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Giuseppe Saverio MERCADANTE (1795-1870)
Maria Stuarda Regina di Scozia - dramma serio in two acts (1821) (highlights)
Maria Stuarda, Queen of Scotland – Judith Howarth (soprano); Olfredo, Earl of Lennox – Jennifer Larmore (mezzo); Ormondo, Royal Prince – Colin Lee (tenor); Carlo, Primate of Scotland – Manuela Custer (mezzo); Ferrando, Commander of the Royal guard – (baritone)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra/Antonello Allemandi
rec. Abbey Road Studios, London, April 2005
comprehensive introductory essay and synopsis in English, French, German and Italian.
complete libretto with English translation
OPERA RARA ORR241 [79.22]


When a CD or DVD arrives with the eye-catching words ‘World Premiere Recording’ I always feel a tingle of excitement and anticipation. In such situations, unless I have heard a live performance, it is a question of starting from first base with no recourse for comparison. On the other hand, when a gap is being filled in a composer’s discography I will know into which particular period the new work falls, and thus have some idea what to expect. Such situations have manifested themselves with works by Rossini and Donizetti. But in the first decades of the ‘primo ottocento’, as the first half of the 19th century in Italian opera is referred, every major city in the states of Italy boasted two or even three theatres presenting opera. Opera was the popular entertainment among the population whatever, their social status. The audience expected new works and each theatre impresario would commission several each season guaranteeing at least three performances to each. Impresarios clamoured and competed for new works. As I explain in part 1 of my Rossini Conspectus Rossini was lucky when aged 19, a German composer reneged on his contract at the Teatro San Moisè in Venice and he was asked, at short notice, to replace him. His first staged composition, La Cambiale Di Matrimonio found favour and quickly led to more work. All of this was aided by his facility for speedy composition. Other composers were not so lucky and either went hungry on a regular basis or pursued alternative careers constantly hoping for a breakthrough. Their names are many and often their music is eminently worthwhile whilst rarely getting a hearing. Thanks to Opera Rara examples of Severio Mercadante’s music, one of those near forgotten composers is readily available on disc. Included are complete recordings of his operas Orazi E Curazia (ORC 12) and Emma D’Antiochia (ORC), each on three CDs, as well as a single disc shared with music of yet another near forgotten composer, Pacini (ORR 236). Best of all as an introduction to Mercadante’s music is the single disc entitled Mercadante Rediscovered.

Saverio Mercadante was born illegitimate in Bari. At age eleven he went to the College di St. Sebastino in Naples where he attracted the interest of Rossini, four years his elder. His first opera L’apoteosi d’Ercole (1819) was well received, but it was with his seventh Elisa e Claudio presented in Milan two years later that his fame spread. Work took Mercadante to Spain and then Portugal where his Gabriella Di Vergy was presented at the Teatro San Carlos, Lisbon in 1828 after which he settled in Italy presenting Emma D’Antiochia in 1834 and Zaira in 1836. Mercadante then went to Paris at the invitation of Rossini, but his I briganti was a failure despite a cast including Grisi, Rubini and Lablanche. Contact with Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots influenced and encouraged him in an expansion of style found in his later works. Many followers of Opera Rara’s extensive list of Donizetti operas will know that the two composers were born within two years of each other. They will also know that Mercadante twice succeeded to paid positions that Donizetti coveted; that would have given him the financial security for which he sought and yearned. But the similarities do not end there. Whilst Donizetti first made waves with his seventh opera, Zoraida Di Granata at the Teatro Argentina, Rome, on 28 January 1822, Mercadante had had similar successes with Elisa e Claudio. In his extensive and scholarly essay on the singers from the premiere of Maria Stuarda Regina di Scozia, and its reception at the Teatro Communale in Bologna, Dr. Jeremy Commons whilst presenting favourable evidence makes no extensive claims as to its reception. However, it has to be admitted that the work was not staged after 1825.

The bel canto composers of the primo ottocento acquired a great love for British history. It provided opportunities galore for dungeons, castles, murders and plots. There were few more appealing subjects than Mary Stuart and Elisabeth I. Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda focuses on their relationship whilst Mercadante’s Maria Stuarda Regina di Scozia, as the name implies, focuses on the lady’s earlier exploits.

I find Mercadante’s music in Maria Stuarda particularly impressive in its ensembles of which there are several in this selection of highlights. These seem to me to be as nearly as complex and melodic as those in early Rossini and nearly comparable with what the latter achieved after Il Barbiere and in his Naples opera seria. They provide an admirable vehicle for the soloists and fine conductor in this generous selection of highlights. Of course, bel canto is about the quality of individual singers as much as anything else and Opera Rara live up to their deserved reputation of finding and fielding some of the best practitioners of the art. As Maria, Judith Howarth is a relative newcomer to their roster and sings with welcome expression, colour and vocal flexibility in the eight minute extended extract from Maria’s aria Chi mai temir (tr. 8). I emphasise the word ‘extract’ because these are highlights and there is a cut. This fact is made clear in the printed full libretto and English translation. This is complete but shows the parts included in these highlights in blue. This very generous policy of providing the full libretto has the advantage of making every nuance of the plot abundantly clear. Judith Howarth’s skills can also be heard in duet with the equally flexible but appropriately more sonorous tones of Jennifer Larmore in the trousers role of Olfredo (trs. 2 and 9) and the equally strongly sung and trousered Primate of Manuela Custer. Jennifer Larmore’s singing in the long scena and solo aria Ah! che finor fu vano (tr. 8) is a veritable tour de force. Her voice is strong and secure as well as sonorous with no spread of the tone when she puts pressure on the voice for the lower notes. Add the wide range of the tessitura, her good diction and appropriate vocal decorations, and this portrayal represents a formidable achievement and is among her best on record. Larmore’s tonal characteristics are well contrasted with those of Manuela Custer in the role of Carlo, Primate of Scotland and constitute a brilliant piece of vocal casting by Opera Rara. Having extolled Larmore’s many virtues I must add that Custer also exhibits those appropriate to her role and with particularly impressive chest tones (tr. 3). The men play their part in the quintet (tr. 5) and the act finales (trs. 6 and 10) where Colin Lee’s plangent tenor is heard to good effect as well as the carefully positioned chorus who contribute vibrantly.

Robert J Farr




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