Saverio Mercadante: I due Figaro

Mercadante is as celebrated in
the 21st Century as neither Verdi nor Wagner, but his contributions to the
development of Italian opera in the mid-19th Century were appreciated by a
critic as discriminating as Franz Liszt. Rossini recognized Mercadante’s
musical talents early in the younger composer’s career despite remaining
unconvinced of his abilities for effective dramatic characterization. It was to
Mercadante that preparation of the first performance of Caterina
was entrusted due to Donizetti’s illness, and it was also
Mercadante to whose expertise Verdi appealed for casting of his
Macbeth. It is also known that Mercadante conspired to have Verdi’s
Il trovatore suppressed by the Italian censors at the time of its
premiËre, however. All of this provides some idea of the complexities and
ambiguities of Mercadante and his career: perhaps more than any other composer
of his generation, he gradually moved away from the musical example of Rossini,
directly influencing Bellini and Donizetti and providing the foundation upon
which Verdi built his first masterpieces. Mercadante’s operas Il
, Elena da Feltre, Il giuramento, Orazi e
, and Virginia were all extremely successful during the
composer’s lifetime, and Mercadante was almost unfailingly admired and
respected as a musician even when he was disliked as a man. Composed in 1826
but not premiËred until 1835, I due Figaro is an opera buffa
with a libretto by Felice Romani, the master librettist of bel canto,
that explores territory familiar from Rossini’s Il barbiere di
and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, but Romani’s source
material was a play by French actor and author HonorÈ Richard Martelly rather
than Beaumarchais’s plays. A sequel to the plots set by Rossini and Mozart,
Mercadante’s opera finds the long-suffering Contessa d’Almaviva rearing a
daughter and Figaro, Rossini’s unflappable factotum, dealing with
the arrival of a second, rather suspicious Figaro at the court of Conte
d’Almaviva. Romani could be relied upon to provide poetry of high quality
even when the circumstances of a libretto’s creation were less than ideal,
and there are in his libretto forI due Figaro many passages that show
Romani at his best. Like all of the few of Mercadante’s operas that have
appeared on records, I due Figaro has many fine things in its favor,
not the least of which are several arias and ensembles that remind the listener
that Mercadante was far more gifted than most of the second-rank bel
composers with whom he is usually grouped.

Musically, the score of I due Figaro could be said to represent a
very tidy summary of Mercadante’s accomplishments as a composer. Perhaps
expectedly for an opera in which Figaro and his Barbiere di Siviglia
comrades are found, there are pages in I due Figaro that could
virtually have been ripped out of several of Rossini’s opera buffa
scores. Mercadante was viewed by 19th-Century observers as the composer who,
coming to a crossroads in the development of Italian opera, significantly
facilitated the transition of vocal music from the style of Rossini to the more
overtly dramatic bel canto employed by Bellini, Donizetti, and the
young Verdi. Especially in Mercadante’s music for Susanna, there are
coloratura passages that would not sound out of place in Rossini’s
Ermione or Zelmira, but there are notable
scenes—particularly the extended scene for Cherubino in Act Two, ‘Gi‡ per
le vie del cielo’—in which the Donizetti of Anna Bolena and the
Verdi of Ernani are stylistically close at hand. Dramatically, Romani
and Mercadante echo a theme explored in Rossini’s Il Turco in
, that of the cast including a writer seeking inspiration from the
characters and their situations, a sort of operatic paparazzo. All of
the usual suspects from Mozart and Rossini turn up: the Conte and Contessa
d’Almaviva, now the feuding parents of a daughter of marriageable age, Inez;
Figaro and Susanna, still married but no longer the wily but endearingly
devoted couple they were in Le nozze di Figaro; and Cherubino, grown
into an apparently decorated Colonel and now pining for the daughter, Inez,
rather than the mother, the Contessa, while in disguise as the second Figaro.
New to the party in I due Figaro are Plagio, the visiting writer, and
Cherubino’s former servent Torribio, who has designs on wooing Inez while
posing as the nobleman Don Alvaro. It is an ambitious synthesis of Mozart and
Rossini—and of the dramas of Lorenzo da Ponte and Cesare Sterbini, respective
librettists of Le nozze di Figaro and Il barbiere di
—in which Mercadante seeks to combine the frisson of
Rossinian opera buffa with innovative musical progress in the
employment of the conventional bel canto aria and cabaletta. Composed
during Mercadante’s tenure in Madrid, I due Figaro contains many
musical nods to the musical traditions of his host country, both in the use of
Spanish dance rhythms such as the characteristic bolero and in the
inclusion of adapted folksongs. It was a fit of jealousy by the opera’s
intended prima donna, Letizia Cortesi, that prohibited performance of
I due Figaro until 1835: having intended for the opera to be performed
as a benefit for her own financial upkeep, Signora Cortesi—a respected (both
for her singing and for her socially-advantageous liaisons, no doubt) artist
who took part in the first performance of Cimarosa’s revised version of
Il matrimonio segreto—was none too impressed when she discovered
that Mercadante had pipped her to the post by having made the same arrangement
for himself. When the opera was eventually premiËred, it won favor with both
critics and audiences, but its success was short-lived: prior to the production
recorded by Ducale at the 2011 Ravenna Festival, Mercadante’s score had been
residing, forgotten, in Madrid’s Biblioteca Municipal for nearly two
centuries. I due Figaro proves to be an opera well worth hearing (and,
benefiting from Maestro Muti’s rediscovery, it indeed has been heard at
Salzburg, Madrid’s Teatro Real, and Buenos Aires’s Teatro ColÛn),
Mercadante’s musical gestures shaping the drama effectively and his
middle-of-the-road bel canto instincts creating moments of great
musical distinction. The spirits of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi are
all audibly present in Mercadante’s score, and if there is any failure it is
that the opera, treading on such exalted ground, does not reach the levels of
inspiration and expressive humanity shown by Mozart in Le nozze di

