Friday 10 May 2013

Mercadante's I due Figaro

Mercadante - I due Figaro: Riccardo Muti: DUC 045-47
A forgotten opera by a relatively unknown composer: I due Figaro by Saverio Mercadante is the latest to be revived by Riccardo Muti and the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini recorded live at the 2011 Ravenna Festival. Mercadante was the nearly man of early 19th century Italian opera, a younger colleague of Rossini's who had a long and influential operatic career. Trained in Naples, he ended up as director of the conservatoire there from 1840, and it is this Neapolitan connection which provides the link to Muti's other revivals of operas by Pergolesi and Cimarosa. Though in fact I due Figaro was written for Madrid.

Mercadante had a long operatic career. A few years younger than Rossini he wrote operas from 1819 to 1857 (the year Verdi wrote the original version of Simon Boccanegra and four years after the premiere of La Traviata). His middle period operas such as Il giuramento  (1831) and Elena da Feltre (1839) are important in the modernisation of operatic technique. Mercadante followed his younger colleagues, Donizetti and Bellini, in updating his technique and he banished cabalettas and crescendos, simplified the vocal lines. His operas of this period had an important influence of Verdi (whose first opera dates from 1839). And it is the younger composer who has eclipsed Mercadante, though during his lifetime many of Mercadante's operas were more successful in Italy than Verdi's early works.

But the work that Muti has chosen to revive is a comedy dating from 1826, the earlier part of Mercadante's career, and written whilst he was working in Madrid. Mercadante's comedy dates from some years before Donizetti's well known comedies, L'Elisir d'Amore (1832) and Don Pasquale (1843). Its libretto is based on a comic play by French playwright Honore Antoine Richard Martelly dating from 1795, which somewhat satirised the characters from Beaumarchais' play Le Mariage de Figaro by inventing further intrigues for them. The libretto by Felice Romani was first set by Michele Carafa in 1820. Mercadante's version was intended for Madrid in 1826, but a dispute with his leading lady put the opera on hold and it did not appear until 1835.

The plot takes place some years after La Nozze di Figaro, the Count and Countess have a daughter, Ines, of marriageable age. There are twin plots to gain her hand. Figaro conspires with another servant, Torribio, to present Torribio as a suitor, Don Alvaro; they will share the dowry. Cherubino also returns, he loves Ines, and comes back as his own servant, also named Figaro, to gain her hand. To add complexity there is a poet, Plagio, looking for a plot for a play. The result is something like a crazy mash-up of La Nozze di Figaro with Il Turco in Italia.

The music shows little sign of Mercadante's changes to his technique and a listener coming to the piece cold might well mistake it for a work by Rossini. The work has the same sort of feel, with large scale ensembles and few solo arias, a big, multi-part finale and rather elaborate vocal writing. Perhaps the most interesting musical aspect is the fact that in the overture and one or two numbers in the opera Mercadante brings in hints of Spanish music, there is even an aria for Susanna which is a bolero of sorts.

Vocally the characters owe more to Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia than Mozart's opera. The Count and Countess (Antonio Poli and Asude Karyavuz) are a tenor and mezzo-soprano. Both are admirable and Poli's light tenor gets its way round Mercadante's elaborate vocal lines, though Karyavuz is not allowed anywhere near the depth of character that her character gets in Rossini or Mozart. There are two soprano roles: Rosa Feola is charming as the put upon Ines and Eleonora Buratto is a delightful Susanna, still scheming against both the Count and Figaro. Figaro (still a baritone) is played by Mario Cassi as an eternally confident schemer. Cherubino, despite the passage of years, is still a mezzo-soprano (Annalisa Stroppa) so clearly age has not diminished his youthful vigour. Anicio Zorzi Giutiniani is the servant Torribio who is disguised as Don Alvaro and Omar Montanari is the unfortunate poet Plagio who crops up at inopportune moments. All of the singers have to cope with Mercadante's elaborate vocal lines with significant roulades, and all do so admirably so that the performances are a complete pleasure to listen to.

The disc was recorded live and the CD booklet includes some very striking images of the stage production. The result is that the recitative has an appealing dramatic thrust to it, and is well accompanied on the fortepiano by Speranza Scappucci.

The Philharmonia Chor Wien contribute to the organised chaos of some of the ensemble numbers. Muti keeps the drama moving and gets very fine playing from his young players.

This is a very handsomely produced set, with a CD booklet which includes two articles. One gives the extensive background to I due Figaro and the other talks of Mercadante's importance in 19th century opera. Unfortunately this latter article can't really hide the fact that I due Figaro is not one of Mercadante's important operas. It does not show the composer modernising his style. Instead, it is charming Rossini-esque comedy which has a nice degree of engagement with the music of Spain.

Mercadante's more serious operas have been well served by Opera Rara and others, so that there are a decent selection in the catalogue. The high production values and strong ensemble performances in this set ensure that Mercadante's comedy is a complete delight to listen to, even if it does not quite plumb the depths. So, though the set might not make the case for Mercadante's importance in early 19th century opera, it has a degree of charm which might make it appealing in its own right.

Saverio Mercadante (1795 -1870) - I due Figaro
Count Almaviva - Antonio Poli (tenor)
Countess Almaviva - Asude Karayavus (mezzo-soprano)
Inez - Rosa Feola (soprano)
Cherubino - Annalisa Stroppa (mezzo-soprano)
Figaro - Mario Cassi (baritone)
Susanna - Eleonora Buratto (soprano)
Torribio - Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani (tenor)
Plagio - Omar Montanari (baritone)

Philharmonia Chor Wien
Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini
Riccardo Muti (conductor)
Recorded Live at Teatro Alighieri, Ravenna, Italy 24 and 26 June 2011

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