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Leonardo LEO (1694-1744)
L’ambizione delusa (1742) [171:55]
Ciaccone – Giampiero Cicino (baritone)
Foresto – Candida Guida (alto)
Delfina – Filomena Diodati (soprano)
Laurina – Alessia Martino (mezzo)
Lupino – Riccardo Gagliardi (tenor)
Silvio – Federica Carnevale (mezzo)
Cintia – Michela Antenucci (soprano)
Orchestra ICO of Magna Grecia di Taranto/Antonio Greco
rec. live, 39th Valle d’Itria Festival, Martina Franca, 2013
DYNAMIC CDS7677/1-3 [3 CDs: 66:47 + 48:27 + 56:41]

Before assessing this pioneering revival and recording of Leonardo Leo’s L’ambizione delusa (1742), it is worth emphasising the general problem facing any evaluation of such material: Mozart. Piero Weiss and Julian Budden write in their article on opera buffa for the Grove Dictionary of Opera that:-

In their psychological depth, dramatic timing and technical mastery … Mozart’s Italian comic operas stand alone, dwarfing their predecessors and reducing the prior history of the genre, in the perspective of later generations, to a period of preparation for his coming.

Whether Mozart’s opera buffe really do inherently ‘stand alone’ is a difficult question; the number of people who can confidently distinguish his operatic music from, say, Cimarosa’s is statistically negligible — these composers were ‘blood-related’ according to Hanslick. But the assumption that Mozart’s operas ‘stand alone’ has had all sorts of cultural repercussions; not least, the entire operatic industry, in its dealings with the eighteenth century, has been organised around it. In this assumption, Mozart is the only composer in the first division — a judgement which immediately puts a composer like Leo in the third division. Worse, Mozart’s operas are taken as the standard of perfection that other composers were trying, but failing, to achieve. The situation is akin to that long period in European art history when Raphael was widely, and largely uncritically, held to be the greatest of painters; earlier Italian painters were then faulted for failing-to-be-Raphael and labelled ‘primitives’. I’m not aware of that label being applied to the earlier composers of Italian comic opera; nevertheless, a comparable implication regularly surfaces in almost any critical discussion, their work being judged simple and crude in the light of what Mozart did later.

Leonardo Leo (1694-1744), whose career took off around 1720, was a good two generations in advance of Mozart. Like most of his contemporaries, he was very prolific: Grove lists some sixty operas, the majority of them in the buffa genre. He was a leading figure in Neapolitan opera in his day, but, again like most of his contemporaries, his works barely outlived him. This was not a comment on the quality of his music, but on the nature of the operatic industry at the time which, almost the opposite of today’s, relied on the constant production of new works. Until recently, Leo’s operas were known only to a handful of music scholars, but as, after all, the market can only absorb so many recordings of Le nozze di Figaro and Cosė fan tutte, he has benefited from the general exploration of forgotten music that has been so remarkable a feature of the CD age. L’ambizione delusa is the fourth Leo opera to be recorded, the others being Amor vuol Sofferenza (1739), Decebalo (1743) and L’Alidoro (1740). For anyone interested in how his career developed, it is worth remarking a recording of his early dramatic serenata, Diana Amante (1717), too. None of the earlier recordings has made much impact and so far the attempt to revive interest in Leo has failed to generate the considerable excitement accompanying the rediscovery of the operas of his immediate contemporary and rival, Leonardo Vinci (c.1690-1730). Vinci did a better job of avoiding subsequent comparison with Mozart by abandoning opera buffa in 1722 and thereafter concentrating on opera seria. In his valuable biography of Vinci, Kurt Markstrom suggests that the two Leonardos essentially ‘changed places’ at this juncture, Leo, who had shown an initial preference for opera seria, now taking over the buffa genre.

Trying to avoid forward-comparisons with Mozart, before listening to L’ambizione delusa I listened to the solitary Vinci opera buffa to have been recorded, the delightful Li Zite ’ngalera of 1722 - there is an outstanding 1999 recording on the Opus 111 label, OPS 30-212/213, which appears to have escaped the attention of MusicWeb International. This is the earliest Italian comic opera to survive complete, and thus the furthest the non-specialist can readily go back. Placing Vinci and Leo together in this way, I imagined, would afford a fascinating insight into the development of the Neapolitan opera buffa over an important twenty year period: and this proved to be the case. Li Zite ’ngalera is a convoluted, quicksilver farce: four men in love with the same woman and two women in love with the same ‘man’, in fact a woman in disguise, constantly bumping into each other around Col’Agnolo’s barber’s shop. The arias are short and most of them represent a sort of agitated conversation: they are directed at someone. Twenty years later, L’ambizione delusa includes a good deal of farce too, but it is mixed up with social satire and a rather more serious treatment of human emotion. The arias are much longer – one of them, in this recording, actually exceeds ten minutes – and they tend to become little pools of introspection, no longer directed at anyone but the audience. The result is that a much simpler story unfolds much more slowly. Even though a considerable number of cuts have been made, the recording runs to nearly three hours: the listener needs patience.

