Mercadante: How Many Figaros are Enough?

SpainSpain Saverio Mercadante, I Due Figaro: Soloists, Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini, Vienna Philharmonia Chorus, Riccardo Muti (conductor), Madrid Teatro Real, 30.3.2012 (JMI)

New Production Teatro Real in coproduction with Salzburg and Ravenna

Direction: Emilio Sagi
Sets: Daniel Bianco
Costumes: Jesús Ruiz
Lighting: Eduardo Bravo
Choreography: Nuria Castejón

Susanna: Eleonora Buratto
Cherubino: Annalisa Stroppa
Count Almaviva: Antonio Poli
Figaro: Mario Cassi
Inez: Rosa Feola
Countess: Asude Karayavuz
Torribio (Don Alvaro): Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani
Plagio: Omar Montanari

Picture courtesy Teatro Real, © Javier del Real

Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870) was a famous and prolific Italian composer who wrote no less than 57 operas. Few of them are still known—least unknown among them perhaps Il Giuramento and Il Bravo, because commercial records of both were available before the Opera Rara label, with the help of the Peter Moores Foundation, started making more available through about a dozen (and counting) spectacular studio recordings. I do not remember any performance of these two operas during the last 10 years. In recent years only the Wexford Festival has recovered a few Mercadante works, among them Virginia and La Vestale.

Riccardo Muti has also had a hand in bringing Mercadante back to the consciousness of opera audiences, as part of his task of recover Neapolitan school operas. He has not only recovered I Due Figaro, but he has also achieved the challenging task of getting it performed at the Salzburg and Ravenna Festivals. It is from there that it now arrives at Madrid’s Teatro Real—coming home, in a way.

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S.Mercadante, Paventa Insano,
D.Parry / LPO / A.Massis, A.Opie, H.Waddington et al.
Opera Rara

Mercadante composed I Due Figaro in 1826 during his stay in Madrid. The libretto is by Felice Romani, based not on the Beaumarchais play, but one by Honoré-Antoine Martelly Richaud. Composed in Madrid though as it was, it never saw the light in the Spanish capital nine years later, in 1835. The delay was caused by the rivalry between the two divas of the day. With powerful lovers and admirers of those two capricious ladies pulling the strings, the opera’s premiere was cancelled. Mercadante apparently had seen enough and left Spain himself, to return only many years later.

I Due Figaro is a true opera buffa, and for the most part it sounds like echt-Rossini, whose fame and influence was already inescapable in 1826. The second act features several arias more in line with Bellini, especially in the scene where Cherubino is the protagonist. Rather good stuff, but in the 10 years between composition and premiere, the available singers in Madrid were no longer the same and tastes had already changed. As a result I Due Figaro flopped and disappeared from the programs. It has not reappeared until now, under Ricardo Muti’s tutelage.

I Due Figaro could be considered part three of the ‘Almaviva Trilogy’, starting with Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini, followed by Mozart’s ‘prequel’ Le Nozze di Figaro, and concluded with this opera by Mercadante. The action takes place at Count Almaviva’s palace, a few years after where Mozart leaves it off. His daughter, Inez, has to get married and has a choice: the false Don Alvaro, preferred by the Count, and our old friend Cherubino, loved by Inez. The “amorous butterfly”, now with facial hair, enters the court-service anonymously, under the pseudonym “Figaro” (hence the titular two Figaros). The plot is a series of traps set by our old friend Figaro, but also by Susanna, ending in a ‘lieto Finale’, an ‘everything-is-neatly-solved’ happy ending. There is also a strange character, Plagio, who wants to write a drama about this whole mess, who reminds a lot ofProdoscimo in Il Turco in Italia (1814). The libretto is good, but short on the joy and originality of Da Ponte. Mercadante’s music has some very good moments, particularly the ensembles. He incorporates many popular Spanish airs, beginning with the overture that could have also be written by Boccherini himself. But I fear that the result of this, in lesser hands than those of Riccardo Muti, could have been very… different.

Emilio Sagi’s direction bears parallels to his own, successful Le Nozze di Figaro in this same theater. The action takes place in a large Andalusian courtyard surrounded by columns, with the brightness of noon in the first act and the dusk of evening for the second act. A profusion of trees and flowers makes the stage look very attractive, and beautiful costumes and good lighting further help. Considering that the cast was made up of all young singers, it would have been good to work more on their characterization, since it is hard to believe that the youthful Count should have a daughter who looks more like his older sister. The same could be said of the Countess, Susanna and Cherubino. But youth brings certain merits, and it made for an attractive production.

The real event was not the opera itself, but the presence on the podium of Teatro Real of Riccardo Muti, one of the few awe-inspiring personalities in music—and specifically opera. In the world of passions, as opera has always been, idols are not to be discussed, much less questioned, but simply worshipped. That’s what happened on this occasion. Fortunately there was no need to buck this trend, because Maestro Muti’s conducting was excellent, with unsurpassed vivacity and joy that his young and fine orchestra conveyed well. It was an exciting first half of Rossini, and a first class second of Bellini, that he delivered. It was also lesson in how to conduct an opera buffa, which he knows to conduct as well as he does Verdi.

The young cast had already sung in this opera on Salzburg and Ravenna stops. As is very common, the quality of the young women clearly exceeded that of men.

Soprano Eleonora Buratto was a great Susanna, with an attractive voice, very homogenous—vocally and physically lissom and with excellent dramatic skills. She could be the ideal interpreter of the ‘-inas’, particularly of Adina, Norina, and Zerlina. Cherubino was performed by mezzo soprano Annalisa Stroppa, whose attractive voice and singing with gusto and intention left a most positive impression. If her lower end of the range fell short, it was perhaps because her  character requires more of a contralto than a mezzo soprano.

I must also mention Italian soprano Rosa Feola in the character of Inez, who was excellent in her act 3 aria. Like in Rossini, Count Almaviva is a tenor here, and Antonio Poli offered an attractive timbre. Mario Cassi was the traditional Figaro and his performance was better acted than sung. We missed more elegance in his ultimately rough results.

Despite ticket prices of up to 309 Euros, the Teatro was nearly full… many of them coming to see and hear Maestro Muti no doubt, the only recipient of a standing ovation that night.

José Mª Irurzun