Giovanni Pacini is something of a poor man’s Rossini, at least in terms of compositional technique. Of his 70+ operas, not one has remained in the repertoire and, disappointingly, that was almost understandable after this performance of Alessandro nell’Indie. At least Opera Rara deserves praise for bringing the work to London and subsequently to CD, so that we can have a chance to judge Pacini’s ability for ourselves.
On the plus side, the music is lively, melodic and amusingly scored. The use of the orchestra is surprisingly mature woodwind is given prominence, and often flutes and clarinets emerge from the texture to great effect while the tunes, if not instantly memorable, trot along nicely. Numbers are often joined with Idomeneo-like orchestral interludes, creating much drama, and there is an exciting evocation of a storm in Act II. However, I was not convinced by Pacini’s sincerity in emotion coloratura is pretty much unchanged whatever the singer’s mood, and similarly dissonance is treated decoratively.
However, what stood out most on Sunday evening was just how fiendishly difficult much of the writing is. The role of Cleofide especially is startlingly high and immensely elaborate, requiring a completely secure technique and an abnormal vocal range. Sadly, there are few voices in existence at present who can do such writing justice who can spin a legato up to and even above their relative top C, for example and while everyone tried their hardest in this performance, it all seemed a little too taxing.
Tenor Bruce Ford is usually reliable, but his firm bari-tenor in the role of Alessandro had not been warmed adequately. His top notes were strangulated with vibrato in Act I, and only midway through Act II did his throat open to reveal a true tenor ring. He also seemed unsure with a couple of moments, both in terms of pitching and diction it all amounted to a slightly underwhelming performance.
Jennifer Larmore possesses a gloriously rich mezzo; very steely and very precise, but also very warm. However, the role of Poro was very high for her and her voice, while retaining its pitch, had a tendency to turn acidic in its upper regions. Larmore did, however, ideally contrast in timbre the more breathy soprano of Laura Claycomb, who made a valiant attempt to negotiate the part of Cleofide. Dean Robinson‘s bass and Mark Wilde‘s tenor added much texture to the ensemble but neither possessed a voice of distinction or a face of enough interest to warrant further investigation.
David Parry drew from the London Philharmonic Orchestra some very exciting playing, and his interpretation seemed pretty much spot on. With the orchestra shoved into the boxy acoustic of the ENO stage, much was muffled – brass struggled to emerge, while the low strings possessed a peculiar slithering quality. Nevertheless, the harp was excellent, as was the solo cello in Act II Scene 2, and Parry was kind to his singers. Sadly the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir was hidden at the back of the stage, and they were nearly inaudible for much of the time. Meanwhile, an offstage band lagged painfully behind the beat.
It was a worthwhile evening, and the opera is nowhere near as dreadful as reports of the premiere would suggest. However, while I hope that the forthcoming CD will reveal new treasures, I somehow doubt that Pacini has many more to reveal.