Arias for Benucci
with Katherine Watson, soprano & Anna Devin, soprano
Jonathan Cohen, conductor
«Benucci, the new buffo, possesses a tolerable person, a very good voice, and considerable judgement. His voice is, however, not so good as Morelli’s, nor has he so much humour as that performer, but Benucci is more of a gentlemen, and is a better musician. It is, however, not proper to decide upon the merits of Benucci at first, particularly as his fame in Italy is very good».
With these words the Morning Post described the voice of bass Francesco Benucci, a favourite of Italian and Viennese stages, during his stay in London in 1789. Little is known about this singer’s life. He began his career in his native Livorno around 1768 and later he sang in the more prestigious theatres of Venice, Milan and Rome, then in Madrid and finally in Vienna, where he became leading member of the Italian company. It was in this city that he creates his major roles, as Tita in Martín y Soler’s Una cosa rara, the title roles in Salieri’s La grotto di Trofonio and Axur, Re d’Ormus and above all in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. Benucci was also the first Leporello in Don Giovanni in the first Vienna performance and the first Guglielmo in Così fan tutte. Mozart considered him «particularly good» already in 1783, when he mentioned him in a letter to his father, and an account by the first Don Basilio (the Irish tenor Michael O’Kelly) hands down to posterity the enthusiastic reaction of the composer after listening Benucci singing Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso. After the creation of roles for operas by Anfossi, Sarti and Paisiello, his last great triumph was Count Robinson in Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto in 1792. In 1795, Benucci moved to Milan to sing at Teatro alla Scala and died in Florence in 1824.
The recording Arias for Benucci collects arias from operas by Sarti, Mozart, Martín y Soler and Salieri that have been performed for the first time by Benucci, with the addition of the overture from Paisiello’s Il re Teodoro in Venezia, in which the ancient singer sang the role of the inn-keeper Taddeo.
If you expect liveliness, you will find it in the orchestra rather than in the singer. Although the recording technique is not superb and the sound is not as vivid as it should, conductor Jonathan Cohen and the ensemble Arcangelo usually play with vivacity, as it appears in Il re Teodoro a Venezia, that serves as an overture for the entire album, and in the two “intermezzi”, the overtures from Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro. There is anyway an important exception, Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo (the alternative aria for Guglielmo in Così fan tutte), which is extremely slow and loses some of its spirit.
As for the singer, baritone Matthew Rose sings with elegance and taste, but with no exuberance at all. It is true, sometimes he emphasizes some words in search of a nice effect (as in Aprite un po’ quegli occhi and in the duet between Leporello and Zerlina) and the warm sound of his voice avoids to fall prey to apathy, but this does not exclude that the better part – the joyous and amusing part – has been completely missed. This is even clearer in the most famous arias Madamina, il catalogo è questo and Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso but also in lesser known ones as the magical (as Salieri himself describes it) Spirti invisibili from La grotto di Trofonio or the serious Oimè! Che innanzi agli occhi from Sarti’s I contrattempi, where you can appreciate Rose’s good singing, but nothing more than that. The characters have little characterization and, in addition to it, the diction is not precise, with frequent confusion between double and single consonants.
Arias for Benucci is therefore a recording that has the merit to brush up valuable but unknown arias (I think in particular of the scene from Sarti’s I contrattempi) but that fails to be sparkling in their performance.