04 Jun 2013

Saverio Mercadante: I due Figaro

Though 2013 is the bicentennial of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, the releases of Cecilia Bartoli’s recording of Bellini’s Norma on DECCA, a new studio recording of Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro from Opera Rara, and this première recording of Saverio Mercadante’s forgotten I due Figaro, suggest that this is the start of a summer of bel canto.

Mercadante is as celebrated in the 21st Century as neither Verdi nor Wagner, but his contributions to the development of Italian opera in the mid-19th Century were appreciated by a critic as discriminating as Franz Liszt. Rossini recognized Mercadante’s musical talents early in the younger composer’s career despite remaining unconvinced of his abilities for effective dramatic characterization. It was to Mercadante that preparation of the first performance of Caterina Cornaro was entrusted due to Donizetti’s illness, and it was also Mercadante to whose expertise Verdi appealed for casting of his Macbeth. It is also known that Mercadante conspired to have Verdi’s Il trovatore suppressed by the Italian censors at the time of its première, however. All of this provides some idea of the complexities and ambiguities of Mercadante and his career: perhaps more than any other composer of his generation, he gradually moved away from the musical example of Rossini, directly influencing Bellini and Donizetti and providing the foundation upon which Verdi built his first masterpieces. Mercadante’s operas Il bravo, Elena da Feltre, Il giuramento, Orazi e Curiazi, and Virginia were all extremely successful during the composer’s lifetime, and Mercadante was almost unfailingly admired and respected as a musician even when he was disliked as a man. Composed in 1826 but not premièred until 1835, I due Figaro is an opera buffa with a libretto by Felice Romani, the master librettist of bel canto, that explores territory familiar from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, but Romani’s source material was a play by French actor and author Honoré Richard Martelly rather than Beaumarchais’s plays. A sequel to the plots set by Rossini and Mozart, Mercadante’s opera finds the long-suffering Contessa d’Almaviva rearing a daughter and Figaro, Rossini’s unflappable factotum, dealing with the arrival of a second, rather suspicious Figaro at the court of Conte d’Almaviva. Romani could be relied upon to provide poetry of high quality even when the circumstances of a libretto’s creation were less than ideal, and there are in his libretto forI due Figaro many passages that show Romani at his best. Like all of the few of Mercadante’s operas that have appeared on records, I due Figaro has many fine things in its favor, not the least of which are several arias and ensembles that remind the listener that Mercadante was far more gifted than most of the second-rank bel canto composers with whom he is usually grouped.

Musically, the score of I due Figaro could be said to represent a very tidy summary of Mercadante’s accomplishments as a composer. Perhaps expectedly for an opera in which Figaro and his Barbiere di Siviglia comrades are found, there are pages in I due Figaro that could virtually have been ripped out of several of Rossini’s opera buffa scores. Mercadante was viewed by 19th-Century observers as the composer who, coming to a crossroads in the development of Italian opera, significantly facilitated the transition of vocal music from the style of Rossini to the more overtly dramatic bel canto employed by Bellini, Donizetti, and the young Verdi. Especially in Mercadante’s music for Susanna, there are coloratura passages that would not sound out of place in Rossini’s Ermione or Zelmira, but there are notable scenes—particularly the extended scene for Cherubino in Act Two, ‘Già per le vie del cielo’—in which the Donizetti of Anna Bolena and the Verdi of Ernani are stylistically close at hand. Dramatically, Romani and Mercadante echo a theme explored in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, that of the cast including a writer seeking inspiration from the characters and their situations, a sort of operatic paparazzo. All of the usual suspects from Mozart and Rossini turn up: the Conte and Contessa d’Almaviva, now the feuding parents of a daughter of marriageable age, Inez; Figaro and Susanna, still married but no longer the wily but endearingly devoted couple they were in Le nozze di Figaro; and Cherubino, grown into an apparently decorated Colonel and now pining for the daughter, Inez, rather than the mother, the Contessa, while in disguise as the second Figaro. New to the party in I due Figaro are Plagio, the visiting writer, and Cherubino’s former servent Torribio, who has designs on wooing Inez while posing as the nobleman Don Alvaro. It is an ambitious synthesis of Mozart and Rossini—and of the dramas of Lorenzo da Ponte and Cesare Sterbini, respective librettists of Le nozze di Figaro and Il barbiere di Siviglia—in which Mercadante seeks to combine the frisson of Rossinian opera buffa with innovative musical progress in the employment of the conventional bel canto aria and cabaletta. Composed during Mercadante’s tenure in Madrid, I due Figaro contains many musical nods to the musical traditions of his host country, both in the use of Spanish dance rhythms such as the characteristic bolero and in the inclusion of adapted folksongs. It was a fit of jealousy by the opera’s intended prima donna, Letizia Cortesi, that prohibited performance of I due Figaro until 1835: having intended for the opera to be performed as a benefit for her own financial upkeep, Signora Cortesi—a respected (both for her singing and for her socially-advantageous liaisons, no doubt) artist who took part in the first performance of Cimarosa’s revised version of Il matrimonio segreto—was none too impressed when she discovered that Mercadante had pipped her to the post by having made the same arrangement for himself. When the opera was eventually premièred, it won favor with both critics and audiences, but its success was short-lived: prior to the production recorded by Ducale at the 2011 Ravenna Festival, Mercadante’s score had been residing, forgotten, in Madrid’s Biblioteca Municipal for nearly two centuries. I due Figaro proves to be an opera well worth hearing (and, benefiting from Maestro Muti’s rediscovery, it indeed has been heard at Salzburg, Madrid’s Teatro Real, and Buenos Aires’s Teatro Colón), Mercadante’s musical gestures shaping the drama effectively and his middle-of-the-road bel canto instincts creating moments of great musical distinction. The spirits of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi are all audibly present in Mercadante’s score, and if there is any failure it is that the opera, treading on such exalted ground, does not reach the levels of inspiration and expressive humanity shown by Mozart in Le nozze di Figaro.

