08 August 2014

CD REVIEW: Saverio Mercadante – I BRIGANTI (B. Praticò, M. Mironov, V. Prato, P. Ivanova, R. Fiocco; NAXOS 8.660343-44)

CD REVIEW: Saverio Mercadante - I BRIGANTI (NAXOS 8.660343-44)

SAVERIO MERCADANTE (1795 – 1870): I brigantiBruno Praticò (Massimiliano), Maxim Mironov (Ermano), Vittorio Prato (Corrado), Petya Ivanova (Amelia), Rosita Fiocco (Teresa), Atanas Mladenov (Bertrando), Jesús Ayllón (Rollero); Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań; Virtuosi Brunensis; Antonino Fogliani, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ at the Trinkhalle, Bad Wildbad, Germany, during the XXIV ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival, 14, 18, and 21 July 2012; NAXOS 8.660343-44; 2CD, 137:52; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Who is Saverio Mercadante?

Despite a number of Mercadante’s operas having been recorded in recent years, including a delightful account of his Don Chisciotte alle nozze di Gamaccio from Naxos, the casual listener must be forgiven for asking this question when encountering this new recording of the composer’s 1836 opera I briganti. Premièred in Paris at the Théâtre-Italien by the ‘Puritani quartet’ of Giulia Grisi (Amelia), Giovanni Battista Rubini (Ermano), Antonio Tamburini (Corrado), and Luigi Lablache (Massimiliano), Mercadante’s opera is a setting of an adaptation by Jacopo Crescini of Friedrich Schiller’s 1781 drama Die Räuber that, via a libretto adapted by Andrea Maffei, also served as the source for Giuseppe Verdi’s better-known but seldom-performed I masnadieri. The modest ‘successo di stima’ that greeted the first production of I briganti was surely a disappointment to its Altamura-born composer, but the time in Paris—as well as the exposure to the masterpieces of Bellini and Donizetti in the repertory of the Théâtre-Italien—was enormously beneficial to Mercadante, whose compositional style in his operas after I briganti grew ever more assured and distinctive. Already in I briganti, however, he had meaningfully synthesized the examples of Cherubini, Rossini, and Mayr with the fully-developed bel canto of Donizetti and Bellini. Christened a ‘melodramma serio,’ I briganti is a typical early Romantic tale of the crises of a supposed-dead father, his feuding sons, and the woman loved by both brothers. Though Mercadante was already forty years old when he composed I briganti, the score palpitates with youthful exuberance. It is an opera that seizes the listener’s attention at the start and grows more enjoyable with each subsequent scene, and the same can be said of this Naxos recording, which begins on a very high plane of musical excellence and never falls from it. So, who was Saverio Mercadante? He was a composer who may now be eclipsed by the celestial genius of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini, but this recording of I briganti reminds the listener that he also glowed among those stars in the constellation of true bel canto and that his operas still have the capacity to shine very brightly.

Not surprisingly for a score that exudes the intoxicating fragrance of bel canto, I briganti offers the orchestra much in the way of tuneful obbligati and finely-crafted melodic arcs and harmonic progressions but limited opportunities for the kind of concerted displays of virtuosity that became standard operatic fare as the Nineteenth Century progressed. Under the baton of Antonino Fogliani, one of today’s most insightful masters of rejuvenating little-remembered bel canto repertory, the musicians of Virtuosi Brunensis, directed by Karel Mitáš, play with the reliable eloquence and pure intonation that have made their numerous outings on Naxos recordings so enjoyable. Recorded in performance at the XXIV ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival with only occasional intrusions by stage noise and almost none from the audience, the orchestra’s playing is remarkably unblemished: neither a false entry nor a flubbed note is to be heard, and the orchestra’s efforts are noteworthy for the imposing tightness of ensemble and the fluidity of phrasing. Led by chorus master Tomasz Potkowski, the choristers of the Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań contribute resonant, dramatically apt singing to the performance. The ensemble’s name raises concerns that the sounds produced by the chorus will be too small-scaled and ‘liturgical’ for red-blooded Italian opera. In this performance, the singers certainly display the sort of carefully-managed blend of tone and musical precision that a choir with a dedication to Bach might be expected to epitomize, but they also allow themselves to be carried along by the spirit of the music. The ladies of the choir give a polished account of the women’s chorus in Act One, ‘Come un etereo spirto dileguasi,’ and both the ‘coro religioso’ later in the same Act and the wonderful ‘Notte, il silenzio doppia’ in Act Three are passionately and pensively sung. This kind of music enflames Maestro Fogliani’s blood like a virus, and honoring the composer by executing his music with the greatest possible fidelity is the only remedy. The conductor supplies a healing dose of total immersion in bel canto and keeps the momentum churning throughout the performance. Mercadante could scarcely ask for more.

