 operas and a number of vocal and orchestral scores on his death in 1885. Groves refers enthusiastically to the period when he was considered a rival to Donizetti or Rossini, but his later and more serious operas, including Cleopatra, showed ‘an attempt to keep up with the times’. Premiered in Turin in 1876, and a ‘spin-off’ from Verdi’s Aïda that had whetted public appetite for statuesque Egyptian stories, he used the readily available story of Antony and Cleopatra, into which he injects some big ensembles, and two highly charged arias for Cleopatra. Time to look again at Rossi? Well given this committed performance from the 2008 Sferisterio Opera Festival, held in Macerata, the place of Rossi’s birth, he certainly had his merits and knew well how to shape a score. The staging is a flight of steps that serves as the backdrop to the many changing locations, with costumes creating Ancient Rome and Egypt as we imagine it. Cleopatra is sung by the powerfully dramatic voice of the Greek soprano, Dimitra Theodossiou. Most of the remaining cast are Italian, though it is the American baritone, Sebastian Catana, whose acting and vocal resources steals the show in the secondary role of Diomede. Alessandro Liberatore as Antony (or Antonio as the opera would have him) is a pleasing light tenor, while the resonant bass of Paolo Pecchioli makes a suitably impressive Ottavio. Highly effective and secure playing from the Marchigiana orchestra, and a chorus that is a cut above the average in Italy. Video direction from Davide Mancini cannot be faulted, colour and definition of the highest quality. There are subtitle translations and other features that we have come to expect. I found it very enjoyable.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, October 2010

Don’t worry if you had never heard of Lauro Rossi: neither had I, nor had the producer of this Sferisterio Festival recording when he began work on it. When I placed my bid for ‘Rossi: Cleopatra’, I imagined that the Rossi in question was one of three seventeenth-century composers of that name of whom I had heard - Luigi, Michelangelo and Salamone.

Luigi Rossi, though unknown to the Oxford Companion to Music, was a prolific opera composer. Born in Macerata in 1810, 1811 or (more probably) 1812, he studied in Naples with the teachers of Vincenzo Bellini and composed there and in Milan. Cleopatra was his penultimate opera, composed five years after Aïda: the notes point to the demand for Egyptian-themed works at that time, probably rightly. The 2008 revival at the Sferisterio Festival in Rossi’s home town seems to have been its first outing for a very long time. How typically Italian that such a small provincial town should have such a fine opera house and a more than adequate orchestra.

Of the many pros that I am going to ascribe to this recording, the first is that the director, set and costume designer, Pier Luigi Pizzi, has steered blessedly clear of the gimmicks that beset so many recent operatic productions: this is not Cleopatra on water or on ice, with Japanese dancers, or with mime artists. I’ve made up only one of those horrors: we’ve recently had Verdi’s Aïda in and on water from Bregenz, Handel’s Admeto with dancers and his Aci, Galatea e Polifemo with the singing roles doubled by mime artists. No doubt someone is planning Messiah on ice for Christmas even now. The sets and costumes on this DVD are elaborate and eye-catching without ever exceeding the bounds of common sense. Fully in keeping with the work, they contribute considerably to my overall enjoyment.

The DVD is produced by Naxos under licence from Dynamic who, of course, have a large catalogue of opera recordings on DVD and, latterly, on Blu-ray in their own catalogue. This co-operation has already borne fruit on several DVDs, including Verdi’s Macbeth, also recorded at the Sferisterio Festival, on 8.110258. Like Robert J Farr (hereafter RJF), reviewing that earlier set, I greatly enjoyed the stage direction of the very experienced Pizzi - see review.

The direction, sets and costumes are, indeed, more faithful to Egypt in the age of Cleopatra than Rossi and his librettist. In Act 1 the priests reveal how the gods have rejected all their human sacrifices:

più vittime adorne
di bende e di fior
sull’ara votammo...

I don’t know about the earlier period, but the Greeks of the Hellenistic period - and Cleopatra was descended from the Greek Seleucid dynasty - shared the Roman revulsion at the child sacrifices of the Phoenicians and Carthaginians. On reflection, the error lies more with the translator of the subtitles: ‘dressed in veils and flowers’ implies that the victims are human in a way that adorne doesn’t.

I certainly don’t recall from Plutarch the events of Act 3, where Cleopatra arrives in Rome just in time to curse the newly-married Antony and Octavia, but it makes for such superb drama that Naxos were right to include a still from it on the front cover.

I was less happy than RJF, however, with the video direction. Admittedly, full-stage shots can seem unimpressive on the small screen, but I don’t think that we need so many transitions from wide-view to close-up, or from one close-up to another, especially as some of these leave an after-image of parts of the set briefly imposed on the singers’ faces. Something a little less ‘busy’ would have worked better for me.

I apologise for having left the musical performance until after the production, sets and costumes: I was too overjoyed to find such a ‘straight’ version on offer.

