Over the 26 years or
so of its existence Opera Rara has been
true to its name, building up a formidable
catalogue of neglected, forgotten and
even ‘lost’ operatic works. In its early
years the company focused on the compositions
of Donizetti (1797-1848). Their current
catalogue contains complete recordings
of eleven of his stage works. However,
the lifetime of Donizetti covered a
period of frenetic operatic activity,
particularly in Italy. The interest
of the likes of Callas, Sutherland,
Caballé and others kept his name
alive, although many of his seventy
or so stage works were long forgotten.
But for the efforts of Opera Rara this
would have been the fate of Donizetti’s
contemporaries such as Pacini (1796-1867),
Mayr (1763-1845), Meyerbeer’s ‘Italian
Operas’, and Mercadante (1795-1870).
He was born illegitimate
in Bari. Aged eleven, Saverio Mercadante
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 (tr. 8).
After this he settled back in Italy
presenting ‘Zaira’ in 1836 (trs. 5 and
9) and ‘Emma D’Antiochia’ in 1834 (trs.
4 and 6). 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.
However, contact with Meyerbeer’s ‘Les
Huguenots’ influenced and encouraged
him in an expansion of style. The best
example of this is found in one of his
most famous works ‘Il giurmento’ (1837).
Regrettably, this work is not represented
here. However it marked his efforts
at making a significant contribution
to the evolution of opera. In a letter
written in 1838 during the composition
of ‘Elena da Feltre’, and quoted on
p.4 of the booklet, Mercadante explains
the changes in form in ‘Il giurmento’.
He states: ‘The forms are varied
- Trivial cabalettas are banished, the
crescendo exiled - Tessituras are less
extended - there are fewer repetitions
- There’s some novelty in the cadences
- The dramatic aspect is better managed
– The orchestration is rich, but without
covering the voices - Long solo passages
have been removed from the concerted
pieces, since they obliged the other
parts to stand there coldly, to the
detriment of the action’ . Some
such changes can be heard here in the
extracts from ‘Orazi e Curiazi’ of 1846,
(trs. 1 and 11) and ‘Virginia’ (tr.
4) written in 1850. However, as the
booklet essay states, these changes
are principally in the orchestral colours,
textures and harmonic progressions.
Mercadante did not succeed in banishing
the cabaletta as he claimed and although
he varied the structures he inherited
he did not alter them fundamentally.
What Mercadante did opened the way for
a composer who, whilst respecting the
traditions could, and did; Giuseppe
Verdi. In reality, it is reasonable
to claim that Mercadante was the link
between Rossini and Verdi whose later
works took the genre of Italian opera
to entirely new levels.
Given the foregoing,
my main regret about this disc is that
it does not present the items chronologically
by composition. I suggest listeners’
extract that information, which is spread
throughout the booklet, indeed duplicated
where there is more than one extract
from a work, keep a note of it and play
the disc in that order. The items on
this disc are derived from Opera Rara’s
complete ‘Orazi e Curiazi’ (ORC 12),
substantial extracts from ‘Zaira’ (ORC
224) as well as various recital discs
from the ‘house’ roster of singers who
have graced OR recordings. All the operatic
extracts are conducted with aplomb by
David Parry and recorded with exemplary
clarity, balance and consistency. Likewise,
the singing is of a uniformly high quality.
Together these combine to give an ideal
sampler of the works of a composer,
long neglected, who made a significant
contribution to the evolution of opera.
Interspersed with the operatic items
are three excerpts from the composer’s
‘Les Soirées Italiennes’, a collection
of twelve songs that Mercadante published
about 1836. Sung by two tenors of different
voice, character and vocal style (trs.
3 and 7) and the soprano Yvonne Kenny
(tr.10) these provide a contrast with
the operatic excerpts as well as illustrating
another facet of the composer’s skill.
The extracts from ‘Emma d'
Antiochia’ are not taken from Opera
Rara’s new (2004) issue of the complete
work (ORC 26) for which this disc is
an excellent introduction. It also serves
as an ideal introduction to Mercadante
and his works and is highly recommended
as such. The booklet lacks any words
or translations but gives a synopsis
of the action, in English, for each
extract as well as details of first
performance. The brief essay referred
to and entitled ‘Traditionalist or
Revolutionary? The Middle and later
Mercadante’ is given in French,
German and Spanish as well as English.
Robert J Farr