Finally, the most important woman in Rossini's life - mezzo-soprano Isabella Colbran - has an opportunity to enchant us.
If we were to choose "a crown jewel" of Barbaja's and Rossini's cast, the choice would be all to obvious: Isabella Colbran. She was one of the first in a line of brilliant dramatic singers that would bless belcanto operas for decades: Pasta, Grisi, de Bengis, Malibran... She appeared in ten Rossini operas, and the love that formed between the primadonna and the maestro is evident in every page of the scores. Except for the rather bland character of Zoraide in "Ricciardo" and, possibly, Zelmira, all roles are incredibly dramatic: Armida and Ermione are anti-heroines, in spite of their tragic situations; Fiorilla is a comic role of unusual proportions; Elcia, Anna, Elena and Desdemona, in spite of being ingenue-like characters, are faced with staggeringly complex situations (indeed, only Elena gets a happy ending, while Anna commits suicide, Elcia's lover is killed before her eyes and Desdemona is killed by Otello); even the less interesting characters of Elisabetta and Semiramide require an unlimited amount of charisma.
Although the label "soprano" is often used when describing Colbran's voice, Rossini's music speaks otherwise: she is regularly asked to go down to A flat and even G, while high notes rarely go beyond B; though additions aren't really prohibited, so Colbran roles are essayed by both sopranos and mezzos without any real threat to the music. The most obvious virtue of Colbran's voice was its incredible agility: the coloratura is never excessive but it is always complex. The opening cabaletta of Elisabetta, for example, features a pattern of "small notes" quite difficult to emphasize correctly.
Like Galli, Colbran's importance is on evidence primarily in ensembles. In spite of her primadonna stature, Colbran didn't seem to mind to have fewer arias than her cast members. Only in "Elisabetta", "Armida" and "La donna del lago" does she get two arias a piece, while in "Otello", "Mose", "Ricciardo", "Ermione", "Maometto", "Zelmira" and "Semiramide" she gets only one cavatina, aria or rondo. And yet almost all these pieces are interesting in one way or another: in "Armida" she first gets a brilliant set of variations as her first aria and then a wild final aria as she storms off the stage; in "Maometto" she gets a simple cavatina, shorn of any kind of cabaletta, which actually proves much more successful in creating the character of Anna; in "Ermione" she basically doesn't have a real, big aria, instead she gets a dramatic scena. Moreover, the music for all these scenes is often breathtakingly beautiful.
Choosing a piece that would best represent Colbran's voice was a really difficult process. In the end it came to two scenes: Desdemona's Willow Song and Ermione's brilliant scena. Both pieces are equally wonderful, so I think that a breach of my own decision of uploading only one aria per singer wouldn't really be that much of a sin on my part.
Desdemona's long aria is actually a part of an even longer (almost 20 minutes) scene which forms most of the celebrated Act Three of Rossini's attempt at doing Shakespeare: prelude - recitative - offstage canzone of the gondolier - another recitative - aria with variations - recitative - prayer. Although I would mostly blame Rossini's obligations to Barbaja and the rather uninspired libretto, one has to be honest to oneself: "Otello", in spite of some virtues (including a brilliant overture with some of Rossini's most beautiful solo writing), isn't really one of Rossini's best works. And yet its jewel, Desdemona's Willow Song, with its brilliant use of the variations form and solemn atmosphere, is one of Rossini's most endearing creations. The aria opens with a bewitching solo for the harp. What follows is a series of variations on one theme, each new one more and more difficult, detailing perfectly Desdemona's growing anxiety. I would also direct the listener to the musical background of the music: the harp is always in there but the rest of the orchestra is also given special prominence (listen to the very first couplet at 1:36 and 1:40, the entrance of the orchestra is quite chilling). Even more telling is the use of ornaments for the voice. For example, the second couplet utilities ornaments that help the picture of the river before which the poor girl in the song is sitting: at the very begging, when singing about "clear streams", the vocal line mirrors the murmur of the river; in the last couplet when Desdemona starts to detail the death of the girl a solo flute appears out of the orchestra, as if mourning for her.
Colbran roles are essayed by an array of singers: June Anderson, Cecilia Gasdia, Cecilia Bartoli, Marilyn Horne, Montserrat Caballe. I have chosen the version that first introduced me to the aria: Frederica von Stade whose voice seems to me a perfect compliment to both the music and the character. Enjoy :)!