The results achieved by recording live performances can vary from excellent to abysmal. Recording two performances at the Teatro Alighieri in Ravenna in June 2011, Ducale’s sound engineer, Elfride Foroni, and BH audio S.r.l. produced a fine recording with excellent balance, a delightful sense of stage action, and an impressive avoidance of stage and audience noises, even during secco recitatives. Singers audibly move about the stage without ever losing sonic presence, and the chorus and orchestra enjoy prominence but never overwhelm the singers. The choristers of the Philharmonia Chor Wien, a relatively new ensemble founded in 2002, sing with gusto and great musicality. Individual voices occasionally emerge from the choral blend, but whereas this might be undesirable in choral repertory it adds to the sense of credibility in this performance, in which servants and villagers take such important parts in the drama. The instrumentalists of the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini, founded by Maestro Muti in 2004, play with brilliance that belies their youth, intonation generally sure and timbres carefully blended, surely benefiting from work with Maestro Muti. Very impressive is the solo horn playing in Cherubino’s scena in Act Two. His espousal at La Scala and elsewhere of the music of Cimarosa and Cherubini notwithstanding, Riccardo Muti does not spring to mind as an advocate for overlooked bel canto composers, even those from his native Naples. Indeed, it might seem rather bizarre that a conductor’s discography would be expanded in a single year by releases of recordings of operas as different as Mercadante’s I due Figaro and Verdi’s Otello (recorded in concert for release on the Chicago Symphony’s house label), but the integrity of Maestro Muti’s curiosity, intelligence, and pursuit of musical excellence is never in doubt. Perhaps the most surprising element of this recording is the seemingly instinctive faculty for bel canto with which Maestro Muti conducts the performance. The committed propulsion with which he conducts later repertory is well known, but the unforced grace evident in every bar of this recording of I due Figaro is remarkable. Tempi are consistently appropriate to the music, Maestro Muti’s formidable exactitude of rhythm producing accurate but wonderfully animated renderings of frothy ensembles but also allowing expansiveness of line in cantilena passages. In those pages that mimic Rossini at his buffo best, Maestro Muti’s approach is founded upon an understanding of the construction of a Rossinian scena. Those pages that exemplify the dramatic bel canto of Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi find Maestro Muti drawing upon a richly idiomatic experience in Italian music of the 19th Century. In short, Maestro Muti proves himself to be an ideal conductor of the uniquely ‘hybridized’ music of Mercadante.

