Paisiello’s 1785 Opera about “Trofonio’s Cave” Adds Welcome and Hilarious Complications to a Libretto Previously Set by Salieri

The opera world in Mozart’s day recycled successful plots and characters much as the worlds of film and Broadway theater do today. In October 1785, in Vienna, Antonio Salieri had a big hit with his La grotta di Trofonio (Trofonio’s Cave), a comic opera, to a libretto by G. B. Casti. In the opera, two sets of lovers go through various transformations in a magic cave, briefly switch partners, and finally are set right (by passing through the cave again), all under the guidance of a magician named Trofonio. Scholars (notably Bruce Alan Brown and Mary Hunter) have made clear that the libretto was one source for Lorenzo Da Ponte and Mozart’s Così fan tutte (1790). OperaToday’s Claire Seymour greatly enjoyed two performances of the Salieri work (given in two different venues) by Bampton Classical Opera, back in 2015.

Two months after the premiere of the Salieri opera, an opera was performed in Naples that carried the same title and used a libretto based very freely on Casti’s. The new librettist was Giuseppe Palomba, a leading writer for the Naples theaters. The composer was one of the most renowned opera composers of the day: Giovanni Paisiello. He had recently returned from eight years of service at Catherine the Great’s opera house in St. Petersburg. While in Russia, Paisiello had composed Il barbiere di Siviglia, which held the stage successfully for years until pushed aside by Rossini’s more vibrant version of the same Beaumarchais-derived plot.

Giovanni Paisiello: La grotta di Trofonio

Palomba and Paisiello’s Grotta added plentiful complications to the Casti libretto. The result is a non-stop kaleidoscope of changed personalities: for example, a frivolous womanizer suddenly becomes a nerdy philosopher after wandering through the magic cave, and then gets turned into a self-important Spanish grandee and after that a lunatic. There are also now (because of two extra female characters) several different love triangles that will need to be sorted out. All ends happily, with four incipient marriages, including one between the magician Trofonio and an innkeeper named Rubinetta (“Little Ruby”), who has arrived on the scene because she is pursuing a man who promised to marry her but then ran off with another woman. (The Rubinetta subplot resembles the one involving Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which would receive its first performance two years later.)

The music of the opera is very similar in style to that of other Italian-language operas of the era, e.g., Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto, which is to say that it also sounds a lot like the pre-Idomeneo operas of Mozart (which of course are not as distinctive as his later ones, though often wonderfully accomplished). And of course it is similar to Paisiello’s other comic operas, of which I can particularly recommend the recently released Le gare generose (1786), which has the added fun of being set in colonial Boston and invoking various (supposed) contrasts of belief and behavior between Europeans and Americans of that day. (That work even dares to criticize the hypocritical attitudes of Quakers and other supposedly liberal-minded people who nonetheless owned slaves.)

In La grotta di Trofonio, I particularly liked the Act 1 finale, whose slow section and faster conclusion show plainly where Rossini got some of his ideas for putting an act-finale together: characters come, go, complain, and interact, and the eight voices are adroitly recombined in different ways that continually freshen the ear, even when they are each repeating words they have already sung. The Act 2 quintet, for the two “original” (and eventually reconciled) pairs of lovers, plus (halfway through) the father of the two women, is masterfully handled by Paisiello. We get to overhear as the four read aloud, and react to, a forged letter (supposedly written by the women’s father but actually by Trofonio), and then we enjoy the muddle that gets created when the women’s father enters and is accused of things he can’t possibly imagine having done or said.

The recording, the first ever, preserves a staged performance given on July 14, 2016, at the Valle d’Itria Festival in Martina Franca. (On this festival, which manages to be both enterprising and consistently high-level, see my review of Nicola De Giosa’s Don Checco.) The performers are all native Italian-speakers, and they capture wonderfully the many shifts in situation and character.

The best of the lot is also the best-known (and, at 58, perhaps the oldest!): Roberto Scandiuzzi, who has long been admired for his recordings of major bass roles in operas by Verdi. His resonant voice, in the role of the wonder-worker Trofonio, draws one in each time he is on stage. The character disguises himself for a time, visually and aurally, as one of the other characters (Don Piastrone, father of Dori and Eufelia), giving Scandiuzzi lots of chances to show his adaptability, and he grabs those chances each time.

