Premiered in 1834 in Venice, with a libretto by the ubiquitous Felice Romani, Emma d'Antiochia was composed for Giuditta Pasta, clearly the greatest singing actress of her day and the first Norma and Anna Bolena. Expectations ran high, but when the evening arrived, Pasta was indisposed and most of Emma's solos were simply skipped, leading to a near-disaster. The same thing happened at the second performance. After that, things were righted, and while the opera was not a grand success, it was popular and well-received, with praise going to many of the numbers and to the young Eugenia Tadolini, who sang the other soprano role, Adelia, and who later went on to create Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix and Maria di Rohan, as well as some of the leads in early Verdi operas.
The plot is heavy-duty early-19th-century Italian opera angst-ridden, with a nice pair of suicides and a tragically unrequited love. Oddly, it has no villains. We are in 12th-century Tyre, and Ruggiero (tenor) is about to marry his (baritone) uncle Corrado's daughter, Adelia (soprano). Adelia knows that Ruggiero once had another love and that somewhere in his heart he still pines for her. Corrado returns victorious from battle against the Saracens, and with him he brings a new wife, Princess Emma of Antioc (soprano)--you guessed it, Ruggiero's former love. (She brings with her a male slave/confidante, Aladino, a tenor.)
As soon as they see each other they realize the flame still burns, but Ruggiero marries Adelia anyway, though suspicions are aroused. Corrado discovers the messy situation and exiles Ruggiero, who leaves guiltily, sadly, and willingly in the middle of the last act. Adelia forgives and understands Emma, but the latter takes poison as her pal Aladino stabs himself and everyone is sad and horrified.
The work, which is reminiscent of Rossini in many places, is chock-full of lively arias, cabalettas, duets, a grand quartet with chorus to end Act 1, and a lovely prayer near the end of the opera for Emma, which is then (unusually) followed by a duet for her and Adelia. The scoring is fascinating, with lots of highlighted instruments at the start of, or during, arias. A nice cello sighs along with Emma in her final aria and the harp is highlighted throughout. Most fascinating of all, there is a lengthy solo (introducing Emma's Act 2 scene) for an instrument called a "glicibarifono", which was played at the premiere by its inventor, a clarinet-maker named Catterini. (It's also featured in Ruggiero's first-act scene and the first-act finale and a couple of choruses.) Since the instrument no longer exists, it is played here by its equivalent, the bass clarinet.
David Parry leads a very exciting, tight performance and the LPO and Geoffrey Mitchell Choir play and sing with passion and involvement. This recording followed a concert performance or two of the opera and the cast clearly was still very "in" its respective roles. The controversial Nelly Miricioiu turns in one of her finest recorded performances as Emma, her voice in fine shape from top to bottom, with its odd register breaks relatively unobtrusive--and even when they are more prominent, she uses them to fine dramatic ends. New-to-me Maria Costanza Nocentini is Adelia, and her bright tone (nicely contrasted with Miricioiu's darker hue) and impeccable coloratura, not to mention great sincerity, make her a singer to watch. Bruce Ford, as usual, turns in a superb bel canto-with-oomph show as Ruggiero; he's somewhat of a wimp of a character, but Ford gets out of him what he can and sings gloriously. Roberto Servile's Corrado sounds properly wounded, and Colin Lee's Aladino makes us wish he had more to sing. The weakest music comes at the start of Act 3, with a tedious chorus and a truly uninspired scene for Corrado with Ruggiero, but Parry gets past it with style and he finds true fire in all of the melodrama. The recorded sound is perfect. A rediscovered masterpiece? Hardly; but a fine work nevertheless, superbly performed. [9/13/2004]
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com