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Illustration by Underworld Productions Opera
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Alessandro Scarlatti’s Il Trionfo dell’Onore

Just when you imagine you’ve got the operatic time-line fixed in your mind in a clean sweep of what goes where and when and how, you hear another work from another forgotten corner of the repertory that upends one’s conclusions.

Alessandro Scarlatti’s Il Trionfo dell’Onore

A review by John Yohalem

Above: Illustration by Underworld Productions Opera


Alessandro Scarlatti was a tremendously prolific composer of the Italian era after Cavalli and before Vivaldi and Handel, famous throughout Italy, then soon forgotten. In this period, the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (it is convenient to recall that his son, Domenico, the keyboard virtuoso, was born the same year as Handel and Bach in the generation of Vivaldi and Telemann), Venice had half a dozen theaters playing opera several nights a week (more during Carnival), and the demand for new work to fill them was insatiable. The other major cities of the disunited peninsula had their own theaters, their own traditions, their own composers—but Scarlatti moved about in search of commissions and a regular income to support his large family. He is remembered as a “Neapolitan” composer, perhaps because most of his manuscripts turned up in the Naples Conservatory, but he was far more international than that. Venice and Naples were capitals of very different states.

How large were these theaters? Not very. None of them belonged to the city; private landowners, usually noblemen, built them and rented them out to impresarios, who hired the musicians and produced the operas. You couldn’t easily light a large theater (wax drips, you know) and the tiny orchestras could not easily drown out audience chatter. In the great serious operas, chatter would cease when a famous singer expressed a special emotion in melody, but for nightly entertainment something lighter might be called for.

Comic stories were silly, romantic, predictable, the personalities taken from commedia dell’arte more fallible, less high-minded than the serious, heroic ones whom they often parodied, and the voices were expected to be serviceable if not top-flight. Opera buffa was a step down, and major singers did not take it. Did the lighter operas pay the composer as well as the serious ones? That’s a question I cannot answer. Certainly Scarlatti eagerly accepted both sorts of commission, and so did Pergolesi in Naples and Telemann in Hamburg. (Cavalli, as you will recall, intermingled comic scenes with serious ones in his narratives … but that style was out of fashion, though it is more immediately interesting to us today.) Handel probably would have set comic libretti, but he decamped to London—where comic foolery did not play in foreign tongues. His mature operas with comic stories are therefore constructed on a “serious” model: Serse, Partenope, Alessandro. Agrippina, with its old-fashioned mix of serious and comic characters, was composed during the sojourn in Venice when he met the Scarlattis.

Underworld Productions Opera has just given the New York premiere of Scarlatti’s 1718 opera buffa, Il Trionfo dell’Onore, which may or may not be typical of the comic output of the day. (Winton Dean says Scarlatti was stylistically eccentric, which appeals more to us than it did to the regular audience of his own time.) What stood out for me in this light piece was the way conflicts developed by way of duets rather than the, occasionally tedious serious manner of aria succeeding aria. This is a manner I had thought the invention of Mozart, Paisiello and Rossini, but here were are, a century before Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and two ladies display their personality in a duet of apparent sympathy while confiding to us that they are both in love with the same rogue and hate each other accordingly. We also have love duets of many varieties, from gentlemanly seductions (the lady flirtatious or sarcastic in response) to heartfelt recriminations.

In the cast at the Leonard Nimoy/Thalia, the men did not please as much as the women did, though all of them proved adept at conveying the casual yet emotional nature of romantic comedy. The two gentleman seducers who set the plot rolling were written for those irresistible figures, women in drag (think: Cherubino). In Venice, castrati were reserved for more upscale, heroic opera, while in the Papal States they were expected to play all the women, actual women being forbidden to set foot on the stage. (Lecherous old ladies were often played by men in drag, in any key at all.) Modern opera companies may do as they like in such matters, and what they tend to do is make use of whatever talent is on hand. The show must go on.

Thus we had Eric S. Brenner, a thin-voiced countertenor, as Riccardo, the scamp who neglects his fiancée Leonora to pursue her friend Doralice, ignoring her betrothal to Leonora’s brother, Erminio. Erminio was sung by a mezzo, Stephanie McGuire, so effectively ardent that I thought her, too, a countertenor. Maria Todaro, who has a deep alto of impressive quality, sang the heartbroken Leonora, and was quite humorous displaying her dark tones in sarcastic asides with Elise Jablow’s naïve, sweetly sung Doralice. Catherine Leech sang Rosina, a pert servant, with that combination of mischief and sentiment that we associate with Mozart’s Susanna, as she resisted the advances of both Riccardo’s lecherous uncle (dry-voiced Christopher Preston Thompson) and Riccardo’s bombastic friend Rodimarte (a bumptious baritone, Stephen Lavonier), and sighed to no avail for Ms. McGuire’s Erminio. Briana Sakamoto completed the cast as the elderly innkeeper with designs on the uncle who is after her servant. Somehow four happy couples evolved by the conclusion, though one wouldn’t predict happy marriages for many of the eight. Nor does one foresee major careers for most of these voices (I’d like to hear Ms. Todaro again), but their zesty performances and lack of top-flight pretension give us, perhaps, a more precise notion of the light musical theater derived from antique commedia that got audiences joyously through an evening out in 1718 when the regatta teams weren’t out playing water polo. How very enjoyable to encounter such a thing in New York in 2013!

John Yohalem

Production and cast information:

Riccardo: Eric S. Brenner; Bombarda: Stephen Lavonier; Leonora: Maria Todaro; Cornelia: Briana Sakamoto; Rosina: Catherine Leech; Flaminio: Christopher Preston Thompson; Doralice: Elise Jablow; Ermino: Stephanie McGuire. Sinfonia New York under Dorian Komanoff Bandy. Underworld Productions. At the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater. Performance of May 22.

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