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Pedro António AVONDANO (1714-1782)
Il mondo della luna (1765) opera in three acts
Ecclitico - Fernando Guimarães (tenor); Buonafede - Luis Rodrigues (bass); Ernesto - João Pedro Cabral (tenor);
Cecco - João Fernandes (bass); Clarice - Susanna Gaspar (soprano); Flaminia - Carla Caramujo (Soprano); Lisetta - Carla Simões (Soprano)
Os Músicos do Tejo/Marcos Magalhães
rec. 24-26 September 2017, Teatro Thalia, Lisbon
Booklet notes in English and Portuguese, A downloadable libretto in Italian is available.
NAXOS 8.660487-88 2 CDs: [56:46 + 80:31]

The new Naxos release of Avondano’s comic opera Il mondo della luna is one of the most welcome exhumations of a long lost opera that I have been fortunate enough to come across in quite some time. The recording works well on so many levels that I am happy to herald its arrival for what I hope will be a lengthy stay in the active Naxos catalogue.

The great Lisbon earthquake struck Lisbon on Saturday Nov 1st 1755 at almost 10 AM, just as the majority of the city’s inhabitants were attending the All Saints Day mass. The churches, cathedrals and other buildings of the city turned into a series of deathtraps which killed an estimated 30 000- 50 000 people; still today it is considered one of the single worst disasters in world history. What wasn’t destroyed by the initial quake ended up collapsing in the many months of aftershocks and the inevitable fires that raged afterward. Among the important buildings that became lost were both the Royal Palace and the magnificent new Opéra de Téjo which had been inaugurated only seven months earlier, to the acclaim of many who saw it as the most richly elaborate opera house that had been constructed in Europe to that date. The magnitude of the disaster finished Portugal as a force within Europe and it took a century to rebuild Lisbon. Unsurprisingly, all musical performances ground to a complete halt, a situation that is not unlike our current state of live performances with the pandemic in 2020. It is likely for this reason that this is the only opera ever to have been written by Avondaro. He created it for the much smaller royal court that had eventually relocated to Ajuda, outside of Lisbon, where this opera had its premiere in 1765, a full 10 years after the disaster. As smaller court entertainments were a fact of life, Avondaro chose to use a libretto of an already existing work by the Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni, which had first been created for Baldassare Galuppi in Venice in 1750. Il mondo della luna would eventually go on to be used by several composers including Franz Joseph Haydn for Esterhazy in 1777. This recording uses a performing edition of the score that was commissioned by the Opera San Carlo, Lisbon, in the 1990s. The plot concerns the wealthy Buona Fede who is tricked into believing that he has been transported to the moon in order for his daughters and serving maid to escape his unwanted marriage plans for them.

In order to keep this release to a more manageable two CDs, six of the opera’s seven characters have each lost an aria and there are also some cuts to the recitatives. The CD provides no libretto, but as is usual practice for Naxos, there is a downloadable (Italian only) libretto available via their website. The text is substantially the same as the one used by Haydn for his opera, so as I had a copy of the Dorati Philips recording, I was able to follow along with the translation until very nearly the end of the second act where Haydns’ and Avondano’s texts part company and continue to be completely different through the entire third act.

Among the chief pleasures of this recording is conductor Marcos Magalhães’ unique but historically informed approach to the recitatives. The improvisatory nature of recitavo secco in comic operas of the 17th and 18th centuries is something that is discussed among academic circles, but until now I have not encountered anyone who actually attempted to try putting it into practice. The unique, and for some reviewers controversial, René Jacobs has come the closest, in my experience to approaching recitatives in this way but unless I missed something on some other recording, Magalhães is the first to try to bring it to life. He achieves this by having the cast of singers memorize only the text of the recitatives, so that in performance they are expected to improvise their music in conjunction with the lively and alert harpsichord accompaniment of Magalhães. All of the singers on this recording enter into this with fantastic commitment as they mix the sung improvisations with parlando to delicious effect. Some of the cast venture more into creating sung lines than others, but the undeniably vibrant result completely justifies the experiment. The recitatives were recorded live, in the presence of an audience which added no small amount of comedic punch. This has carried over into the delivery of the arias themselves although they were recorded separately in studio-like conditions. I cannot recall ever finding that the recitavo sections were so completely engrossing in any other performance or recording. In particular the lunar dialogues of Act Two are bizarrely comic to the audible enjoyment of the audience.

The cast of relatively young Portuguese singers are all adept at their roles, and although some of the voices are inevitably more pleasing than others, no-one in the cast lets their side down. I particularly enjoyed Luis Rodrigues who all but steals the opera with a deep responsive bass and a blustery charm as Buon Fede. Fernando Guimarães is an effervescent Ecclitico, although he occasionally exhibits some weakness in his lower register. João Fernandes as Cecco is a totally assured basso buffo whose character fairly bursts out of one speakers. João Pedro Cabral is an agreeably sweet-toned Ernesto; his aria in Act Two is one of the opera’s highlights.

Os Músicos do Tejo is a small period instrument ensemble which plays engagingly for Magalhães as he explores this score, which fairly bursts with charming dance-like rhythms. Presumably the composer had some excellent brass players available to him for the first performance, because the four-part sinfonia begins with some very impressive brass figures which continue to appear as regular visitors throughout the opera; they spring out to briefly draw attention to themselves and only dissolve again into the fabric of the orchestra. I found it all quite fascinating and at no point does the composer allow them to linger too long. The sound engineers have done a fine job of capturing the orchestra and singers in a natural and immediate acoustic in which I detected only one or two moments of shaky ensemble but nothing serious. The accompanying booklet is what we have come to expect from Naxos. Taken as an entirety, this is one of the most engaging recordings of a Baroque comic opera that I have ever encountered and I sincerely hope to experience future recordings with the flair for recitatives that has been exhibited on this release.

Mike Parr

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