Arias for Benucci

Matthew Rose, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen
77:06
Hyperion CDA68078
Music by Martín y Soler, Mozart, Paisiello, Salieri & Sarti

The current enthusiasm among record companies for operatic recitals centred around a famous singer of the past is a welcome development. Not only does it make for greater contrast than the traditional composer recital, but it can also provide excellent clues as to the nature of some of the great voices of the past. Indeed, the examination of the music composed for a particular singer to determine voice type and range, etc., has itself become a musicological study. Here listeners, if so inclined, can play the game for themselves. So what can we learn from this CD about the great buffo bass Francesco Benucci, who was born about 1745 and is today best remembered as the creator of Mozart’s Figaro and Gugliemo in Così fan tutte ? Well, in keeping with the character of buffo roles one might suggest that Benucci’s talents lay in characterisation and flexibility rather than overt virtuosity. The obvious need to project text clearly necessarily results in a predominance of syllabic settings that cover no great range – ‘Se vuol ballare’, for instance covers a range from C to F1; we can gather from the climax of the cabaletta of that aria, too, that Benucci had a powerful voice capable to bring off an impressive climax, a quality also to be heard here in Gugliemo’s splendid showpiece ‘Rivolgete a lui’, an aria Mozart replaced in Così fan tutte because of its length. We cannot of course guess at the quality of Benucci’s voice, but it was especially valued in Vienna, where Benucci sang from 1783 until 1795, while a German critic wrote of its ‘beautiful, rounded quality’ while also praising his acting for its ‘propriety’ and lack of vulgarity.

In addition to the arias from Figaro, Così and Don Giovanni – in which Benucci sang the first Viennese Leporello in 1788 – we are also given arias from roles created by him in Vienna from Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio  (1785), Axur, re d’Ormus  (1788) and Martín y Soler’s hugely successful Una cosa rara  (1786). Giuseppe Sarti’s I contrattempi  (Venice, 1778) is particularly interesting for being the first opera in which Benucci created a role. Here the characterful recitative and aria ‘Oime! che innanzi agli occhi – Pensa, che per morire’ finds his character Frasconia trying Papageno-like to pluck up courage to commit suicide. Also of note are extracts from the two Salieri operas: Trofonio’s mock ‘ombre’ scena ‘Ch’ite per l’aere’ is clearly a parody on Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, complete with chorus of spirits, while ‘Idol vano’ offers a rare opportunity to hear a more serious aria composed for Benucci in the mezzo caraterre role of Axur, the greater degree of coloratura strikingly apparent in the context of other arias on the CD.

So how does British bass-baritone Matthew Rose fare with the ‘Benucci test’? Rather well, actually. The voice can certainly be described as having a ‘beautiful, rounded’ quality and it is evenly produced across its range, with an admirable lack of intrusive vibrato. Rose also brings a sense of character to the roles he is portraying (never easy in a recital) – I particularly like the sense of malicious fun intimated in Leporello’s ‘catalogue’ aria (let’s not forget there is more than an element of his master in the servant’s make-up) – and there is certainly a sense of propriety in not concluding ‘Se vuol ballare’ an octave higher than written. I feel Benucci would have probably been more precise with his ornaments (the single trill Rose attempts is a half-hearted effort) and would probably have sung more of them. Mention also needs to be made of the admirable cameo appearances of sopranos Katherine Watson (as Dorabella) and Anna Devin (as Zerlina). Rose is admirably supported throughout by a rather larger Arcangelo than we usually hear. The wind and brass departments boast some of London’s best period instrument players, who relish the opportunities given them by Mozart’s wind writing. Jonathan Cohen’s direction is notable not only for the sympathetic support given to Rose, but the spirited, acutely observed performances of the overtures to Figaro, Don Giovanni and Paisiello’s hugely successful Il re Teodoro in Venezia  (Vienna, 1784), from which it might have been appropriate to hear an aria. Still, with a playing time of 77 minutes one can hardly complain about what is not on a disc that achieves the rare distinction of being both of great interest and thoroughly entertaining.

Brian Robins