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Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, June 2011

Born in 1812 (or 1810) Lauro Rossi was a close contemporary of Verdi but started his career as an opera composer almost a decade earlier. He was prolific and produced his tenth opera within four years, La casa disabitata, which was premiered at La Scala, Milan. He then composed an opera for the famous Maria Malibran for Naples, but it was a flop, so Rossi emigrated to the new world, where he became music director for several opera companies. On his return to Italy he was again successful with a whole range of operas but in 1850 he was appointed Director of the Milan Conservatory, where among other things he wrote a work on harmony which became the standard text for years to come. Verdi invited him to write a movement of the requiem for Rossini, which unfortunately was never performed—until 1988!

Cleopatra was his penultimate opera, composed a few years after Verdi’s Aida, with which it shares the setting: Egypt. I won’t pretend that Cleopatra is anywhere near Verdi’s masterpiece in musical terms but it brims with catchy numbers and we should be grateful to the production team in Macerata—incidentally Rossi’s birthplace—for unearthing it.

The plot is well known and many composers have been fascinated by the Egyptian queen, from Antonio Canazzi in 1653 to Samuel Barber, whose Anthony and Cleopatra was the inauguration work for the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966. And we mustn’t forget Handel’s Giulio Cesare, where she is just as important as the name-part. With four short acts and a running-time of just over 100 minutes the action fizzes along rather swiftly. The recording is close and detailed and there is surprisingly little external noise.

Rossi was evidently a skilled orchestrator, which can be heard in the introduction of the opera but in many other places as well. Listen for instance to the delicate woodwind that introduces the Cleopatra—Carmiana scene (CD 2 tr. 13).There are also some lively choruses and a grand finale to act I. Several of the arias are real showstoppers, Cesare’s Non basta a me (CD 2 tr. 6) one of the very best.

The singing is a bit variable but Dimitra Theodossiou in the title-role is magnificent. Hers is a classy voice, a true spinto with ability to scale down and sing a fine beautiful piano without losing the spinto quality. On high sustained notes the tone sometimes spreads but not to a disturbing degree. Her aria in act II is thrilling and the whole of act IV finds her in superb form, not least in the scene with Cesare. She also characterizes well. Listen to the opening of CD 2 tr. 16. The resignation is depicted through a flutter in the voice previously unheard. An impressive performance.

Paolo Pecchioli bass is also well suited to the role of Cesare. We have to wait until the third act before we encounter the Roman Triumvir, but then he is a real force to reckon with. He is both dignified and dominant. Alessandro Liberatore as Marco Antonio is less of an asset. His tenor voice is rather strained and his timbre isn’t very attractive either. His recitative and aria at the beginning of act IV is a fine piece of music and he manages some beautiful nuanced singing but his glaring fortes are a liability. Sebastian Catana is dramatic and expressive as Diomede and Paola Gardina is a good Carmiana while Tiziana Carraro’s Ottavia is over-vibrant. The singing of the chorus, not least the maidens in the opening of act III, is assured and the orchestra play well.

Fascinating to find an opera that has spent 130 years in total oblivion and on its resurrection turns out to be eminently listenable and also works well as drama. The singing of Dimitra Theodossiou, first and foremost, but several of the others as well, justify a purchase—and at Naxos price you won’t be ruined but the possessor of an operatic rarity to try on friends and neighbours.

Richard Lawrence
Gramophone, June 2011

A fascinating opera by a forgotten composer overshadowed by Verdi

Lauro Rossi (1812—85) sounds a thoroughly good egg. He was successful as a composer of operas—mainly, it seems, neo-Donizettian comedies—until a flop in 1834 led him to Mexico, Cuba and the United States as a conductor and impresario. He and his wife, a singer, returned to Italy in 1843, where his composing career took off again. By the end of the decade his reputation was high enough to secure him the post of director of the Milan Conservatory, where he pursued what the scholar Julian Budden described as a liberal policy. Rossi published what became a standard treatise on harmony and was an advocate of the study and performance of early music. In 1870 he became director of the Conservatory in Naples.

Rossi is a forgotten figure today, except possibly as one of the contributors to the abortive project, proposed by Verdi, to commemorate Rossini with a Requiem. So much praise to the organisers of the Opera Festival at Macerata, Rossi’s birthplace, for their enterprise in staging Cleopatra in 2008; and to Naxos for issuing this recording taken from the two performances.

