Friday 26 February 2021

An engaging surprise: written for the Portuguese court, Pedro Antonio Avondano's 'Il mondo della luna' receives its first recording

Pedro Antonio Avondano Il mondo della luna; Fernando Guimarães, Luís Rodrigues,João Pedro Cabral, João Fernandes, Susana Gaspar, Carla Caramujo, Carla Simões, Os Músicos do Tejo, Marcos Magalhães; NAXOS

Pedro Antonio Avondano Il mondo della luna; Fernando Guimarães, Luís Rodrigues,João Pedro Cabral, João Fernandes, Susana Gaspar, Carla Caramujo, Carla Simões, Os Músicos do Tejo, Marcos Magalhães; NAXOS

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 February 2021 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Premiered in Portugal in 1765 with a Portuguese composer setting an Italian libretto by playright Carlo Goldoni, this comic opera is a lively window into operatic life at the Portuguese court

King Joseph I of Portugal was passionate about Italian opera and when he succeeded to the throne in 1750, he set about creating a royal operatic establishment with some of the finest singers in Europe and three new court theatres. One of these, the Ópera do Tejo, was destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 and was never rebuilt. When opera performances resumed in 1763, they were primarily to entertain the royal couple rather than displays of magnificence. As part of his campaign to create a new opera, King Joseph persuaded Carlo Goldoni, best known for his plays and for his opera librettos for Baldassre Galuppi, to provide librettos for the Portuguese court opera. Amongst the ten that Goldoni provided was Il mondo della luna. Originally set by Galuppi in Venice in 1750, the text would be set by a number of other composers including Haydn in 1777. In 1765, the text was set by the Portuguese composer Pedro Antonio Avondano and premiered at the Royal Theatre of Salvaterra during carnival season of 1765.

Having recorded works by Francisco António de Almeida (c. 1702–1755) written for King Joseph I's father, King John V, now conductor Marcos Magalhães and his period instrument ensemble, Os Músicos do Tejo have recorded Pedro Antonio Avondano's Il mondo della luna on Naxos with Fernando Guimarães, tenor, Luís Rodrigues, bass, João Pedro Cabral, tenor, João Fernandes, bass, Susana Gaspar, soprano, Carla Caramujo, soprano, and Carla Simões, soprano.

Jacques Philippe Le Bas: Ruins of the Ópera do Tejo after the earthquake of 1755. Painted 1757
Jacques Philippe Le Bas: Ruins of the Ópera do Tejo after the earthquake of 1755. Painted 1757

Born in Lisbon in 1714, Avodano's father was an Italian violinist who was employed at King John V's court and his mother was French. Young Pedro became a violinist like his father, and he worked as a violinist in the royal chapel as well as writing music for the ballets that were added to the performances of Italian operas. He would become Portugal's leading composer of instrumental music. Il mondo della luna seems to have been his only opera, which seems to imply that it didn't go down well in some way.

The story is a crazy one, perhaps familiar from Haydn's setting of the libretto and containing Goldoni's usual mix of servants getting the better of their masters and poking fun at human behaviour. A bogus astronomer Ecclitico (Fernando Guimarães), manages to persuade a pompous older man, Buona Fede (Luís Rodrigues) that he can transport them to the moon. And with this ruse, enables Ecclitico and his friend Ernesto (João Pedro Cabral) to successfully woo Buona Fede's daughters, Clarice (Susana Gaspar) and Flaminia (Carla Caramujo), with Ernesto's servant Cecco (João Fernandes) wooing the daughters' maid Lisette (Carla Simões). The whole of the second act is set on the fake moon, with Cecco as the Emperor of the Moon and Lisette becoming his Empress. But it is not all hi-jinks, there is jealousy too and complexities to resolve before all ends happily with Buona Fede allowing the marriages.

The four-part overture is full of vigour and Avondano's music feels quite up to the minute in style. The music is quite light, and as you would expect from a composer known for his instrumental music, the lively orchestral writing is full of nice little touches and rather more complex than we might have expected. Arias are can be and this is a work constructed of quite short-breathed sections, but sometimes assembled into longer scenes, though each act ends with a substantial, multi-section ensemble. 

The music is not without complexity, and makes demands on all the singers, who respond with vigour and admirable energy, though passagework can be a bit smudgy. But, it is clear that the performers are working hard bringing out the comic elements of the opera; even without following the libretto it is obvious that this is a comedy and the young cast seems to be having great fun.

Where the performance might take a bit of getting used to is in the recitative. In his booklet note, Marcos Magalhães quotes a couple of 18th century treatises about how recitative was delivered, including the difference between French and Italian styles. Including one rather striking quote:

"The French sing it in full voice, but the Italians sing it in a manner closer to declamation than to singing"

So, Magalhães asked his singers to "learn only the texts of the recits and not the music, and then we experimented in our first rehearsals, with the singers ‘finding’ their notes more intuitively by just reacting to what they heard in the accompaniment. This produced results that seemed more spontaneous, where the rhythm and intonations present in natural speech were imitated but combined with a vibrant (and musically interesting) tone appropriate for public theatre."

The result has a freedom and can at times approach sprech-stimme, yet as Magalhães points out in some theatres the sheer number of new operas performed must have meant that the recitative was performed with some liberties. It is useful to be sometimes reminded that we have a tendency to put period performance style in tidy boxes and that the original might have been messier than we like to think. The recitative was recorded at a live performance whilst the arias are studio recorded. The recitative style is perhaps more suited to live performance where you can get involved in the vigour and imagination of the minute, whereas listening to the disc you can't help sometimes wishing for something tidier.

Performances are full of enthusiasm and commitment, Magalhães and his performers really sell the opera and make the most of its world of topsy-turvey-dom. Perhaps some performers could have been a little tidier, but there is something engaging about their sheer verve. The same goes for the small band, 22 performers plus harpsichords, where you sometimes wish for a more luxurious sound, but then reflect that perhaps the size reflects the court theatre.

The booklet includes articles on the background to the opera along with Magalhães explanations of their performing method. There is a detailed synopsis but no libretto, though you can download the Italian text from Naxos' website.

It was Marcos Magalhães' research into Portuguese Baroque repertoire and Neapolitan operas found in Portuguese libraries that led him to found Os Músicos do Tejo in 2005 with Marta Araújo. (Magalhães and Araújo share harpsichord duties on this disc).

The opera itself is quite a surprise, both in terms of its remarkably up-to-date style and of the confident handling of the drama; you feel that this would work well in the theatre with Avondano's music happily reflecting Goldoni's mad-cap plot. This delightful disc is a lively window into the operatic life at the Portuguese court, valuable reminder that musical life away from the major operatic centres can certainly be of interest.

Pedro Antonio Avondano (1714-1782) - Il mondo della luna (1765)
Ecclitico - Fernando Guimarães, tenor
Buona Fede - Luís Rodrigues, bass
Ernesto - João Pedro Cabral, tenor
Cecco - João Fernandes, bass
Clarice - Susana Gaspar, soprano
Flaminia - Carla Caramujo, soprano
Lisetta - Carla Simões, soprano
Os Músicos do Tejo
Marcos Magalhães (director and harpsichord)
Recorded: 24–26 September 2017 at the Teatro Thalia, Lisbon, Portugal
NAXOS 8.660487-88 2CDs [56.46, 80.31]

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