Owing both to the inventiveness of Romani’s poetry and to the cleverness of Mercadante’s music, all of the characters in I due Figaro are deftly delineated. Plagio, the visiting writer whose name means ‘plagiarism’ in Spanish, is an obvious cousin of Prosdocimo, the poet in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, the libretto of which was also written by Romani. Sung in this performance by Italian baritone Omar Montanari, Plagio weaves in and out of the drama in I due Figaro with the unfettered enthusiasm of an eager journalist. The villagers in the insular community of the Almaviva castle are suspicious of his motives, however, and they amusingly taunt him in his scene at the beginning of Act Two. Mr. Montanari sings handsomely throughout the performance, Plagio’s cajoling of the characters for information about their situations and inspiration for his next play drawing from him singing of great wit. Plagio instructs himself at the beginning of Act Two to ‘agguzza orechhio e mente’—sharpen his ears and his wits: Mr. Montanari might have set for himself the same goal, and his unfailingly fine, subtle singing achieves that goal capitally.

Torribio, Cherubino’s former servant who disguises himself as the noble Don Alvaro in an effort to capitalize on his part in a plot by Figaro to pass him off as a suitable husband for Inez, the daughter—and heiress, of course—of the Conte and Contessa d’Almaviva, is sung by Italian tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani, a veteran of several of Alan Curtis’s acclaimed productions and recordings of Händel operas. The vocal technique and quicksilver dramatic instincts that have proved so successful in Händel repertory likewise serve Mr. Giustiniani well in I due Figaro. Not completely sinister but also far from innocent, Torribio is an oily figure who is not without charm. Mr. Giustiniani is a superb singer who deserves larger assignments, but his singing in this performance is fantastic. The voice is a light one, handled with mastery of its capabilities by its owner, and as ever Mr. Giustiniani provides a veritable masterclass in the art of acting through the voice. Torribio may be Figaro’s intended ticket to enjoying half of Inez’s dowry, but he is no one’s fool. Still, he is somewhat taken short when all of Figaro’s plans unravel and the deception is revealed in all of its convoluted detail to the Conte by Cherubino. Mr. Giustianini expresses all of Torribio’s mental responses to his misadventures with splendid comedic timing, and the most strenuous of Mercadante’s demands do not scratch the surface of the vocal feats of which Mr. Giustianini is capable.

Italian baritone Mario Cassi sings Figaro, who seems to have lost much of his charm in the years since the inception of his service to Conte d’Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia and his marriage to Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro. Mercadante’s Figaro is more priggish than either Mozart’s or Rossini’s, and—not unexpectedly, considering his basic psychiatric profile—his relationship with Susanna seems to have soured, at least in part. The jingle of coins has lost no ground in Figaro’s affections, however, and the joie de vivre with which Mr. Cassi enters into Figaro’s plotting and ribaldry is infectious. The high spirits of Mr. Cassi’s performance confirms the suspicion that Figaro is merely a single-minded opportunist rather than a genuinely nasty fellow. While suggesting that he would prove a lovable Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Mr. Cassi does what he can with Mercadante’s less cuddly Figaro. The slightly knurly quality of Mr. Cassi’s voice, allied with the unrelenting machismo of his dramatic instincts, creates a compelling character, this Figaro relishing his manipulations of every situation in which he finds himself and sputtering in frustration when his labyrinthine machinations hurl him headlong into impregnable walls. Mr. Cassi sings with technical prowess, perhaps most engagingly so in the Terzetto with Susanna and Plagio, ‘In quegl’occhi.’ Throughout the performance, Mr. Cassi brings affability to his singing, making Figaro’s exasperation at the appearance of a second, surely fraudulent Figaro amusingly palpable. His contributions to the Sestetto, ‘Un momento,’ are delightful, and the light-hearted duplicity with which he plots with Torribio and baits Plagio is genuinely funny without being over the top. Musically, Mercadante’s Figaro enjoys fewer opportunities to shine individually than Mozart’s or Rossini’s incarnations of the character, but Mr. Cassi takes advantage of every phrase, coloring his voice convincingly to convey a wide array of emotions, both public and private.