The results achieved by recording live performances can vary from excellent
to abysmal. Recording two performances at the Teatro Alighieri in Ravenna in
June 2011, Ducale’s sound engineer, Elfride Foroni, and BH audio S.r.l.
produced a fine recording with excellent balance, a delightful sense of stage
action, and an impressive avoidance of stage and audience noises, even during
secco recitatives. Singers audibly move about the stage without ever
losing sonic presence, and the chorus and orchestra enjoy prominence but never
overwhelm the singers. The choristers of the Philharmonia Chor Wien, a
relatively new ensemble founded in 2002, sing with gusto and great musicality.
Individual voices occasionally emerge from the choral blend, but whereas this
might be undesirable in choral repertory it adds to the sense of credibility in
this performance, in which servants and villagers take such important parts in
the drama. The instrumentalists of the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini,
founded by Maestro Muti in 2004, play with brilliance that belies their youth,
intonation generally sure and timbres carefully blended, surely benefiting from
work with Maestro Muti. Very impressive is the solo horn playing in
Cherubino’s scena in Act Two. His espousal at La Scala and elsewhere
of the music of Cimarosa and Cherubini notwithstanding, Riccardo Muti does not
spring to mind as an advocate for overlooked bel canto composers, even
those from his native Naples. Indeed, it might seem rather bizarre that a
conductor’s discography would be expanded in a single year by releases of
recordings of operas as different as Mercadante’s I due Figaro and
Verdi’s Otello (recorded in concert for release on the Chicago
Symphony’s house label), but the integrity of Maestro Muti’s curiosity,
intelligence, and pursuit of musical excellence is never in doubt. Perhaps the
most surprising element of this recording is the seemingly instinctive faculty
for bel canto with which Maestro Muti conducts the performance. The
committed propulsion with which he conducts later repertory is well known, but
the unforced grace evident in every bar of this recording of I due
is remarkable. Tempi are consistently appropriate to the
music, Maestro Muti’s formidable exactitude of rhythm producing accurate but
wonderfully animated renderings of frothy ensembles but also allowing
expansiveness of line in cantilena passages. In those pages that mimic
Rossini at his buffo best, Maestro Muti’s approach is founded upon
an understanding of the construction of a Rossinian scena. Those pages
that exemplify the dramatic bel canto of Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi
find Maestro Muti drawing upon a richly idiomatic experience in Italian music
of the 19th Century. In short, Maestro Muti proves himself to be an ideal
conductor of the uniquely ‘hybridized’ music of Mercadante.

