Operas can fall into obscurity as much for weaknesses in their plots as for their music. The difficulty is that once a piece ceases to be regularly performed, regardless of the reasons why, it becomes assumed that it is not up to much, thus making it hard for it to enter the standard repertoire once more.
Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini of 1825, has often been dismissed as an ‘apprentice work’, but it is the story rather than the score that lets it down. Set in seventeenth century Ireland, it sees the nobleman Lord Adelson engaged to Nelly, with both sharing deep feelings for each other. However, Adelson has brought from Italy an artist friend named Salvini who, unbeknownst to him, has also fallen in love with his fiancée. Things are complicated by the fact that Adelson has been forced to be away in London for a period, where his relatives have insisted that he marry another. Adelson is prepared to defy them, but all Nelly back in Ireland knows is that he has failed to make any contact with her, although this is because Salvini intercepted the letter that he wrote.
All this would just about make sense, but there are also sub-plots involving a servant, Bonifacio, who is seeking a way to pay off his considerable debts, and one Colonel Struley who was exiled from Ireland but has returned there to kidnap Nelly. Further complications arise when Adelson willingly bestows on Salvini the one whom Salvini loves (because he genuinely believes this to be the servant Fanny rather than Nelly), and when Struley’s kidnapping of Nelly seemingly leads to her death. She appears unharmed at the end but her explanation as to how she avoided the knife blow stretches credulity as much as anything else in the story.
All this feels just a little confusing when presented in a concert hall, and it is easy to imagine how if the plot were played out in a full-scale production it would seem a total mess. The music, on the other hand, is frequently sublime, and if parts sound reminiscent of the most influential composers of the time, the seeds of Bellini’s unique approach are very much in evidence. The Overture could almost have come from the hand of Rossini. However, judged from the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s excellent performance under the baton of Daniele Rustioni, it would seem to demand a style of bowing that, if only in matters of degree, demands more precision and intensity and less obvious exuberance than that of Il barbiere di Siviglia. Nelly’s Act I romance, ‘Dopo l’oscuro nembo’ feels similar to ‘Una furtiva lagrima’, written seven years later. Here, however, the orchestra provides an even more melancholic accompaniment, as befitting the more serious (again if only by degree) context.
Daniela Barcellona was excellent as Nelly. Memories of her performance as Malcom in the Royal Opera’s La donna del lago in 2013 will linger long, but here she displayed a very different side to her voice by frequently presenting a hushed sound that made her arias feel extremely sensitive. Tenors Enea Scala and Simone Alberghini who played Salvini and Lord Adelson respectively, both took time to warm up, although the associated difficulties manifested themselves in different ways in the two performances. When both were on song, however, their sounds were extraordinary, with Scala’s expansiveness contrasting with Alberghini’s nuanced richness. Rodion Pogossov displayed a superb, and relatively dark, baritone as Colonel Struley, Maurizio Muraro revealed an excellent bass and splendid comic acting skills as Bonifacio, while from among the minor characters David Soar as the servant Geronio stood out. The evening was presented by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Opera Rara, with the male voices of the latter providing the chorus.
This Adelson e Salvini, recorded earlier in the week rather than on Wednesday evening, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at a future date (unspecified at the time of writing).