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Saverio MERCADANTE (1795-1870)
I Due Figaro [166:00]
Count Almaviva - Antonio Poli
Countess - Asude Karayavuz
Inez - Rosa Feola
Cherubino - Annalisa Stroppa
Figaro - Mario Cassi
Susanna - Eleonora Buratto
Torribio - Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani
Plagio - Omar Montanari
Philharmonia Chor Wien
Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini/Riccardo Muti
rec. live, Teatro Alighieri, Ravenna, Italy, 24, 26 June 2011
DUCALE DUC 045-47 [3 CDs: 53:40 + 38:12 + 74:26]

Saverio Mercadante is most often seen as a stop-gap in the history of Italian opera, lost in the transition between late bel canto and early Verdi. It’s an undeserved ignorance, though, as anyone who knows Il Giuramente will be aware. There is a lot more to the composer than that, and one of the many virtues of this release is the excellent booklet essay which contextualises Mercadante's career and achievements. It’s essential reading for any serious opera lover.  Riccardo Muti seems to agree that he is worthy of reassessment, and as part of the 2011 Ravenna Festival he brought back from the grave Mercadante’s take on the Figaro story. Muti is famous for his musical archaeology on well known works, but this recording succeeds because it refocuses attention on an unfairly neglected work by an unfairly neglected composer. We are all the richer for having it.
Beaumarchais wrote a trilogy of Figaro plays, the first two of which were famously set to music by Rossini and Mozart. However, Mercadante's opera isn't the third in the trilogy: that’s La Mère Coupable, which was later turned into an opera by Darius Milhaud. I Due Figaro is based on a play by another French writer, Honoré-Antoine Richard Martelly. The plot is much more light-hearted than La Mère Coupable and serves as a very satisfying alternative third part as it picks up most of the same characters from pretty much the same emotional state where we left them. Figaro is, perhaps, a little more grumpy than we remember him, and much of the plot involves him getting his comeuppance for some venal scheming. It’s easy to recognise the Almavivas, Susanna and Cherubino from their previous selves. Much of the action, such as the bickering between Susanna and Figaro or the touching familiarity of the scene where Susanna uses her wiles on the Count to prevent him from sending her away, feels like being reintroduced to old friends.
The plot itself revolves around the marriage of the Count and Countess’s daughter, Ines. Figaro wants to marry her off to his friend Torribio, who is masquerading as a nobleman, so that they can share the dowry. Ines is in love with Cherubino who has returned to the house as a successful soldier, fifteen years after the events of Le Nozze. Some parts of it clearly owe a lot to Beaumarchais and Mozart, especially the easily recognisable scene where Cherubino hides in a wardrobe to escape discovery while in Ines’ bedchamber. It works well as a piece on its own, though, and Mercadante's music fits the story brilliantly. Written in 1826, we are clearly still in the sound-world of Rossini and in many ways Mercadante models himself on his compatriot. He does so most successfully and provides an entertainment wholly worthy of consideration on its own terms. He embraces the Spanish setting of the story much more enthusiastically than did Rossini or Mozart and there are numerous flashes of Spanish colour throughout. This starts with the delightful overture or, more accurately, Sinfonia caratteristica Spagnola. Susanna's entrance aria is a Bolero, and there are plenty of other Spanish touches to give the story a firm setting, perhaps encouraged by the fact that the opera was written for Madrid. The arias bear the composer's own stamp, and he has a particular gift for ensemble. Listen, for example to the quintet that sees Cherubino's entry or the subsequent quartet in Act 1, both of which fizz with most attractive music while advancing the plot with plenty of drama and subtlety. The Act 1 finale is a case in point: as the dramatic situation tightens the music does likewise and culminates in a chorus and ensemble that Rossini would doubtless have been proud to have written.
This is clearly a work that Muti believes in, and his, presumably hand-picked, cast are every bit as convinced as he is and do a good job of sharing their enthusiasm. Eleonora Buratto leads them as a beautiful, fulsome Susanna. She sings her introductory Bolero enchantingly, and she is sensational in the final scene, leading the concluding ensemble with knockout coloratura and sumptuous pathos in her appeal to the Count for mercy. On hearing this, it's no wonder he capitulated.  As the Countess, Asude Karayavuz sings with an appropriately regal air, if without the final quality of refulgence one might hope for. Her Act 1 aria, Prender che val marito, is this opera's equivalent of Dove sono in a somewhat lighter vein. She sings it with a sparkiness that we might not necessarily associate with what we know of this character.  Cherubino is still a mezzo, even though it's fifteen years later! Annalisa Stroppa sings the part most attractively, providing a more throaty contrast to the other ladies around her. She is paired winningly with the beautiful purity of Rosa Feola’s Ines, especially beguiling in her Act 2 aria. The men are every bit as fine. Antonio Poli is a honeyed, youthful-sounding Count, and he never makes a sound that is less than beautiful. Mario Cassi is also a very good Figaro with the right mix of lyricism and buffo charm. The two minor roles of Torribio and Plagio are sung very well.
The Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra take the work seriously while still revealing the comedy. The recorded sound helps them to balance well with the voices on stage. Top praise must go to Muti himself, though, for rediscovering this work and having the conviction to push through the recording. It is for good reason that the badge of RMM (Riccardo Muti Music) is emblazoned on the back: this is his project and he has brought it to life most convincingly. The booklet contains two excellent essays, cast biographies and full libretto with English translation. In short, this is well worth exploring.
Simon Thompson