Owing both to the inventiveness of Romani’s poetry and to the cleverness
of Mercadante’s music, all of the characters in I due Figaro are
deftly delineated. Plagio, the visiting writer whose name means
‘plagiarism’ in Spanish, is an obvious cousin of Prosdocimo, the poet in
Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, the libretto of which was also written
by Romani. Sung in this performance by Italian baritone Omar Montanari, Plagio
weaves in and out of the drama in I due Figaro with the unfettered
enthusiasm of an eager journalist. The villagers in the insular community of
the Almaviva castle are suspicious of his motives, however, and they amusingly
taunt him in his scene at the beginning of Act Two. Mr. Montanari sings
handsomely throughout the performance, Plagio’s cajoling of the characters
for information about their situations and inspiration for his next play
drawing from him singing of great wit. Plagio instructs himself at the
beginning of Act Two to ‘agguzza orechhio e mente’—sharpen his ears and
his wits: Mr. Montanari might have set for himself the same goal, and his
unfailingly fine, subtle singing achieves that goal capitally.

Torribio, Cherubino’s former servant who disguises himself as the noble
Don Alvaro in an effort to capitalize on his part in a plot by Figaro to pass
him off as a suitable husband for Inez, the daughter—and heiress, of
course—of the Conte and Contessa d’Almaviva, is sung by Italian tenor
Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani, a veteran of several of Alan Curtis’s acclaimed
productions and recordings of H‰ndel operas. The vocal technique and
quicksilver dramatic instincts that have proved so successful in H‰ndel
repertory likewise serve Mr. Giustiniani well in I due Figaro. Not
completely sinister but also far from innocent, Torribio is an oily figure who
is not without charm. Mr. Giustiniani is a superb singer who deserves larger
assignments, but his singing in this performance is fantastic. The voice is a
light one, handled with mastery of its capabilities by its owner, and as ever
Mr. Giustiniani provides a veritable masterclass in the art of acting through
the voice. Torribio may be Figaro’s intended ticket to enjoying half of
Inez’s dowry, but he is no one’s fool. Still, he is somewhat taken short
when all of Figaro’s plans unravel and the deception is revealed in all of
its convoluted detail to the Conte by Cherubino. Mr. Giustianini expresses all
of Torribio’s mental responses to his misadventures with splendid comedic
timing, and the most strenuous of Mercadante’s demands do not scratch the
surface of the vocal feats of which Mr. Giustianini is capable.

Italian baritone Mario Cassi sings Figaro, who seems to have lost much of
his charm in the years since the inception of his service to Conte d’Almaviva
in Il barbiere di Siviglia and his marriage to Susanna in Le nozze
di Figaro
. Mercadante’s Figaro is more priggish than either Mozart’s
or Rossini’s, and—not unexpectedly, considering his basic psychiatric
profile—his relationship with Susanna seems to have soured, at least in part.
The jingle of coins has lost no ground in Figaro’s affections, however, and
the joie de vivre with which Mr. Cassi enters into Figaro’s plotting
and ribaldry is infectious. The high spirits of Mr. Cassi’s performance
confirms the suspicion that Figaro is merely a single-minded opportunist rather
than a genuinely nasty fellow. While suggesting that he would prove a lovable
Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Mr. Cassi does what he can with
Mercadante’s less cuddly Figaro. The slightly knurly quality of Mr. Cassi’s
voice, allied with the unrelenting machismo of his dramatic instincts,
creates a compelling character, this Figaro relishing his manipulations of
every situation in which he finds himself and sputtering in frustration when
his labyrinthine machinations hurl him headlong into impregnable walls. Mr.
Cassi sings with technical prowess, perhaps most engagingly so in the Terzetto
with Susanna and Plagio, ‘In quegl’occhi.’ Throughout the performance,
Mr. Cassi brings affability to his singing, making Figaro’s exasperation at
the appearance of a second, surely fraudulent Figaro amusingly palpable. His
contributions to the Sestetto, ‘Un momento,’ are delightful, and the
light-hearted duplicity with which he plots with Torribio and baits Plagio is
genuinely funny without being over the top. Musically, Mercadante’s Figaro
enjoys fewer opportunities to shine individually than Mozart’s or Rossini’s
incarnations of the character, but Mr. Cassi takes advantage of every phrase,
coloring his voice convincingly to convey a wide array of emotions, both public
and private.