Every bel canto heroine with relationship issues needs a sympathetic confidante to listen to her troubles, and Teresa in I briganti fits the bill perfectly. As sung in this performance by mezzo-soprano Rosita Fiocco, Teresa is a very proper young lady whose concern for her mistress is genuine. Ms. Fiocco voices Teresa’s lines with dignity and easily-projected tone. Baritone Atanas Mladenov sings impressively in his few lines as the hermit Bertrando, as well, and tenor Jesús Ayllón brings a voice of great quality and a lively presence to his singing as Rollero, the requisite companion of the tenor hero.

Bass Bruno Praticò knows his way round Rossini’s basso buffo rôles better than almost anyone else in the business, and his performance in this performance of I briganti proves that his prowess likewise extends to dramatic bel canto. As Massimiliano, the conte di Moor and father of Corrado and Ermano whose presumed demise sets the opera’s events in motion, Mr. Praticò sings powerfully, combining his unerring instincts for bel canto phrasing with subtle hints of the comedic finesse for which he is renowned. When Massimiliano returns to his castle in Act Two, crucially if not quite miraculously restored to life, the ensuing duet with his son Ermano, ‘Deh, risparmia ch’io racconti,’ is one of the finest numbers in the score. Mr. Praticò responds to the splendor of the music with singing of verve and technical aplomb. In the opera’s thrilling trio finale, ‘Deh! non scemar con lagrime,’ in which Massimiliano believes that his son Ermano has committed fratricide and finally realizes that Ermano is the leader of the band of robbers, Mr. Praticò ably depicts the old Count’s horror, shame, and heartbreak. Whether in coloratura or cantabile, Mr. Praticò maintains a strong grasp of Mercadante’s style. The voice has weakened and the vibrato loosened, with execution of rapid-fire passages no longer as easy for him as it once was, but Mr. Praticò remains an irreproachable guardian of the sacred traditions of bel canto.

The first principal heard in this performance of I briganti is baritone Vittorio Prato, and the opening bar of Corrado’s music divulges that Mr. Prato’s singing is going to be a tremendous source of pleasure. In recitatives, arias, and ensembles, he never disappoints. Corrado’s aria in Act One, ‘Amelia angiol divino,’ receives from Mr. Prato a performance of the sort of burnished bel canto elegance that has become all but extinct. Even if his tone were not beautiful, his impeccable technique would be sufficient to ensure a performance of great artistic efficacy. The energy and virility of his singing of the cabaletta ‘Per lei che mi sprezza’ are complemented by his rousing negotiation of the coloratura and tenable efforts at the plentiful trills. Absent from Act Two, Corrado returns with a vengeance in Act Three, and Mr. Prato gives another masterclass in the art of dramatic bel canto in his performance of the aria ‘Ah! no: vivi e spargi un fiore.’ Mr. Prato portrays the most effective kind of villain, one whose treachery is cloaked in vocal velvet. Mr. Prato is clearly an engaging singer: this performance of Corrado’s music is the work of a great one.

