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Eleonora Buratto as Susanna [Photo by Maurizio Montanari]
07 Jul 2011

Scenes from Two Marriages

By 1825, as Rossini’s operatic vein was approaching exhaustion, the Neapolitan Saverio Mercadante ranked as a front-runner for his succession alongside Bellini and Donizetti; much more so, however, in the field of serious drama than in opera buffa.

Saverio Mercadante: I due Figaro, o sia il soggetto di una commedia (1826, libretto by Felice Romani)

Conte di Almaviva: Antonio Poli; Contessa: Asude Karayavuz; Inez: Rosa Feola; Cherubino: Annalisa Stroppa; Figaro: Mario Cassi; Susanna: Eleonora Buratto; Torribio: Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani; Plagio: Omar Montanari Orchestra Giovanile “L. Cherubini", Vienna Philharmonia Choir. Emilio Sagi, director. Riccardo Muti, conductor. Teatro Alighieri, Ravenna, Italy. Performance of 26 June 2011.

Above: Eleonora Buratto as Susanna [Photo by Maurizio Montanari]

 

His nine titles sparsely revived so far since the 1910s, starting from Il Giuramento through La Vestale and Il Bravo to Caritea regina di Spagna and Elena da Feltre (to quote only the most successful), seemed to confirm that old judgment. Mercadante, a learned composer and a pious man who atypically devoted a large share of his output to both church and purely instrumental music, was hitherto construed as unfit for the comic.

Thus I due Figaro, whose original manuscript was recently unearthed in Madrid’s Biblioteca Histórica Municipal by the young Italian researcher Paolo Cascio, may appear a big surprise. It certainly was to Riccardo Muti who, on recalling his first reading of a few samples from the critical edition (later published by the same discoverer in collaboration with Víctor Sánchez Sánchez), declared: “I was unaware of [Mercadante’s] knack for comedy. Those pages came to me like a bolt from the blue.” To the Maestro’s credit goes the decision of presenting such an unknown score both at the Whitsun Festival in Salzburg and at his proprietary Ravenna Festival, if only for a short run of two nights each time. Next comes Madrid’s Teatro Real in 2012, but one may comfortably guess that many an opera house is already queuing for joining in. Our TV-oriented culture is so much dependent on prequels and sequels that success cannot lack.

The same was true also for early 19th century Madrid, not a provincial backwater at all, rather a flourishing colony of Italian opera outside Italy as much as it was during Farinelli’s tenure of the court theatres a century before. Mercadante, appointed as resident composer-cum-conductor at the Teatro del Príncipe, wrote there his I due Figaro, on a libretto by the starring poet Felice Romani previously set to music in 1820 by Rossini’s pupil Michele Carafa. The completed score was signed by Mercadante on October 26, 1826, but under the reactionary rule of Fernando VII the local censorship was unhappy with the representation of empowered women and gullible husbands, so the premiere was cancelled. It was only in 1833 that the opera crept its way on the Spanish stage, although the exact whereabouts are unknown; then an equally obscure revival took place in 1836, then nothing more.

To put it in a nutshell, the ‘scandalous’ story is about how, twelve years after Figaro’s marriage with Susanna, life goes on in Almaviva’s castle. In competition with Beaumarchais’ own nondescript sequel as La mère coupable (1791), the actor Honoré-Antoine Richaud Martelly produced in 1795 his Les deux Figaros, where Cherubino, now a colonel in the Spanish army, is in love with Inez, the daughter of Count and Countess Almaviva. Figaro number one entices the Count into having the girl married with Torribio, a servant disguised as a nobleman, in order that both accomplices can share her dowry fifty-fifty. Yet Susanna, Inez and the Countess finally defeat their home tyrants as Cherubino, entering the Count’s service as a self-styled Figaro number two, outwits the original with a salvo of tricks and succeeds in exposing his schemes. Inez and Cherubino are allowed to marry, while Figaro barely escapes being fired.

I_Due_01.gifRosa Feola as Inez and Annalisa Stroppa as Cherubino [Photo by Silvia Lelli]

Despite a necessary suspension of disbelief, the French comedy (and the Italian libretto derived from it) is less a farce than a semi-serious drama, a study in characters where psychological depth is not missing. Both veteran couples, the masters and the servants, seem worn-out and complain about the ephemeral nature of romance; moreover, the Countess is aware that Almaviva is still attracted by Susanna, so that the general reconciliation in the finale seems highly perfunctory. Is there such a thing as a happy marriage in the long run, and will the brand-new couple escape what seems a general fate? A further sequel was perhaps in sight, but none has written it so far.

Mercadante’s music adheres to the subject matter with admirable cleverness, if not with a particularly idiomatic style. One tastes now and then Mozart’s subtle characterization of both vocal and instrumental color, but more often the model is provided by Rossini, up to quotations or paraphrases of individual themes. Intoxicating accelerandos and crescendos in the large-scale multisectional ensembles were rather commonplace at that time, as were extended cantabile arches or abrupt dramatic twists in the harmony. Summoning such names as (again) Rossini, or Bellini, or Donizetti would seem unnecessary, were it not to avow that in most instances Mercadante can well stand up to the paragon.

I_Due_10.gifEleonora Buratto as Susanna and Mario Cassi as Figaro [Photo by Silvia Lelli]

Everything as expected, except for a decided vein of local color: not only the fandango once so dear to Mozart, but a regular orgy of rhythms and forms from Andalusia (after all, the action takes place in the castle of Aguas Frescas near Seville). Bolero, cachucha, polo and tirana keep infiltrating over and over the principals’ cavatinas and even the overture, while the large Italian-style arias, studded with virtuosic coloratura, demand vocalist with considerable natural gifts, technical skills, and style awareness.

Eleonora Buratto, whom I recently heard in Modena as a model Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, towered here in the role of Susanna, with all the remaining ladies accompanying her in triumphal procession: witty Asude Karayavuz as the Countess, mellow Rosa Feola as Inez, and Annalisa Stroppa as a Cherubino already eligible for the toughest Colbran roles. Among the gentlemen, duels of both physical and vocal energy between Mario Cassi as Figaro number one and Omar Montanari as Plagio, the playwright in distress much in the mould of Prosdocimo in Rossini’s (and Romani’s) Il Turco in Italia. Passion and melancholy in store from the high tenor Antonio Poli as Almaviva; Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani, a promising Baroque specialist, seemed underutilized in the cameo role of Torribio. Incredible but true: within such a brilliant company, hand-picked by Riccardo Muti, none exceeds the age of thirty; the same is more or less true for the youth orchestra “Luigi Cherubini”, another brainchild of Muti’s.

I_Due_13.gifAnicio Zorzi Giustiniani as Torribio, Mario Cassi as Figaro and Omar Montanari as Plagio [Photo by Silvia Lelli]

Emilio Sagi’s stage direction kept the action revolving within and around a patio decorated with eight columns in white plaster and lots of flowers. Everything, including costumes, as Spanish, rural and historically informed as one could wish. To be sure, Ravenna Festival is not the proper place for Eurotrash. The audience, having to face a complex plot without any subtitles to help them, seemed to appreciate, but the loudest applause was as usual for the local darling Muti, the man who is bringing Ravenna back on the international map of opera.

Carlo Vitali

I_Due_14.gifEleonora Buratto as Susanna and country lasses [Photo by Maurizio Montanari]

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