As in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Conte d’Almaviva is a tenor rÙle,
and Antonio Poli sings the part with assurance. The Conte’s cavatina
‘Che mai giova’ is one of the musical high points of Mercadante’s score,
and Mr. Poli sings it very well, his technique tested but never broken by
Mercadante’s music. Throughout the opera, Mr. Poli’s pointed diction is
effective as a dramatic device of its own accord, his exchanges with all of the
other characters convincingly conveyed through verbal inflections. Mr. Poli
shades his voice accordingly, complementing his dramatic instincts with an
impressive command of vocal means. Slight hints of pushing in the upper
register are worrying in so young a singer, especially one whose future
engagements include high-profile outings as Mozart’s Don Ottavio in London
and Chicago, but the quality of tone that Mr. Poli produces in this performance
suggests that his voice is beautifully suited to lighter lyric rÙles. The
quieting of this Conte’s anger in the final scene is neither as eloquent nor
as believable as is the capitulation of the Conte in Le nozze di
, but Mr. Poli sings his final lines with great irony:
Mercadante’s Conte, rather than beseeching his wife’s forgiveness, merely
admits defeat and begrudgingly accepts the obvious twists of fate: ‘Per far
dispetto a Figaro, siate anche voi contenti,’ he sings to his daughter and
Cherubino—‘you will be happy, too, just to annoy Figaro.’ The cool timbre
of Mr. Poli’s voice lends his singing a certain aristocratic remoteness, but
he enters into the spirit of the comedy with tenacity.

Italian mezzo-soprano Annalisa Stroppa takes the travesti rÙle of
Cherubino, his courting skills as powerful but tactless in I due
as in Le nozze di Figaro. Ms. Stroppa’s timbre is dark
and slightly unyielding, the basic sound of the voice rather than any
particular interpretive choices on the singer’s part offering a suggestion of
masculinity. Ms. Stroppa is more convincing when Cherubino is on conspiratorial
form than in music of love or loss, but she saves her best singing for her
challenging aria in Act Two. This is perhaps the most strangely ambiguous scene
in the opera, the dramatic situation—villagers returning at dusk from their
daily labors cross paths with the despondent Cherubino and think him
mad—echoing the celebrated ‘Miserere’ in Verdi’s Trovatore but
the music adhering more conventionally to Rossinian formulae than almost any
other in the score. As is customary in most of Maestro Muti’s efforts, this
is essentially a come scritto reading of Mercadante’s score, with
interpolated top notes avoided. Ms. Stroppa’s upper register faces rough use
in Cherubino’s aria nonetheless, but she ascends to her highest notes with
cautious security. Rossinian coloratura does not sound as though it is
completely natural territory for Ms. Stroppa, but the overall excellence of the
results that she achieves in bravura passages is all the more
impressive for this. She is at her best in ensembles, when her fiery singing
depicts the impetuous young Colonel to the life.

The Contessa—Rossini’s Rosina—is sung by Turkish mezzo-soprano Asude
Karayavuz, an exciting presence whose timbre exudes confident nobility. In the
Contessa’s aria, ‘Prender che val marito,’ its structure not unlike that
of the Contessa’s magnificent ‘Dove sono i bei momenti’ in Le nozze
di Figaro
, Ms. Karayavuz sings with great feeling, her expression of hope
for her daughter’s marital bliss reminding the listener of the character’s
sentiments of defiant love in Il barbiere di Siviglia and wistful
longing for the passion of that defiance in Le nozze di Figaro. Ms.
Karayavuz sings strongly from start to finish, adding distinction to every
ensemble in which she sings. No longer a victim of circumstance or an
unfailingly magnanimous figure, the Contessa in I due Figaro proves to
be a wily conniver in her own right, pursuing her own agenda with dogged sense
of purpose. That the Contessa is ultimately such a likeable character in this
performance is to Ms. Karayavuz’s credit. There are moments of vocal
discomfort in Ms. Karayavuz’s performance, but she puts these to dramatic
use. A capable singer with a good technique, Ms. Karayavuz is a sweet but never
saccharine Contessa, her indignities suffered with good humor but avenged with
vindicating fun.

