Another Great Discovery
The appearance, at long-last, of this live performance from November 2010 in Vienna is a most welcome development. It presents the fifth recording of Meyerbeer's six Italian operas, not only providing us with a refreshingly new and unknown work of the bel canto repertory, but also adding another big stone to the emerging mosaic of this controversial composer's life and work. No other major composer has been more disparaged and more neglected. When one hears the works, one wonders what all the fuss and indignation are all about. Here we have another really interesting and delightful opera, written in the Rossinian medium of the early ottocento, but as always with this composer, demonstrating remarkable originality within a set of received conventions. Emma di Resburo' is the third of Meyerbeer's early Italian works, written during the eight years of his sojourn in Italy (1818-1826) during which he immersed himself completely in the culture and operatic traditions of that land of supreme vocal artistry, even collecting the folksongs of Sicily on his visit to the island in the first months of his arrival. The first three Italian operas have a lighter more serene atmosphere than the more dramatically charged and innovative last three (that culminate in the great Il Crociato in Egitto', 1824). All of these Italian works have scenarios that concern exile, loss, return, restitution and reconciliation. This pattern applies here too, in this Scottish story where Edmund, the rightful heir, usurped of his inheritance on the false accusation of parricide, and presumed dead, has lived in exile while his wife Emma has remained faithful to his memory, and brought up their child as a pledge of their love. The opera centres on the married couple (soprano and mezzo, in the true bel canto tradition). Gaetano Rossi's storyline is uncluttered, the action direct: Emma mourns, Edmund returns, they are reunited, Edmund is arrested and condemed, but then exonerated of the crime, and the faithful couple are united. There is a play on symmetry. Both the acts provide two major arias, one for each of the protagonists, arias of longing in act 1, and of hope and joyful restitution in act 2. The act 1 arias have extended atmospheric orchestral introductions, like miniature tone poems, depicting the emotional circumstance of the character; in act 2 the arias have prominent obbligato instruments, Edmund's the horn and Emma's the cor anglais. The arias are highly interesting not only for their melodic and instrumental beauty, but also for their formal innovations. Meyerbeer even at this stage of his career provides experimental five-part structure to the Rossini Code: extended recitative, adagio, tempo di mezzo, slow cabaletta and stretta. These four great arias provide a real belcanto treasure. The roles of Emma (Simone Kermes) and Edmund (Vivica Genaux) are assumed with confidence and vocal panache, both singers displaying a beauty of tone and virtuosic ease of command we call sprezzatura'. Act 1 has an extended ensemble finale (with beautiful adagio sextet), and act 2 is structured around three big choruses of various mood and effect: the tumultuous denunciation of Edmund, the reflective and most original Chorus of Judges, and the solemn Death March (before Edmund's exculpation). The emotional highpoint of the work is the trio in act 1, where Emma is reunited with Edmund, under the watchful eye of the faithful retainer Olfredo (Manfred Hemm). The music attains a luminous quality here, the incredulous joy of Emma at finding her husband alive creating a mood of restrained sublimity. The charming Rossinian overture has dance-like moments that are typically Meyerbeer's own. The whole is kept under auspicious control by the conductor Andreas Stoehr: the orchestra Moderntimes plays on authentic instruments, and the Wiener Singakademie provide the vigorous chorus. The historical band may lack something of the tonal brilliance and resonance of a modern orchestra, but apart from some off-key playing in the overture, perform with passion in this live recording. The booklet provides only the minimal amount of information. However, both the vocal score and bilingual libretto are easily available in modern editions.