Bellini’s First Opera–Minor But Worth Hearing

Review by: Robert Levine


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

If one were to be uncharitable, Adelson e Salvini, Bellini’s first opera, performed in 1825 at the Naples Conservatory by an all-male, student cast, might be called “dismissable”. But since it’s the earliest attempt by a composer who had a mere 10-year career that wound up encompassing both Norma and I Puritani, it holds more interest than that.

Clearly he was trying things–figuring out what he was good at and what he wasn’t; and in the first column, of course, we find long melodies, and in the second we find humor. Adelson e Salvini contains Bellini’s only buffo character, the servant Bonifacio, who sings patter à la Rossini’s buffo characters. The opera itself is a semi-seria, one with gripping elements and comic elements, much like Rossini’s La gazza ladra. In Bellini’s case, it doesn’t really succeed as either.

Set in 17th-century Ireland, the story involves Lord Adelson, who has taken under his financial wing his friend, Salvini, a painter. The latter has fallen in love with Adelson’s fiancée, Nelly. Nelly’s creepy, banished uncle, Colonel Struley, in order to get back at Adelson for some past event, forges letters, presumably from Adelson’s father, that imply that Adelson is betrothed to a London noblewoman.

Geronio, Adelson’s servant, is in cahoots with Struley to kidnap Nelly and force her to marry a friend of his. Salvini stops the attempted kidnapping, but in the melée he fears he has shot and killed Nelly. Somehow, all works out well: Adelson and Nelly get back together, Salvini stops his obsession with Nelly and is sent back to Italy with an allowance, making the promise to return in a year and marry Fanny, his pupil. Meanwhile Bonifacio sings patter–in Neapolitan dialect–that seems to be, and is, out of place. There is spoken dialogue between the musical numbers.

But all is not lost despite the silliness: Bellini cannibalized parts of the score and used them in Il pirata, La straniera, and most noticeably, in I Capuleti e i Montecchi: Nelly’s beautiful aria “Dopo l’oscuro nembo” was reworked as Giulietta’s ravishing “Ah, quante volte”. In addition, there are some fun ensembles à la Rossini, and little bits of melody and style that will make Bellini aficionados sit up with pleasant recognition. Its two-hour length goes by quickly, and Opera Rara has included an additional 25 minutes of music from an earlier/alternate version of the score.

The performance is excellent under Daniele Rustioni, who leads with vitality, clarity, and forward propulsion. The conservatory must have had some fine horn players; Bellini writes plenty of difficult music for them. Daniella Barcelona, by now a familiar name to lovers of bel canto, sings Nelly, the female lead, and while her usual creamy tone and intelligence are at work here, one must admit that there’s little after her lovely first-act aria to get involved in. Nelly is a shy, well-brought up girl–hardly the stuff of great drama.

Enea Scala’s tenor at times sounds stressed by Salvini’s wickedly high tessitura and handful of Bs, Cs, and Ds, but after a first-act duet with Bonifacio, he is more comfortable, and his second-act duet with Adelson and last-act Romanza are high points. Simone Alberghini’s Adelson also grows in security and poise as the opera progresses, gaining focus and fluidity. Maurizio Muraro proves a fine buffo as Bonifacio, even if his music lacks purpose, and Colonel Struley’s wicked sneering is made clear by Rodion Pogossov. Kathryn Rudge is a fine Fanny, with what little she is given, and the other roles are sincerely and securely taken.

Of course Bellini-ites will have to have this. The whole charms while you’re listening but fades rather quickly from the memory.

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Recording Details:

  • Daniela Barcellona, Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano); Simone Alberghini Maurizio Muraro Rodion Pogossov (bass-baritone); Enea Scala (tenor)
  • BBC Symphony Orchestra, Daniele Rustioni

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