Inez, the daughter of the Conte and Contessa, is the source of the dramatic
careening in I due Figaro. Betrothed in absentia by her father to a
man she has never met, the allegedly noble Don Alvaro, Inez is actually in love
with Cherubino. Every character in the opera is in some way great or small
directly affected by Inez’s predicament, so a fascinating singer is required
in the rÙle if the opera is to be even remotely interesting. Italian soprano
Rosa Feola, a former pupil of Renata Scotto, has something of her teacher’s
burning drive as a performer. Though her voice is a full lyric soprano of
beauty and grace, she tears through this performance of I due Figaro
like a woman possessed. Inez’s mission is to marry the man she loves, whether
with her father’s consent or despite his withholding of it, and Ms. Feola
conveys Inez’s devotion to Cherubino with conviction. In her solo scene,
‘Oh! Come in un momento,’ bewitchingly sung by Ms. Feola, Inez expresses
perhaps the most heartfelt sentiments in the opera, with Mercadante’s music
at its best. Ms. Feola is an appreciated interpreter of Adina in Donizetti’s
L’Elisir d’Amore(another Romani creation), and Inez is an
appropriate companion to Adina in her repertory: musically related, both ladies
also encounter similar amorous situations, being pursued by one man who is
essentially a pompous poser and another—her true beloved—who is sincere but
something of a sap. The beauty of Ms. Feola’s singing when she sings of or to
Cherubino—in music that is often not unlike that with which Servilia sings of
Annio in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito—leaves no doubt of which
suitor has won Inez’s heart. Like several of her colleagues, Ms. Feola is
particularly charismatic in ensembles, voicing her lines with ardor. All things
considered, Ms. Feola is a thoroughly suitable center of attention for I
due Figaro
, her Inez proving a thoughtful and musically winning creation.

It was for his greedily vindictive would-be prima donna, la
Cortesi, that the rÙle of Susanna was written, and both her prominence in the
drama and the quality of her music make it apparent that Mercadante was dealing
with a lyric coloratura soprano he felt obliged to please. Italian soprano
Eleonora Buratto sings the part stylishly. Having studied with both Mirella
Freni—whose bel canto performances are unaccountably neglected in
assessments of her legacy—and Luciano Pavarotti, Ms. Buratto brings to I
due Figaro
impressive credentials, including performances of Mozart’s
Susanna. Not surprisingly considering the circumstances of the genesis of I
due Figaro
, Susanna has the opera’s most celebrated aria, the
bolero ‘Colle dame pi˘ brillanti,’ which is sung with vivacity
and technical aplomb by Ms. Buratto. Even Susanna shines most brightly in
ensembles, though, and the vocal freedom with which Ms. Buratto voices the top
lines in ensembles is refreshing. It could be argued that Susanna, as in Le
nozze di Figaro
, is the only character who, though threatened, is in
complete command of her destiny, and the music that Mercadante composed for her
has an immediacy—an authentically Spanish quality of sauciness, so to
speak—that music for the other characters lacks. Ms. Buratto’s
well-schooled technique enables her to focus on details of characterization,
and she combines intelligent musical choices with dramatic attitudes that aptly
convey Susanna’s moods. If Inez is the spine that supports I due
, Susanna is the opera’s heart, and Ms. Buratto knows this: her
expressivity is both individual and responsive to the singing of her
colleagues. Difficulties in Mercadante’s score little trouble Ms. Buratto,
and the beauty of her singing distinguishes her in an unusually consistent

One challenge of this recording is born of the performance featuring a cast
of such young singers: identification in ensembles of which voices are the
older characters and which are the younger ones can be difficult. This is a
small price to pay for vocal freshness across the board, however, and these
young singers do their all to make their lines discernible and their characters
three-dimensional. It cannot be denied that, despite his achievements as a
musical and dramatic innovator, Mercadante is not a composer who can be
regarded as an equal of Mozart, Rossini, or Donizetti. It is unfair to describe
him merely as a gifted craftsman, too: hearing I due Figaro brings to
mind Richard Strauss’s anecdote about being a first-rate second-tier
composer. I due Figaro is not comparable to a masterwork by Verdi or
Wagner, but Maestro Muti presides in this performance over a cast of a quality
that can hardly be encountered in performances of Verdi’s and Wagner’s
opera in any of the world’s better opera houses today. This fetching
recording confirms anew that, when performed with zest, a forgotten opera can
be very memorable.

Joseph Newsome

SAVERIO MERCADANTE (1795 – 1870): I due Figaro o sia Il
soggetto di una commedia
—A. Poli (il Conte di Almaviva), A.
Karayavuz (la Contessa), R. Feola (Inez), A. Stroppa (Cherubino), M. Cassi
(Figaro), E. Buratto (Susanna), A. Zorzi Giustiniani (Torribio), O. Montanari
(Plagio); Philharmonia Chor Wien; Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini; Riccardo
Muti [Recorded ‘live’ at the Teatro Alighieri, Ravenna, Italy, on 24 and 26
June 2011; Ducale DUC 045-47; World PremiËre Recording]

image_description=DUC 045-47
product_title=Saverio Mercadante: I due Figaro
product_by=A review by Joseph Newsome
product_id=Ducale DUC 045-47 [3 CDs]