The story concerns the lower class Lupino and Cintia, brother and sister, who have unexpectedly inherited a great deal of money and set themselves up as fashionable people. This is where the social satire enters strongly. Cintia rejects her old lover, Silvio, a shepherd, hoping now for something better. Intending to teach her a lesson, Silvio has his goatherd, Ciaccone, pretend to be ‘Baron Griciaferro’, allegedly in love with Cintia. Ciaccone cannot preserve his assumed character and constantly slips into outright boorishness: the big joke being that Lupino and Cintia are so enamoured of his supposed title that they fail to suspect anything. Ciaccone, though he is meant to be courting Cintia, actually shows much more interest in Lupino and Cintia’s wily servant, Delfina. The common eighteenth-century notion that class differences are stamped in nature, and that people naturally gravitate to their own class level, is strongly on display here. In the end, everything is sorted out: a chastened Cintia agrees to marry Silvio, Delfina and Ciaccone plan to marry, and a third couple, too, resolve their difficulties – Silvio’s sister Laurina and her lover, Foresto.

A good deal of the comedy was obviously meant to be visual, and anyone armed merely with the CDs needs to use a good deal of imagination. A bigger problem, perhaps, is that so much of the comedy is linguistic – there are abundant malapropisms and provincialisms and so forth, no doubt utterly delightful in 1742, but hard work today, even for Italians, I suspect — not much laughter is heard on this live recording, despite the libretto having been modernized a bit. No credit is given for the English translation of the libretto, but whoever did it made a brave and thoroughly commendable attempt to render the humour in English; sadly, though, a lot of it does not translate well. The listener is thus left mainly with the music, and for most that will mean principally the arias. They are well worth hearing: there is no doubt that Leo was a first-class craftsman with a deep knowledge of the resources of the human voice. But only one of them, to this listener, really stands out as exceptional in the way that several of Vinci’s in Li Zite ’ngalera do. Vinci, in that opera, was helping shape and establish a still new operatic genre, and a spirit of experiment can be felt in it even now. But twenty years later certain conventions had become strongly established – how, otherwise, could so many of these composers have been so very prolific? – and in much of L’ambizione delusa one feels that Leo was, in a sense, working with proven templates. There appears to be no suggestion in contemporary sources that L’ambizione delusa was particularly popular or regarded as an especially excellent Leo work. I wish the notes had said something about the grounds for reviving this opera in preference to others.

That said, the most impressive and interesting music in L’ambizione delusa occurs when it moves out of its comfort zone, as it were. A section towards the end of Act 2 strikes me — a non-specialist — as really innovative. Silvio, in a particularly desperate moment, bursts first into a passage of highly dramatic recitative (‘Crudo amor, sorte ria’) and then an aria (‘Dolente, dubbioso’), perhaps the best in the opera, that strikes a more passionate note than anything else in L’ambizione delusa, sounding as though it belongs to an opera seria. This is followed, on the recording, by a shooting scene that is spoken to an instrumental accompaniment. I am cautious about saying anything concerning this extraordinary moment, complete with whistling arrow sounds and a gunshot, as it goes unmentioned in the notes and perhaps is presented in this way simply because the score is incomplete but it comes as a complete surprise. Following Silvio’s ‘Dolente’ aria gives the impression of a far more varied and proto-Romantic opera than anything heard earlier. There is also a hint of the future in the final act, where Silvio finally wins Cintia back by rescuing her and Lupino from an attempted assassination by their servants, after those servants have set the house on fire; the expression ‘bonfire of the vanities’ comes to mind. This scene takes place offstage; fifty years later, Cherubini would, no doubt, have had both the fire and the clash of swords onstage but it is a remarkable little melodramatic addition to the comical-satirical plot.
L’ambizione delusa is certainly worth listening to for anyone with an interest in the development of opera buffa in the half century before Mozart, if we trust the standard narratives, carried it to the peak of musical perfection. It helps fill in one of the least known periods of that history, between the death of Pergolesi in 1736 and the start of the Goldoni-Galuppi collaborations in 1749. The live recording is good, with an excellent cast, and it is unlikely that there will ever be a better – or another. I congratulate everyone involved for the sheer enterprise of the project and hope that efforts will continue to be made to promote interest in pre-Mozartean opera buffa. What, for example, of the work of Nicola Logroscino (1698- c.1765), in some ways Leo’s successor, who was called in his own time ‘the god of the comic genre’? There is still so much that we don’t know.

David Chandler



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