Domenico Colaianni, as Don Gasperone, the one role that is written in Neapolitan dialect, seems utterly natural and convincing, as he was in the similar dialect role in De Giosa’s Don Checco (see, again, my review). Of the four women, the ones playing Don Piastrone’s two daughters are less pleasant to the ear than the two playing Rubinetta and the ballet dancer Madama Bartolina. In general, the singers sound best in their arias and lose some core in their tone when scampering through quick-moving exchanges and, especially recitatives. Caterina Di Tonno, in Rubinetta’s aria (middle of Act 2), offers perhaps the most mellifluous singing on the whole recording. The remaining two singers (tenor and baritone) are reliable but rarely captivating.

I urge that you follow the libretto closely while listening. The characters go through many changes not just of identity but also of mood, and they often express themselves in sarcastic expostulations or exaggerated, self-deflating imagery. For example, the alternately comical and pompous Don Gasperone tries vainly to reassure Dori: “My beautiful eclipsed moon, with a broken yet burning heart this sun comes to you, and, like a pig, humbly rolls in the mud and kneels before you.”

The microphones pick up the voices, orchestra, and fortepiano with admirable clarity. There is a lot of stage noise (e.g., feet clomping, also finger-snapping from, I assume, Trofonio in his role as manipulator of the events), loud enough to help one gain a sense of the onstage activity but not so loud as to interfere with musical pleasure. You can hear the beginning of each track at various online classical-music sites, such as Naxos .

The libretto (downloadable online) helpfully provides modern Italian renderings of Gasperone’s numerous passages in dialect. The English translations of the plot summary and libretto are largely idiomatic and clear (with an occasional typo or awkward rendering). The booklet-essay about the opera, by Luisa Cosi (who also prepared the score and parts), is, alas, of the dense, allusive sort that may make sense in Italian but is puzzling when translated more or less literally into English.

The track list indicates only the first person who sings in the track and gives no indication whether a given track contains recitatives, an aria, a duet, etc. Paisiello and Palomba deserve better, as do the witty performers in this very welcome world-premiere recording.

As far as I can tell, Dynamic is not releasing a DVD of this. The audience members on that night in July last year were clearly enjoying themselves (there is frequent applause and some laughter). I would love to know what they were seeing. The sets and costumes, to judge by a few photos in the booklet, were imaginative and apt (i.e., not working at cross-purposes to the opera’s basic givens). Still, lots to enjoy on this CD recording, and perhaps one can enjoy staging the opera in one’s mind as it goes along.

UPDATE: There is now a live recording (alas, audio-only) of a staged performance, featuring some of the same singers , on YouTube, from the small eighteenth-century Court Theatre – teatrino di corte – at the Royal Palace in (appropriately) Naples. Alas, the microphones pick up too much room resonance and irrelevant noises, tiring the ear and obscuring detail. Still, close comparison of the different performances reveals interesting differences in the ways that one and the same role in a long-forgotten opera can be made effective today. And you can enjoy several minutes of that same Naples production in a video on YouTube. That video is actually seven minutes long because it begins and ends with footage surveying the teatrino’s impressively decorated interiors.

(The present review first appeared in American Record Guide; it is adapted here with kind permission.)

Ralph P. Locke

Giovanni Paisiello: La grotta di Trofonio
Benedetta Mazzucato (Dori), Angela Nisi (Eufelia), Caterina Di Tonno (Rubinetta), Daniela Mazzucato (Madama Bartolina), Matteo Mezzaro (Artemidoro), Domenico Colaianni (Don Gasperone), Giorgio Caodura (Don Piastrone), Roberto Scandiuzzi (Trofonio).
Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia/ Giuseppe Grazioli
Dynamic CDS7754.02 [2 CDs] 148 minutes

Click here for the libretto.
Click here for the Festival della Valle d’Itria program.
Above: Paisiello at the clavichord, by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1791 [Source: Wikipedia]