Alessandro Scarlatti’s Il Trionfo dell’Onore

Alessandro Scarlatti was a tremendously prolific composer of the Italian era
after Cavalli and before Vivaldi and Handel, famous throughout Italy, then soon
forgotten. In this period, the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries
(it is convenient to recall that his son, Domenico, the keyboard virtuoso, was
born the same year as Handel and Bach in the generation of Vivaldi and
Telemann), Venice had half a dozen theaters playing opera several nights a week
(more during Carnival), and the demand for new work to fill them was
insatiable. The other major cities of the disunited peninsula had their own
theaters, their own traditions, their own composers—but Scarlatti moved about
in search of commissions and a regular income to support his large family. He
is remembered as a “Neapolitan” composer, perhaps because most of his
manuscripts turned up in the Naples Conservatory, but he was far more
international than that. Venice and Naples were capitals of very different

How large were these theaters? Not very. None of them belonged to the city;
private landowners, usually noblemen, built them and rented them out to
impresarios, who hired the musicians and produced the operas. You couldn’t
easily light a large theater (wax drips, you know) and the tiny orchestras
could not easily drown out audience chatter. In the great serious operas,
chatter would cease when a famous singer expressed a special emotion in melody,
but for nightly entertainment something lighter might be called for.

Comic stories were silly, romantic, predictable, the personalities taken
from commedia dell’arte more fallible, less high-minded than the
serious, heroic ones whom they often parodied, and the voices were expected to
be serviceable if not top-flight. Opera buffa was a step down, and major
singers did not take it. Did the lighter operas pay the composer as well as the
serious ones? That’s a question I cannot answer. Certainly Scarlatti eagerly
accepted both sorts of commission, and so did Pergolesi in Naples and Telemann
in Hamburg. (Cavalli, as you will recall, intermingled comic scenes with
serious ones in his narratives … but that style was out of fashion, though it
is more immediately interesting to us today.) Handel probably would have set
comic libretti, but he decamped to London—where comic foolery did not play in
foreign tongues. His mature operas with comic stories are therefore constructed
on a “serious” model: Serse, Partenope, Alessandro.
Agrippina, with its old-fashioned mix of serious and comic characters,
was composed during the sojourn in Venice when he met the Scarlattis.

Underworld Productions Opera has just given the New York premiere of
Scarlatti’s 1718 opera buffa, Il Trionfo dell’Onore, which may or
may not be typical of the comic output of the day. (Winton Dean says Scarlatti
was stylistically eccentric, which appeals more to us than it did to the
regular audience of his own time.) What stood out for me in this light piece
was the way conflicts developed by way of duets rather than the, occasionally
tedious serious manner of aria succeeding aria. This is a manner I had thought
the invention of Mozart, Paisiello and Rossini, but here were are, a century
before Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and two ladies display their
personality in a duet of apparent sympathy while confiding to us that they are
both in love with the same rogue and hate each other accordingly. We also have
love duets of many varieties, from gentlemanly seductions (the lady flirtatious
or sarcastic in response) to heartfelt recriminations.

In the cast at the Leonard Nimoy/Thalia, the men did not please as much as
the women did, though all of them proved adept at conveying the casual yet
emotional nature of romantic comedy. The two gentleman seducers who set the
plot rolling were written for those irresistible figures, women in drag (think:
Cherubino). In Venice, castrati were reserved for more upscale, heroic
opera, while in the Papal States they were expected to play all the women,
actual women being forbidden to set foot on the stage. (Lecherous old ladies
were often played by men in drag, in any key at all.) Modern opera companies
may do as they like in such matters, and what they tend to do is make use of
whatever talent is on hand. The show must go on.

Thus we had Eric S. Brenner, a thin-voiced countertenor, as Riccardo, the
scamp who neglects his fiancÈe Leonora to pursue her friend Doralice, ignoring
her betrothal to Leonora’s brother, Erminio. Erminio was sung by a
mezzo, Stephanie McGuire, so effectively ardent that I thought her, too, a
countertenor. Maria Todaro, who has a deep alto of impressive quality, sang the
heartbroken Leonora, and was quite humorous displaying her dark tones in
sarcastic asides with Elise Jablow’s naÔve, sweetly sung Doralice. Catherine
Leech sang Rosina, a pert servant, with that combination of mischief and
sentiment that we associate with Mozart’s Susanna, as she resisted the
advances of both Riccardo’s lecherous uncle (dry-voiced Christopher Preston
Thompson) and Riccardo’s bombastic friend Rodimarte (a bumptious baritone,
Stephen Lavonier), and sighed to no avail for Ms. McGuire’s Erminio. Briana
Sakamoto completed the cast as the elderly innkeeper with designs on the uncle
who is after her servant. Somehow four happy couples evolved by the conclusion,
though one wouldn’t predict happy marriages for many of the eight.
Nor does one foresee major careers for most of these voices (I’d like to hear
Ms. Todaro again), but their zesty performances and lack of top-flight
pretension give us, perhaps, a more precise notion of the light musical theater
derived from antique commedia that got audiences joyously through an
evening out in 1718 when the regatta teams weren’t out playing water polo.
How very enjoyable to encounter such a thing in New York in 2013!

John Yohalem

Production and cast information:

Riccardo: Eric S. Brenner; Bombarda: Stephen Lavonier; Leonora: Maria
Todaro; Cornelia: Briana Sakamoto; Rosina: Catherine Leech; Flaminio:
Christopher Preston Thompson; Doralice: Elise Jablow; Ermino: Stephanie
McGuire. Sinfonia New York under Dorian Komanoff Bandy. Underworld Productions.
At the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater. Performance of May 22.

image_description=Illustration by Underworld Productions Opera
product_title=Alessandro Scarlatti’s Il Trionfo dell’Onore
product_by=A review by John Yohalem
product_id=Above: Illustration by Underworld Productions Opera