Damiano Salerno & Giulio Zappa at Wigmore Hall – Rosenblatt Recital

Songs and opera arias by Bellini, Donizetti, Mascagni, Verdi and Wolf-Ferrari, and songs by Tosti and Denza

Damiano Salerno (baritone) & Giulio Zappa (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 18 March, 2013
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Damiano SalernoThis was a red-letter day for Rosenblatt Recitals: a partnership was announced with Opus Arte, recording-label of the Royal Opera House, to release material from the substantial archive of recitals built up over the years since the inaugural concert in 2000. The launch of this artistically lucrative enterprise was topped by a recital that fulfilled the standards audiences have come to expect of Rosenblatt Recitals.

Damiano Salerno was making his London recital debut, though he has been heard as Rigoletto at Grange Park Opera, one of the summer festivals at al fresco venues that have been attracting increasingly distinguished singers. The size of his hefty baritone and his riveting stage presence should assure him of a prominent career in the Italian repertoire and beyond. Debutants in this series frequently sing a programme which shows their versatility but within that do not always stray far from familiar paths. Salerno was rather different: long-limbed melody from his fellow Sicilian Bellini, arias from Verdi operas of which he already has stage experience and some of the ever-popular Tosti canzone were to be anticipated, but much more interesting and stimulating were his choices from the unfamiliar fringes of the operatic repertoire. Donizetti’s buffo side was represented by an aria from the rare Rita, his melodramatic by Il furioso all’isola di Santo Domingo, one of the great successes of his career but now languishing in obscurity, while the decision to revive music from operas by Mascagni and Wolf-Ferrari was nothing if not refreshing.

Giulio ZappaThe voice, of basically bright colour, is impressive in size. This poses some problems for Wigmore Hall. I have previously noticed that initially the sound of baritone and bass operatic voices when they push the tone before they have got the measure of the auditorium acquires a perceptible ring of impurity, a buzz, before the singer’s nerves settle and the voice focuses. This affected Salerno but not for long, but the consistently high volume which he maintained throughout the evening was a minus factor. Opportunities to use mezza voce were spurned and his vocal method precluded head tones altogether; even Tosti’s sentimental Malìa was sung in full voice. Salerno lacks chiaroscuro and there is a danger of his interpretations becoming one-dimensional. Fortunately he has exceptional physical qualities to compensate. His stage presence was constantly in motion. Many of the memorable features of the recital were visual. If some of the body language was conventional opera-speak, there were plenty of times when he had thought carefully how to reinforce words and music with posture, movement and gesture. The platform became an acting area. He is a theatrical animal.

That is not to say that he was unsuccessful in romantic song. The two Bellini ariettas were treated with suitable respect and affection. The emotion came across clearly in Vanne, o rosa fortunata thanks to the straightforward approach of Salerno and Giulio Zappa. Contrastingly they gave an unusually slow, sustained Occhi di fata. The baritone produced more variety of tone colour than elsewhere and there was no shortage of excitement: at the start of the third stanza his crescendo was rather like a car going from 0 to 50 in five seconds. At the end he was transfixed. The familiar L’ultima had more than a touch of imagination applied to it. Salerno treated the ending as a resigned acceptance of the loss of his one-time lover: the wordless final syllables were accompanied by a casual stance, a shrug of the shoulders, with hands in pockets.

He was unarguably more at home in opera. He established his buffo credentials in Rita, in which characters on both male and female sides physically abuse their partners. The current victim of Rita’s ill-treatment is her second husband (through bigamy) Beppe. He receives instruction on just how far he can go in imposing hard love on her from Gaspara, her first spouse, believed dead, but now returned to the marital home. Salerno accompanied his patriarchal thoughts with much playing to the audience. The except from Il furioso all’isola di Santo Domingo is a duet between Cardenio the exiled cuckold whose misfortunes have led to him losing his mind and the servant Kaidamà, a part for bass. The latter’s music was omitted. Unfortunately the text in the programme did not correspond to what was sung. Salerno portrayed the madman of the title vividly, using powerful and explicit gestures, looking into an imaginary mirror, horrified at the image of himself, now pointing as if at a ghost. There were vocal thrills as well, notable a top A at the final cadence. This opera should be heard more often.

Another rarity was the stammering song from Le maschere, Mascagni’s opera about an impecunious Venetian father’s attempt to marry off his daughter to a prosperous army officer. It was good to hear the piece once but the joke wore thin quite quickly and no wonder the investment in giving the premiere of the work simultaneously in six Italian cities failed to bear dividends. The two Verdi arias require a greater depth of characterisation. Monfort has to face the paradox of having acquired power and authority while losing the support of his son who has joined the Sicilian rebels. His aria is flexibly written; Salerno’s interpretation reflected the emotional ambiguity and Zappa gave prominence to the various episodes in the accompaniment. I had thought him a rather monochrome pianist in the previous recital with Alex Esposito but here he was an equal contributor. He was particularly positive in the aria from I gioelli della Madonna, with its different musical styles brought wittily to the fore.

The tour de force came from an unexpected quarter; È morto Pulcinella is a kind of secular cantata by Tosti in which the clown foresees his own death. The text has Pulcinella address the audience to create pathos, an opportunity which Salerno eagerly grasped and enhanced through the intensity of his acting. Here and elsewhere the sheer enjoyment of both artists was unmistakable. The final part of the concert was a joyous celebration of the Sicilian identity of Salerno. The scheduled programme concluded with a true Catanese song uproariously acclaimed. The encores were an extension of the populist trend: it was difficult to avoid being carried away.

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