MERCADANTE: Emma d'Antiochia
Nelly Miricioiu (Emma), Maria Costanza Nocentini (Adelia), Bruce Ford (Ruggiero), Roberto Servile (Corrado); Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, London Philharmonic/ David Parry
Opera Rara 26 [3CD] 183 minutes
I have long been on a campaign to revive the works of Saverio Mercadante. Eight of his operas and some of' his choral and orchestral works have been issued on CD from a variety of performance venues, good, bad, and indifferent. Bongiovanni has been the leader here. But only Opera Rara has published studio recordings of his music: Italian songs (Nov/Dec 1999), the complete opera Orazi e Curiazi (Jan/Feb 1996), and a quasi-introduction to Mercadante's music, Mercadante Rediscovered (Jan/Feb 2004), a compilation with selections drawn from several Opera Rara recital recordings. To begin its new series, "The Essential Opera Rara", selections from an opera that will give the "essence" of the work, they chose Mercadante's Zaira (July/Aug 2003). All have been favorably reviewed in these pages.
It is said that you cannot judge a book by its cover, but certainly the sheer luxurious elegance of Opera Rara's presentations goes far in establishing the credibility of the music. Most of all it establishes the feeling that Opera Rara has a strong belief in and support for the music. As usual there is an extensive performance history of the work, an examination of text and music, and a complete libretto with English translation. There is even information on Mercadante's use of the glicibarifono (a bass clarinet kind of instrument).
Although the opera was written at the height of Mercadante's career, had a libretto by the prolific Felice Romani, and was written specifically for super-diva Giuditta Pasta (along with almost-as-popular star Domenico Donzelli and the soon to be super-diva Eugenia Tadolini) Emma was a disaster at its premiere (La Fenice, March 8, 1834). Pasta was ill, but "graciously consented to appear" in a highly truncated version of the opera. But at the third performance Pasta was back in form and the opera was awarded a sensational reception. It was performed almost annually though the mid-1840s, disappeared briefly, had a few revivals and was last performed in Malta in 1861.
Thanks to Opera Rara for bringing Emma back to life. The music is packed with good, solid, sing-along tunes as effective as many of early Verdi, with many unusual touches of orchestration. Rhythmic devices are always ear-catching and pull the listener (and the singer) excitedly along. The melodramatic excesses of the plot can easily be ignored in favor of the music.
Conductor Parry seems to have an almost uncanny insight into music of the bel canto school, particularly in the selection of tempos. He is rhythmically propulsive, always supportive of the singers, but not subject to their whims. Indeed, this is (as is so often true of Parry-led operas) a true ensemble effort. Miricioiu is her own spectacular, gutsy self imperious, confident, supremely musical, emotionally restrained, no Italianate super-diva stunts, trusting in the music to deliver its own emotional impression. One has come to expect a similar performance from Ford, and he delivers it handsomely. Servile has a curious mushy pronunciation that is not intrusive and a voice darkly rich and handsome in tone. Nocentini's brighter, smaller soprano sound is an effective contrast to Miricioiu. The Geoffrev Mitchell Choir again are a strong lot.
Charles H Parsons
THIS REVIEW ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2004 ISSUE (VOL. 67 NO. 6) OF AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE (ARG). IT IS REPRINTED HERE WITH THE KIND PERMISSION OF ARG. FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ON ARG, GO TO ITS WEBSITE AT www.americanrecordguide.com.