Young Russian soprano Petya Ivanova takes the intricacies of Mercadante’s music for Amelia, Massimiliano’s ward and Ermano’s beloved, in stride, and her compact, pellucid tone ignites Amelia’s vocal lines. She sings the introspective cavatina in Act One, ‘Quando guerrier mio splendido,’ with radiance, her quick vibrato heightening her characterization of Amelia’s anxiety and vulnerability. In the subsequent cabaletta, ‘Ah! tu m’ami,’ Ms. Ivanova whizzes into the vocal stratosphere like a musical missile. Her solid, secure sopracuti sparkle like diamonds, and she sustains accuracy of intonation across wide intervals. The surge of anger and indignation in the duet with Corrado, ‘Quest’è la volta estrema,’ comes as a surprise after the ladylike poise of the aria and cabaletta, and Ms. Ivanova follows Mr. Prato’s lead in upping the dramatic ante. In the later duet with Ermano, ‘Sempre ripete mi,’ she dazzles with both her technical dexterity and the sweetness of her singing. After a stretch of fantastic singing and some breathtaking excursions above top C, Amelia’s preghiera in Act Three, ‘Ciel! del mio prode Ermano,’ inspires Ms. Ivanova to singing of marvelous sensitivity. A few instances of shrillness and wiriness, particularly at the very top of her range, detract nothing from her live-wire performance. Already an accomplished singer, this performance shows Ms. Ivanova to be an artist with tantalizing promise.

In a performance with so much fine singing, tenor Maxim Mironov appears in Act One like a comet, and his singing blazes brightly from his first line to the end of the opera. This is a young singer who has every qualification needed to be a world-class tenore di grazia: technique, charisma, an attractive timbre, and an upper register capable of galvanizing flights into the heavens. In Ermano’s cavatina and romanza in Act One, ‘Questi due verdi salici’ and ‘Qual soave armonia,’ Mr. Mironov not only bounds through volleys of coloratura worthy of any of Rossini’s tenor heroes but also offers a rare lesson in the proper use of historically-appropriate voce mista. Employing a soft-grained but well-projected head resonance, he provides a glimpse into the forgotten world of the great bel canto tenors of the first half of the Nineteenth Century. His high notes in chest voice are no less stylish, but he is an intelligent singer who integrates even the most exposed passages at the top of the voice into his seamless shaping of melodic lines. The simple elegance of his singing of ‘Incerto, che penso,’ the andante in the Act One finale, is very moving, and his unwavering intensity in the ‘Orgia’ and preghiera in Act Two, ‘Fra nembi crudeli,’ is gripping. In Ermano’s duet with his father, Mr. Mironov is an astute partner for Mr. Praticò, and his expression of Ermano’s desolation as he realizes in the opera’s final scene that his father thinks him his brother’s murderer is affecting. In a rôle composed for Rubini, of whom Bellini demanded a sustained F5 in I puritani, it is hardly surprising that Mr. Mironov is taken to the limits of his abilities by Ermano’s music. He is a singer who seems most comfortable when he is challenged, however, and his singing in this performance asserts that he is a shrewd artist who carefully evaluates every risk. His critically-acclaimed turn as the Conte di Libenskof in Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims at this summer’s ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival was recorded by Naxos for future release, and he has already graced Naxos’s recording of Wildbad’s La donna del lago with a rousing performance as Giacomo V, but his singing in this recording of I briganti inducts him into the company of Lawrence Brownlee, Javier Camarena, Juan Diego Flórez, and Colin Lee, which is to say that he is among the finest bel canto tenors singing today.

It is difficult to fathom how much poorer recorded music in the Twenty-First Century would be without Naxos. Naxos recordings have led attentive listeners on innumerable journeys, some of which have ended with the rediscoveries of forgotten treasures of the musical past. The label’s journey into the operas of Saverio Mercadante is one that hopefully has many more miles to travel, but this recording of I briganti is an act that will be incredibly difficult to follow.