Giuseppe Saverio MERCADANTE (1795-1870)
Francesca da Rimini (1830-31)
Francesca - Leonor Bonilla (sop)
Paolo - Aya Wakizono (mezzo-sop)
Lanciotto - Merto Süngü (ten)
Guido - Antonio Di Matteo (bass)
Isaura - Larisa Martinez (sop)
Guelfo - Ivan Ayon Rivas (ten)
Transylvania State & Cluj-Napoca Philharmonic Orchestra Choir
Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia/Fabio Luisi
rec. live, July–August 2016, Palazzo Ducale, Martina Franca, Puglia, Italy
DYNAMIC CDS7753.03 [69:22 + 55:17 + 66:09]
Mercadante was clearly a great craftsman with impeccable technique and a secure grasp of the formal components of opera, yet despite considerable success in his lifetime, from the 1830’s onwards his star was gradually eclipsed by the likes of Bellini, Donizetti and the young tyro Verdi - and there is a reason for that: for all his gifts Mercadante lacked the crucial faculty of really memorable melodic invention of the kind that ensures that the certain arias by his peers essentially become ear-worms. The stylistic influence of his promoter Rossini is immediately apparent in the overture and in many of the arias, duets and ensembles here; the plotline, the presence of a travestito mezzo-soprano singing the male hero lead and the musical idiom, with its old-fashioned gruppetti and wide-ranging intervals all frequently recall Bianca e Falliero, first performed eleven years before Francesca da Rimini was written. Similarly, the lead breeches role and the ornamentation of the more lyrical arias also recall Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, performed only a year before this opera was written.
Although Mercadante churned out nearly sixty operas over his long career, only a handful of them are still staged: Il giuramento, Il bravo, Virginia and, my favourite, Orazi e Curiazi, are sporadically revived today. This live performance from the esteemed Festival della Valle d’Itria in Martina Franca, makes a strong case for the recognition of Francesca da Rimini as another of his best works; it additionally fulfils the festival brief of promoting the music of local heroes, as Mercadante was born in nearby Altamura. Written in Madrid for the Spanish court between 1830-1831, to a libretto by the famous and prolific Felice Romani, it was never performed in Spain for reasons which remain unclear; a performance subsequently scheduled in La Scala was also cancelled, possibly due to the feud between the reigning rival prime donne Giulia Grisi and Giuditta Pasta. The score remained unpublished until the critical edition used here was prepared; it is based on the Bologna autograph manuscript, one of two extant copies. Thus this is recording is the world premičre of the opera, 185 years after its composition. The music is very varied, with an excellent balance between martial music, stirring ensembles and arias replete with lyrical bel canto embellishments and reliant upon the conventional recitativo-aria-cabaletta format of the era, but also evincing aspects of the new “reform” style which Mercadante was beginning to espouse, and which was further developed by Verdi. It is well-paced and neatly plotted, maintaining a steady focus upon dramatic momentum; nonetheless, there is a touch of “opera by the yard” about it, and sometimes proceedings sound so conventional as to make it unlikely that the listener would emerge from the theatre, or from a listening to this three CD set, humming any tune. There are, however, undoubted musical highlights, such as the beautiful Act 2 duet sung in thirds, in which the lovers acknowledge their mutual love over their reading of the tale of two more illicit lovers, Lancelot and Guinevere, the trio ‘Cielo i miei voti’, unusually accompanied by a duo of horns, and ‘A quel pianto’, heard in the penultimate track of CD3 in the finale.
Recordings of Mercadante operas have been as rare as performances: Opera Rara has lived up to its name by releasing half a dozen in recent years and the Dynamic label which is responsible for this one previously issued Pelagio, in keeping with its aim of making more recherché repertoire available to the collector. Of course other composers have been drawn to depicting the most famous pair of “star-crossed lovers” to be found in Canto V of Dante’s Inferno: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Zandonai all wrote works based on it and Rossini, who had already retired by the time Mercadante began to compose this opera, quoted the famous ‘Nessun maggior dolore’, in his gondolier song in “Otello”.
The young cast here deserve high praise not only for their sheer technical skill but also for successfully lending great emotional impact to their creation of roles never previously sung. All three main singers are certainly impressive in their command of the fearful demands Mercadante places upon his singers. Spanish lyric soprano Leonor Bonilla is especially striking: she has a light, pure, agile voice just occasionally inclined to shrillness in alt – but capable of a powerful high E and real pathos in her characterisation. Her first appearance in her extended Act 1 scena, singing the cantilena aria ‘Seco d’unico’ and the canzonetta ‘Bell’alma che vedete’, immediately marks her out as an artist of exceptional quality; she delivers a full ten minutes of virtuoso singing. Equally impressive is her Act 2 aria ‘Č l’ultima lagrima’ where she delicately floats a host of top notes in Caballé fashion. Japanese mezzo-soprano Aya Wakizono is also something of a find. Even if occasionally her vibrato becomes too broad she is otherwise endowed with a warm, flexible voice capable of negotiating the most fearsome coloratura challenges with aplomb. Greater maturity and experience will permit her to bring more variety of tonal colour to her singing but she already has formidable vocal technique. While I admire Turkish tenor Merto Süngü’s confidence and stamina in the longest and arguably most demanding vocal role in the opera, I do not much enjoy the harsh, piercing quality of his timbre; he manages the pyrotechnics of his many arias admirably but is inclined to bleat, blare and lose steadiness of tonal emission. Bass Antonio Di Matteo as Francesco’s father Guido is imposing but rather gruff and gravelly; Laura Martinez as Isaura sings neatly.
Experienced festival regular and principal Metropolitan conductor Fabio Luisi directs masterfully and there are remarkably few blips from the Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia; I caught only one momentary and solitary early entry from a violin; otherwise I found the playing energised and virtually flawless, as is the chorus.
The sound is really good and well balanced; a few stage thumps and faint coughs apart, the most obtrusive unwanted noise is that of the musicians turning the pages of their scores, which tells you how immediate and detailed it is.
If only there were slightly more of that elusive quality which makes for melodic memorability, I could see this opera being revived on major stages. As it is, Mercadante himself could hardly have wished wish for a more accomplished advocacy of his sadly neglected opera.