As in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Conte d’Almaviva is a tenor rôle, and Antonio Poli sings the part with assurance. The Conte’s cavatina ‘Che mai giova’ is one of the musical high points of Mercadante’s score, and Mr. Poli sings it very well, his technique tested but never broken by Mercadante’s music. Throughout the opera, Mr. Poli’s pointed diction is effective as a dramatic device of its own accord, his exchanges with all of the other characters convincingly conveyed through verbal inflections. Mr. Poli shades his voice accordingly, complementing his dramatic instincts with an impressive command of vocal means. Slight hints of pushing in the upper register are worrying in so young a singer, especially one whose future engagements include high-profile outings as Mozart’s Don Ottavio in London and Chicago, but the quality of tone that Mr. Poli produces in this performance suggests that his voice is beautifully suited to lighter lyric rôles. The quieting of this Conte’s anger in the final scene is neither as eloquent nor as believable as is the capitulation of the Conte in Le nozze di Figaro, but Mr. Poli sings his final lines with great irony: Mercadante’s Conte, rather than beseeching his wife’s forgiveness, merely admits defeat and begrudgingly accepts the obvious twists of fate: ‘Per far dispetto a Figaro, siate anche voi contenti,’ he sings to his daughter and Cherubino—‘you will be happy, too, just to annoy Figaro.’ The cool timbre of Mr. Poli’s voice lends his singing a certain aristocratic remoteness, but he enters into the spirit of the comedy with tenacity.

Italian mezzo-soprano Annalisa Stroppa takes the travesti rôle of Cherubino, his courting skills as powerful but tactless in I due Figaro as in Le nozze di Figaro. Ms. Stroppa’s timbre is dark and slightly unyielding, the basic sound of the voice rather than any particular interpretive choices on the singer’s part offering a suggestion of masculinity. Ms. Stroppa is more convincing when Cherubino is on conspiratorial form than in music of love or loss, but she saves her best singing for her challenging aria in Act Two. This is perhaps the most strangely ambiguous scene in the opera, the dramatic situation—villagers returning at dusk from their daily labors cross paths with the despondent Cherubino and think him mad—echoing the celebrated ‘Miserere’ in Verdi’s Trovatore but the music adhering more conventionally to Rossinian formulae than almost any other in the score. As is customary in most of Maestro Muti’s efforts, this is essentially a come scritto reading of Mercadante’s score, with interpolated top notes avoided. Ms. Stroppa’s upper register faces rough use in Cherubino’s aria nonetheless, but she ascends to her highest notes with cautious security. Rossinian coloratura does not sound as though it is completely natural territory for Ms. Stroppa, but the overall excellence of the results that she achieves in bravura passages is all the more impressive for this. She is at her best in ensembles, when her fiery singing depicts the impetuous young Colonel to the life.

The Contessa—Rossini’s Rosina—is sung by Turkish mezzo-soprano Asude Karayavuz, an exciting presence whose timbre exudes confident nobility. In the Contessa’s aria, ‘Prender che val marito,’ its structure not unlike that of the Contessa’s magnificent ‘Dove sono i bei momenti’ in Le nozze di Figaro, Ms. Karayavuz sings with great feeling, her expression of hope for her daughter’s marital bliss reminding the listener of the character’s sentiments of defiant love in Il barbiere di Siviglia and wistful longing for the passion of that defiance in Le nozze di Figaro. Ms. Karayavuz sings strongly from start to finish, adding distinction to every ensemble in which she sings. No longer a victim of circumstance or an unfailingly magnanimous figure, the Contessa in I due Figaro proves to be a wily conniver in her own right, pursuing her own agenda with dogged sense of purpose. That the Contessa is ultimately such a likeable character in this performance is to Ms. Karayavuz’s credit. There are moments of vocal discomfort in Ms. Karayavuz’s performance, but she puts these to dramatic use. A capable singer with a good technique, Ms. Karayavuz is a sweet but never saccharine Contessa, her indignities suffered with good humor but avenged with vindicating fun.