The singing is never less than adequate and often excellent. Dimitra Theodossiou rightly heads the cast listing in the brochure. She has a very powerful voice which places her head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. At the risk of sounding a male chauvinist, I have to point out that her appearance, especially as made up here, is more suited to Electra than to Cleopatra - in fact, I’d love to hear her sing the Richard Strauss role. Perhaps we’ve just been spoiled for good-looking Cleopatras by Daniele de Niese in that role in Handel’s Giulio Cesare and, in any case, though Plutarch praises at length the barge in which she first entertained Antony, her Venus-like attire, and her perfumes, the myriad lights when she invited him to supper and the flattery with which she referred to him, but not, as I recall, her beauty: judging from her coins, the historical Cleopatra seems to have been no great looker.

As RJF notes in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, she can fine her voice down when needed (Naxos DVD 2.110232), though I found rather less evidence of it here: it’s in the big moments that she shines. The force of Theodossiou’s voice and personality makes her so dominant, especially in the scene in Rome - invented by Rossi and his librettist - in which she ruins Antony’s marriage to Octavia and curses the whole proceedings. When Octavius, in the final act, briefly seems to fall under the same spell as Julius Cæsar and Antony before him, before Antony’s funeral cortège brings him back to his senses, we can quite believe the spell that this Cleopatra can weave.

The voice of Alessandro Liberatore, as Antony, is no match for that of his Cleopatra. She is, after all, the titular star of the opera: this is not Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, where her role is somewhat played down. His voice is attractive enough - a very pleasant, lightweight tenor - but, like everyone else, he is completely out-sung by her in their duets - and, to some extent, by other singers when he duets with them. Göran Forsling thought him able to colour his voice to good effect, but found him rather dry-voiced in Massenet’s Thaïs, which I guess amounts to much the same thing (Arthaus DVD 101385). Similarly, Jack Buckley commented that he was ‘little more than all right’ in Verdi’s I Lombardi at this year’s Sferisterio Festival.

Paolo Pecchioli is a light-voiced Octavius, more bass-baritone here than bass. Even more than in Shakespeare who attributes a final lament to the conqueror:

let me lament,
With tears as sovereign as the blood of hearts,
That thou, my brother, my competitor
In top of all design, my mate in empire,
Friend and companion in the front of war,
The arm of mine own body, and the heart
Where mine his thoughts did kindle - that our stars,
Unreconcilable, should divide
Our equalness to this. (Antony and Cleopatra, 5.1.40-48)

Rossi’s Octavius seems genuinely desirous of maintaining the triumvirate or, at least, his partnership with Antony, and Pecchioli’s singing and acting convey that very well.

Rossi’s Octavia is rather a timid creature, fearful that she will never win Antony’s love. (According to Plutarch, she was not timid but a determined lady, who defied her brother’s orders to move out of Antony’s house in Rome when the conflict arose between them.) Like Pecchioli’s Octavius, Tiziano Carraro is credible both vocally and in acting terms in the role.

The role of Diomedes, merely a ‘follower’ of Cleopatra in Shakespeare, is much expanded by Rossi and his librettist to become her admirer and would-be lover. He’s the first of the soloists to sing, lamenting the priests’ prophecy of Cleopatra’s doom. Sebastian Catana sings and acts the part well.

I have included Anbeta Toromani as the prima ballerina in the cast listing: her short dance adds considerably to the performance without ever being as obtrusive as some of the choreography can be in modern opera productions.

The recorded sound is good, especially played via an audio system, and the picture is more than acceptable, though it’s a little grainier than most recent opera DVDs, let alone Blu-ray discs. On screens over 37” the effect is probably quite noticeable.

The synopsis in the booklet is more than adequate and I warmly welcome Naxos’s decision to make the Italian libretto available online. The English subtitles are generally helpful, though they are very hard to follow in duets and trios: I/he sing/s is not a very helpful way to show that two singers are singing similar but slightly different words. Occasionally, the subtitles paraphrase unnecessarily: dolore means not ‘pain’ but grief or sorrow. It would have made much more sense to have used the more familiar name forms in the English subtitles - Antony, not Antonio, etc.

If you like Verdi, you will almost certainly enjoy this performance of Rossi’s Cleopatra, especially if you are a snapper-up of what in the eighteenth century used to be called ‘curiosities’ - not then a term of abuse when every gentleman had his ‘cabinet of curiosities’. I have a category ‘Discovery of the Month’ in my MusicWeb Download Roundups. That’s not a category on these pages but, if it were, this would be my Discovery of the Month.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, September 2010

One of the last of 29 operas Rossi wrote in his lifetime, Cleopatra was first performed at the Teatro Regio in Turin in 1876. It depicts Cleopatra’s struggle with losing her beloved Marc Antony. The musical writing is accomplished...There are some nice arias, ensemble pieces and choruses...The cast is solid...There are no extras on the disc.

Nicholas Sheffo
Fulvue Drive-in, August 2010

Rossi – Cleopatra (Naxos DVD) has Dimitra Theodossiou in the title role of the Lauro Rossi opera that is not seen or heard as much as you would think considering the continued popularity of the legend that the woman was and the fascination still around about her. David Crescenzi conducts the Orchestra Filarmonica Mrachigiana in Marcerata, Italy and we get a fine performance with a great cast...The anamorphically enhanced 1.78 X 1 video is weaker than expected with noise, motion blur and detail issues, though a Blu-ray should play better, while the concert is DTS 5.1 at best and sounds fine, even over the Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 mixes. A booklet is included.

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