Countertenor performances of 19th century opera are a historical and, ultimately, true novelty. This said, for those who love the sound of the countertenor voice and want to give it a try, there are several factors that recommend this release by countertenor Franco Fagioli, with the small orchestra Armonia Atenea under George Petrou. First is that castrati were still around in Rossini's time, although on the decline, and the composer was reportedly intrigued by their voices. Second, Fagioli, unlike the vast majority of other countertenors, studied bel canto singing rather than Baroque repertory exclusively, and a certain distance present in the work of other countertenors is absent here. And third, and most important, is Fagioli's voice itself. Of the countertenors active today, he's the one with the range, the power, the attitude to make you suspend disbelief and think for a moment that you're actually listening to a castrato. He enters into the various Rossini roles represented on this recording, several of which were mezzo-soprano "pants" roles; this adds to the layers of identity-switching happening, and the parts hit Fagioli's vocal sweet spot. A bonus is that several of these are from Rossini opere serie that are little played or recorded.
After its successful premiere, Rossini’s opera “Armida” was quickly forgotten, only to be triumphantly revived by Maria Callas in 1952, and ever since it is considered a masterpiece. This performance with primarily Italian forces, has all the wit, charm, beauty and sparkle that any Rossini opera can wish for. Some big names here: Cecilia Gasdia, Chris Merritt,William Matteuzzi and Ferruccio Furlanetto. Great addition to the Brilliant Classics Opera Collection. Armida is today considered one of Rossini’s greatest operas, but following its premier in Naples in 1817 it quickly faded from the standard operatic repertoire. Its plot of knightly duties, love and supernatural worlds (foreshadowing Weber in places) inspired the composer to write some of his most original and inimitable music, with unusual combinations of instruments and some beautiful extended solos for cello and violin.The love music is undeniably heartfelt and sincere; Rossini’s inspiration may have been assisted by his romantic involvement with the soprano Isabella Colbran, a major star of the time and the first to perform the title role.
The splendidly florid music, and amazing opportunities for bel canto vocalism make up for it. This recording, using the critical edition, is outstanding on the vocal front. The stunning Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova has a rich, full tone and clean, accurate runs. She is well partnered by Eva Mei, whose bright but effective soprano carries a good characterization of a dramatically rather thankless role. Tenor Ramon Vargas nails his coloratura and possesses a ringing tone. They are well supported by the secondary principals, Muenchen Rundfunkorchester and the men of the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, all superbly conducted by Roberto Abbado. As an added bonus, the listener can choose between the original happy ending and the dramatically more viable tragic conclusion with which Rossini later revised the opera. –Sarah Bryan Miller
One of the most acclaimed musicians of his era, Toscanini was a conductor of the "old school" - aristocratic, perfectionistic and something of an autocrat on the podium. After a brief flurry of interest in Fascism in the 1910s, he rapidly became disillusioned with the movement and indeed became a personal rival of Mussolini, repeatedly antagonising him through acts of artistic defiance such as refusals to open concerts with the Fascist anthem Giovinezza.
Eventually he fled Italy for the United States, becoming the first conductor of the newly-formed NBC Symphony Orchestra, with whom he pioneered radio broadcasts and recordings that made him a household name in America until his retirement at the age of 87. He gave the premiere performances of several major works, including Barber's Adagio for Strings and the American premiere of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony.