Lost in the Shuffle: Rossini's 'Matilde di Shabran'

WOO-1235-Matilde-300During the heyday of Hollywood's "golden age," in the middle part of the 20th century, it was possible for the finest directors to produce work that's now largely neglected -- and something similar happened to at least one great composer, more than a century earlier.

While Hollywood's "studio system" was in place, in the 1930s and '40s, major studios employed stables of directors who were assigned to tackle a variety of projects. Many of those directors were highly successful, yet some were so prolific that the best of their works are the only ones that are still widely known. Michael Curtiz was a case in point.

Born in Hungary, Curtiz began making films in 1912. He came to the U.S. in the 1920s, and by the following decade was one of the top directors for Warner Brothers, making films including The Sea Hawk, Dodge City and White Christmas, and winning an Oscar for one of the most popular movies of all time, Casablanca.

Yet altogether, Curtiz made 173 movies, and the most famous of them have long overshadowed most of the others. Some of those also represent a high level of accomplishment, and feature many of Hollywood's biggest stars, yet remain relatively obscure.

The same sort of thing happened to some of opera's most prolific composers, including Gioachino Rossini, one of the greatest of them all. Rossini's career in the opera house lasted less than 30 years. He wrote his final opera, William Tell, in 1829, then lived until 1868 without ever writing another.

Rossini's masterful comedy The Barber of Seville is among the most beloved operas ever composed. His comic hits also include La Cenerentola and The Italian Girl in Algiers, and those works, along with serious dramas including Tancredi and William Tell, are still widely performed.

Yet he wrote nearly 40 operas in all, and many seem to have been lost in the shuffle, including some of his most brilliant, innovative and fascinating scores. Matilde di Shabran is one of them.

Premiered in Rome in 1821, Matilde di Shabran is in a style known in Italian as opera semiseria -- which translates just the way it looks. It's an opera that at first seems to be serious, but really isn't: a semi-serious opera. In the case of Matilde, the story focuses on a character called Corradino. He's a feudal master so evil, and with such an implausibly fearsome reputation, that he's impossible to take seriously -- so nobody does, including his own subjects.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Matilde di Shabran from the 2012 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy, the composer's hometown, and the production was among the Festival's headline events.

As Corradino, we hear one of today's great Rossini tenors, Juan Diego Florez -- in a role that helped launch his career. In 1996, when Florez was still in his early 20s, he performed it in Pesaro as a last-minute replacement for the marquee performer, in the process becoming an almost instant star. The production also features a brilliant performance by Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko in the title role.