Cleopatra was Rossi’s penultimate opera, performed in Turin in 1876; the European premiere of Aida was in 1872. Comparisons are inevitable and it must be said that Rossi was no Verdi. Cleopatra’s aria in Act 2, well enough shaped, sounds second-hand compared with, say, Aida’s “O patria mia”. But there are some strongly dramatic scenes, such as where Cleopatra improbably turns up in Rome intending to murder Mark Antony’s wife: her two-octave drop at “Sì, Cleopatra!” leads to a powerful “ensemble of perplexity”, Rossi the academic then stepping forward with a fugal passage at “Trema, Roma”.

There are no outstanding voices but the performance is strong enough to appeal to anyone curious about the byways of 19th-century opera. No libretto is provided in the booklet (although it as available online) and the same production is available on a Naxos DVD.

Robert Levine, April 2011

Prior to this release most lovers of operatic esoterica only knew the name Lauro Rossi (1812–1885) because he composed the Agnus Dei of the Mass for Rossini at the behest of Giuseppe Verdi in 1869. That is a lovely piece, and this, his opera Cleopatra, premiered in Turin in 1876, proves itself worthy as well, if not quite a masterpiece. If Verdi hadn’t been around, Rossi’s name might be better known today. The music sounds as if composed 25 years earlier; it owes more to bel canto than it does to late Verdi or any Wagnerian (or otherwise German) influence.

The plot is brief: Cleopatra’s counselor, Diomede, loves her and fears for Egypt now that Cleopatra has taken up with Antonio. While he’s away, she is told of Antonio’s upcoming wedding to Ottavia (whose brother Cesare is very pleased with their union) and flees to Rome in a rage, with Diomede in tow. She confronts Antonio after the ceremony and when she is rebuffed, she attempts to stab Ottavia, but Antonio stops her, though it is clear that he’s still enamored of her.

In the last act, Antonio, having lost the Battle of Actium, blames Cleopatra and commits suicide. Cleopatra and Cesare are about to join together both politically and romantically when news of Antonio’s suicide arrives; Cesare denounces Cleopatra, blaming her for Antonio’s suicide and for ruining his marriage to Ottavia. Cleopatra calls for an asp and, as Antonio’s body is brought in, she upstages it and dies.

Pretty hot stuff, and the music keeps things going in a timely (under two hours) and exciting fashion. Rossi may not have written the most memorable melodies, but Cleopatra has some fine ensembles (the big one that closes the third act is splendid and richly wrought) and good arias. Dimitra Theodossiou has just the right voice and temperament for the obsessed Cleopatra and she hurls herself into the part and is in fine vocal fettle throughout.

Alessandro Liberatore’s lightish tenor lacks both bel canto smoothness and heroic utterance for Antonio, but he’s a good singer and cares about what he’s doing. The Diomede of Sebastian Catana is powerful and wily and the rest of the cast is quite good. David Crescenzi conducts as if the score were even better than it is, and FORM plays very well. This is a rarity and an oddity, and well worth hearing.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2011

I reviewed this performance last November in its DVD format, and related the career of Lauro Rossi who was one of the most highly respected 19th century Italian opera composers. He had been considered a major rival to Donizetti and Rossini in the field of comic opera, but in later life turned to more serious operas, including the historical opera, Cleopatra. Premiered in Turin in 1876, it used the readily available story of Antony and Cleopatra, into which he injected big ensembles and two highly charged arias for Cleopatra. The recording comes from the 2008 Sferisterio Opera Festival, held in Macerata, the place of Rossi’s birth, the visual aspects rather compromised by a dreadful wig for the Greek soprano, Dimitra Theodossiou. Without the visual distraction her powerfully projected voice brings a credible Cleopatra, and certainly a person that Antony should not argue with. Her voice does takes time to warm, but is capable of spinning some beautiful high passages. Antony (or Marco Antonio as the opera would have him) is sung by the pleasing light tenor, Alessandro Liberatore, though it is the American baritone, Sebastian Catana, whose acting and vocal resources steals the show in the role of Diomede. I offer praise for the highly effective and secure playing from the Marchigiana orchestra, and the chorus is a cut above the average in provincial Italy. Watching the action does divert attention from moments when singers and orchestra become unhinged, as is always a problem in live performances. But as with the video, the balance between singers and orchestra is very good. Not the world’s greatest discovery, but at the Naxos price it is well worth hearing.

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