The background to this opera is readworthy: Rossini composed most of Matilde di Shabran (where dat ? probably Iraq) in 1822 when he was 28 but already famous for his Tancredi, L’Italiana in Algieri, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola and over a couple of dozen others. The libretto arrived late and Rossini had to call in his mate Pacini to help him finish the score ready in time for the Naples premiere – which was a flop, not helped by the conductor having an apoplectic fit on the day of the dress rehearsal. Rossini could not face going to the second performance but somehow the opera survived and was given eleven productions in Europe and beyond within ten years. So it was not an absolute fiasco (Rossini drew one on a card he sent his mother). Paganini liked it so much he offered to conduct some performances of it, which he did; and he even played in one of them. The horn player did not turn up play his all-important obbligato part in act so Paganini played the notes on his viola. He and Rossinni larked about one evening in carnival time dressing in drag and going a-begging in the streets, quite successfully, not surprisingly since Rossini was quite clever on guitar and Paganini was not a bad fiddler. The composer was presumably glad to receive a few pence since the impresario had refused to pay him for an opera that was not completed. Mind you Rossini did later write in the Pacini bits and they are played at Covent Garden. But somehow as the twentieth century loomed Matilde became neglected.
Francis Toye in his splendid biography of 1935 is dismissive of the opera writing that we need not spend much time on it, although there are some good bits in it, particularly the lighter moments. But there are heavier bits in it. The plot is one of the sillier ones ever hodge-podged together. It concerns Corradino a powerful nobleman who is a misogynist of the direst order who has to take care of Matilde; he nearly kills her but ends up bamboozled and seduced by her, little bossyboots that she is.
The score has a curious feature; a number may start off as a solo but then one character, maybe two, three, four or five, will start chipping in. In other words it is mainly an ensemble piece and as Toye remarked, the lighter moments are the best. Most of it is not first-class Rossini, to stand together with Ory, Centerentola or the Barber but second-class Rossini is surely worth hearing any evening of the week. And here at Covent Garden (I saw it on Armistice night) it holds the attention and delights, enthusiastically conducted by Carlo Rizzi. Juan Diego Florez is a famous tenor these days; he has made several highly acclaimed CDs and he sang wonderfully fluently, articulating every coloratura device that Rossini hurls at him. But on this evening these was not much bloom in the voice; mostly it was a dry sound, papery, not warm or ingratiating. I am told by a musician friend who loves the music of the otto cento that he was seeing M di S for the fourth time in the present run, that Florez played it straight on the first night but that by now he was sending it up, so that the misogynist was ever more ridiculous – but funny, very funny, physically as well as vocally agile.
The singer of the title-role was also wonderfully articulate, able to accept the trump cards Rossini dealt her and to play them with brio. Matilda is not the most sympatric of parts; she reminds me of John Donne’s phrase “self-tickling proud” but Aleksandra Kurzak fitted the bill with spot-on singing and great charm. Sub-plots included a travesty-role prisoner Vessilina Kasarova who sang lustily and a comic poet Isidoro who may, for all I could tell have delivered most of his part in Neapolatan dialect – good voice, Alfonso Antoniozzi. Sergio Tramonti’s single set included two Escher – like staircases which looked beautiful and waltzed about on several turntables. Male chorus at the beginning, women admitted at half time. Thoroughly good, entertaining show. Its sub-title is Bellezza, é cour di ferro – Beauty and (Corradino) Ironheart.
By John Amis
17 November 2008