Inez, the daughter of the Conte and Contessa, is the source of the dramatic careening in I due Figaro. Betrothed in absentia by her father to a man she has never met, the allegedly noble Don Alvaro, Inez is actually in love with Cherubino. Every character in the opera is in some way great or small directly affected by Inez’s predicament, so a fascinating singer is required in the rôle if the opera is to be even remotely interesting. Italian soprano Rosa Feola, a former pupil of Renata Scotto, has something of her teacher’s burning drive as a performer. Though her voice is a full lyric soprano of beauty and grace, she tears through this performance of I due Figaro like a woman possessed. Inez’s mission is to marry the man she loves, whether with her father’s consent or despite his withholding of it, and Ms. Feola conveys Inez’s devotion to Cherubino with conviction. In her solo scene, ‘Oh! Come in un momento,’ bewitchingly sung by Ms. Feola, Inez expresses perhaps the most heartfelt sentiments in the opera, with Mercadante’s music at its best. Ms. Feola is an appreciated interpreter of Adina in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore(another Romani creation), and Inez is an appropriate companion to Adina in her repertory: musically related, both ladies also encounter similar amorous situations, being pursued by one man who is essentially a pompous poser and another—her true beloved—who is sincere but something of a sap. The beauty of Ms. Feola’s singing when she sings of or to Cherubino—in music that is often not unlike that with which Servilia sings of Annio in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito—leaves no doubt of which suitor has won Inez’s heart. Like several of her colleagues, Ms. Feola is particularly charismatic in ensembles, voicing her lines with ardor. All things considered, Ms. Feola is a thoroughly suitable center of attention for I due Figaro, her Inez proving a thoughtful and musically winning creation.

It was for his greedily vindictive would-be prima donna, la Cortesi, that the rôle of Susanna was written, and both her prominence in the drama and the quality of her music make it apparent that Mercadante was dealing with a lyric coloratura soprano he felt obliged to please. Italian soprano Eleonora Buratto sings the part stylishly. Having studied with both Mirella Freni—whose bel canto performances are unaccountably neglected in assessments of her legacy—and Luciano Pavarotti, Ms. Buratto brings to I due Figaro impressive credentials, including performances of Mozart’s Susanna. Not surprisingly considering the circumstances of the genesis of I due Figaro, Susanna has the opera’s most celebrated aria, the bolero ‘Colle dame più brillanti,’ which is sung with vivacity and technical aplomb by Ms. Buratto. Even Susanna shines most brightly in ensembles, though, and the vocal freedom with which Ms. Buratto voices the top lines in ensembles is refreshing. It could be argued that Susanna, as in Le nozze di Figaro, is the only character who, though threatened, is in complete command of her destiny, and the music that Mercadante composed for her has an immediacy—an authentically Spanish quality of sauciness, so to speak—that music for the other characters lacks. Ms. Buratto’s well-schooled technique enables her to focus on details of characterization, and she combines intelligent musical choices with dramatic attitudes that aptly convey Susanna’s moods. If Inez is the spine that supports I due Figaro, Susanna is the opera’s heart, and Ms. Buratto knows this: her expressivity is both individual and responsive to the singing of her colleagues. Difficulties in Mercadante’s score little trouble Ms. Buratto, and the beauty of her singing distinguishes her in an unusually consistent cast.

One challenge of this recording is born of the performance featuring a cast of such young singers: identification in ensembles of which voices are the older characters and which are the younger ones can be difficult. This is a small price to pay for vocal freshness across the board, however, and these young singers do their all to make their lines discernible and their characters three-dimensional. It cannot be denied that, despite his achievements as a musical and dramatic innovator, Mercadante is not a composer who can be regarded as an equal of Mozart, Rossini, or Donizetti. It is unfair to describe him merely as a gifted craftsman, too: hearing I due Figaro brings to mind Richard Strauss’s anecdote about being a first-rate second-tier composer. I due Figaro is not comparable to a masterwork by Verdi or Wagner, but Maestro Muti presides in this performance over a cast of a quality that can hardly be encountered in performances of Verdi’s and Wagner’s opera in any of the world’s better opera houses today. This fetching recording confirms anew that, when performed with zest, a forgotten opera can be very memorable.

Joseph Newsome

SAVERIO MERCADANTE (1795 - 1870): I due Figaro o sia Il soggetto di una commedia—A. Poli (il Conte di Almaviva), A. Karayavuz (la Contessa), R. Feola (Inez), A. Stroppa (Cherubino), M. Cassi (Figaro), E. Buratto (Susanna), A. Zorzi Giustiniani (Torribio), O. Montanari (Plagio); Philharmonia Chor Wien; Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini; Riccardo Muti [Recorded ‘live’ at the Teatro Alighieri, Ravenna, Italy, on 24 and 26 June 2011; Ducale DUC 045-47; World Première Recording]