Il diluvio universale
Noè Mirco Palazzi
Seal Majella Cullagh
Ada Manuela Custer
Cadmo Colin Lee
Artoo Roland Wood
Jafet Simon Bailey
Sem Mark Wilde
Cam Dean Robinson
Tesbite Irina Lungu
Asfene Ivana Dimitrijevic
Abra Anne Marie Gibbons
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: John T. Hughes
Reviewed: 6 November, 2005
Venue: Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London
Before all else I must pay a short tribute to Patric Schmid, driving force behind Opera Rara. He was giving a pre-performance talk at the Theatre Royal prior to the Opera Rara/London Philharmonic presentation of Donizetti’s rare opera about Noah and the flood, which had been recorded during the preceding six days.
Struggling for breath, Patric left the stage. An ambulance was called, but he died soon afterwards. I had always found him a kind, friendly and sociable man with a deliciously dry sense of humour and a ready wit. He was taken from us too soon, at 61, but what a splendid memorial he has, with all the recordings of neglected works in the Opera Rara catalogue. I hope that someone will be found to carry on in his place, but he will be a tough act to follow.
“Il diluvio universale”, by Patric’s favourite composer, was, therefore, his final contribution to recording, its cast that of the Drury Lane concert. The main quartet of singers and conductor Giuliano Carella had all worked with Patric previously, and I think he would have been proud of them. How many of them had been made aware of what had happened I cannot say, but they created, individually and together, a laudable performance.
Most people, of whom I am one, would probably not rank “Il diluvio universale” as being among Donizetti’s finest operas, but it has enjoyable sections, though listeners may differ over which they are. The plot has two themes, intertwining. Noè has suffered the wrath of Cadmo, satrap of Sennáár, whose wife Sela shares Noè’s belief in God. Envious of Sela is fellow concubine Ada, who fills Cadmo’s mind with lies. Noè and his family are arrested and sentenced to being burnt in the Ark. Here is Noè’s fine prayer “Dio tremendo, onnipossente”. In the last act, Sela has rejected safety in the Ark and returned to Cadmo, who orders her to curse God. Sela, appalled at what she is doing, chokes and dies. The flood-waters burst forth.
After the week of recording, the performers were well prepared. Carella’s conducting drew out the lyricism of the quieter portions but did not hold back in the sections depicting conflict, triumph or vengeance, and the LPO responded positively. (I did think, on one hearing, that the overture is a rather insipid piece, though I was trying to acclimatise my ears to the dreadful, dead acoustic apparent from Row O in the Stalls, covered by an overhang, which also reduced the impact of the voices.)
The opera relies greatly on the leading quartet of soprano, mezzo, tenor and bass. In the first of these vocal categories, Majella Cullagh, with her crystalline tone, spun out long threads in Sela’s cavatinas. As we know from experience, her voice is flexible enough for Donizetti’s vocal flights, though cabalettas were not numerous. (When “Il diluvio universale” was premiered, in 1830, Donizetti was turning away from Rossini and developing his own style.) Although Sela and Ada are rivals, there is no big duet for them, not even a full-faced confrontation. Cullagh made Sela’s return to Cadmo a telling one, her clear voice finding the emotion without over-emoting. As the plotting Ada, Manuela Custer has an exciting aria at the beginning of Act Two, added by Donizetti in a revision for Genoa in 1833. Her voice flowed through the notes, its bottom tones warm and firm and achieved smoothly with no hint of a gear-change. This is not the big battering ram of a Verdi mezzo, a Barbieri or Cossotto, but a voice of easy emission.
Colin Lee, like Custer, is no large-voiced Verdi vocalist (Alfred and Fenton are in his repertoire) but rather an exponent of Rossini, Mozart and lyric French roles, which are more in line with his clear tenor, and that clarity of tone enabled him to be heard in ensembles and to hold his own with the ladies in their respective duets. He probably relished the role of the ‘baddie’ for a change, something not often experienced by tenors. Cadmo’s long duet with Ada in Act One was one of the opera’s highlights, with both singers on top form.
Mirco Palazzi was Noè, richly pouring out his dark voice in steady and firm projection and making a strong character. His prayer at the end of Act Two charted the music’s contours in an evenly produced texture: homogeneous but not stolid. It is always fascinating to hear how a bass deals with music in quick tempo. Will he have to resort to aspirates? Certainly young Signor Palazzi did not need to sink to their use. A pupil of the fine Italian bass Bonaldo Giaiotti, who sang the role in Genoa 20 years ago, Palazzi, whose career deserves to be followed, made Noè a commanding figure. (A future appearance in London will be a recital in the Rosenblatt Series at St John’s, Smith Square in May 2006.)
Comments that I heard after the performance ranged from “good” to “highly enjoyable”. How sad it was that the man behind it did not live to hear it. I am sure that he would have liked it had he done so. RIP Patric Schmid: Lover of Bel Canto.