Wednesday 15 January 2020

From rare Donizetti to Rosina Storchio: 50 years of Opera Rara

Rosina Storchio
Rosina Storchio
This season, Opera Rara is celebrating its 50th anniversary and to kick the celebrations off soprano Ermonela Jaho, accompanied by pianist Steven Maughan, is presenting An Evening with Rosina Storchio at Wigmore Hall on 2 February 2020 performing music championed by the Italian soprano Rosina Storchio, who created the title roles in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Leoncavallo’s Zazà [a role Jaho recorded for Opera Rara, see my review] and Mascagni’s Lodoletta. Jaho will present salon pieces of the period, including songs by Bellini, Verdi, Toscanini and Tosti, and excerpts from some of Storchio’s most famous operatic roles.

Opera Rara was founded in 1970 by Patric Schmid and Don White to bring back the forgotten operatic repertoire of the 19th century. Early revivals, in concert performances, included Meyerbeer's last Italian opera Il crociato in Egitto and Donizetti's Maria Padilla. The company's first official disc (the earlier performances also appeared on pirate editions) was Donizetti's Ugo, conte di Parigi issued in 1977. Casts for the recordings have always been impressive with singers such as Janet Price, Yvonne Kenny, Della Jones, Christian du Plessis, Renée Fleming, Jennifer Larmore, Joyce El-Khoury, Angela Meade, Nelly Miricioiu, Vesselina Kasarova, Chris Merritt, Marco Lazzara, Mark Stone, James Westman, Bruce Ford, Anthony Michaels-Moore, Patrizia Ciofi, Carmen Giannattasio, Jose Bros, Joyce El-Khoury, Michael Spyres, Sarah Connolly, Albina Shagimuratova and many more working with the company.

Donizetti: L'Ange de Nisida - David Junghoon Kim, Joyce El-Khoury 2018 (c) ROH and Opera Rara. Photo by Russell Duncan
Donizetti: L'Ange de Nisida at the Royal Opera House in 2018- David Junghoon Kim, Joyce El-Khoury
2018 (c) ROH and Opera Rara. Photo by Russell Duncan
Though some Offenbach operettas were issued, the company's early focus was on Italian opera of the bel canto era with the operas of Donizetti being, and continuing to be, a particular focus. Last year, under Artistic Director Sir Mark Elder, Opera Rara reached its 25th Donizetti opera with the world première of L’Ange de Nisida, made in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden [see my review]. Donizetti wrote over 70 operas, so there is still some way to go before reaching anything like completeness!

Other composers documented include Meyerbeer, Opera Rara's recordings of his Italian operas have been a valuable addition to the repertoire, as well as lesser known but no less deserving composers such as Pacini, Mercadante, Paer, Ricci and Mayr, as well as many of Rossini's opera seria, plus more recently Gounod, further Offenbach and Leoncavallo. The company took over the BBC's live recordings of Verdi's lesser known original versions operas better known in revised form, including the 1847 version of Macbeth, the 1857 of Simon Boccanegra, Les Vepres Siciliennes, La forza del destino and the original 1867 French version of Don Carlos complete with ballet music! In recent years the company's repertoire has expanded into Verismo with Leoncavallo's Zaza and Puccini's first version of Les Willis [see my review].

It is thanks to the company's championing of such repertoire that the record buying public has been able to widen its taste and understand that early 19th century Italian opera has much to love beyond that same hackneyed six operas. In 2011, Sir Mark Elder took over as artistic director and in 2019 it was announced that Carlo Rizzi would take up the position.
Opera Rara & Britten Sinfonia at Barbican Hall – Mark Elder and soloists after performing Donizetti’s Il Paria (Photo JS Henderson)
Opera Rara & Britten Sinfonia at Barbican Hall – Mark Elder & soloists after performing Donizetti’s Il Paria - 2019
(Photo JS Henderson)

Rizzi, who previously recorded two bel canto recital discs with Joyce El-Khoury and Michael Spyres for Opera Rara [see my review], will mark the beginning of his tenure with the June 2020 recording and Barbican concert performance of Donizetti's Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo. Before that, Spring 2020 sees the release of Elder’s latest recording for Opera Rara, Donizetti’s Il Paria, starring another of the company’s close collaborators, Albina Shagimuratova. The Russian soprano also stars in Opera Rara’s Semiramide [see my review], which was recently named best opera recording at the 2019 International Opera Awards, International Classical Music Awards and Opus Klassik Awards.

Further ahead, Mark Elder will be recording Verdi's original 1857 version of Simon Boccanegra, Carlo Rizzi will record another rare Leoncavallo opera Zingari, Halevy's Guido e Ginevra in a new critical edition with a cast including tenor Michael Spyres, and Offenbach's La Princesse de Trebizond.

The company's work involves not just presenting and recording operas, but creating new editions of them as well such as the important work re-constructing Donizetti's L'ange de Nisida (whose score was lost when the composer cannibalised it for La favourite). See my interview with Opera Rara's CEO Henry Little for more details of this important work.

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