13 February 2017

CD REVIEW: Antonio Salieri — LA SCUOLA DE’ GELOSI (F. Lombardi Mazzulli, E. D’Aguanno, R. Mameli, F. Sacchi, M. Storti, F. Götz, P. Vogel; deutsche harmonia mundi 88985332282)

IN REVIEW: Antonio Salieri - LA SCUOLA DE' GELOSI (deutsche harmonia mundi 88985332282)ANTONIO SALIERI (1750 – 1825): La scuola de’ gelosiFrancesca Lombardi Mazzulli (Contessa), Emanuele D’Aguanno (Conte), Roberta Mameli (Ernestina), Federico Sacchi (Blasio), Milena Storti (Carlotta), Florian Götz (Lumaca), Patrick Vogel (Tenente); l’arte del mondo; Werner Ehrhardt, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in Erholungshaus Leverkusen, Leverkusen, Germany, 17 – 20 December 2015; deutsche harmonia mundi 88985332282; 3 CDs, 161:14; Available from Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Before the dawning of the age of televised talent searches and real-time competitions, artists’ paths to recognition often wound through desolate landscapes of obscurity and indifference. An aspiring composer born in Legnago in the Veneto in 1750 did not have the luxury of posting samples of his work on Vimeo and YouTube and waiting for the world to watch and listen. For one precocious boy born in Legnago in 1750, the journey to widespread acclaim was arduous and even tragic but brief. Exposed by his violinist brother and his native town’s organist to the storied legacies of Giuseppe Tartini and Padre Martini, the young Antonio Salieri at the dawn of adolescence was first orphaned and then passed from the care of a Padovani friar to a Venetian aristocrat. Adopted as a foster son and disciple by composer Florian Leopold Gassmann, Salieri found himself at the age of fifteen in the musical Mecca of Habsburg Europe, Vienna, where his work would be received with enthusiasm for a half-century. It was therefore as a well-established, widely-esteemed master of Italian-influenced Viennese Classicism that Salieri composed one of his finest scores, La scuola de’ gelosi, for the 1778 Venetian Carnevale. The opera’s première in Teatro San Moisè on 27 December 1778, was one of the most complete successes of the first half of Salieri’s life, a triumph eventually repeated throughout Europe. It is a triumph recreated on l’arte del mondo’s deutsche harmonia mundi traversal of the score. Recorded during concert performances in Erholungshaus Leverkusen, this Scuola de’ gelosi is indeed educational. So much effort has been expended in the past two centuries on cataloging the ways in which Salieri was not Mozart that far too little attention has been granted to the extraordinary ways in which he was Salieri. La scuola de’ gelosi represents Salieri at his best, and this recording of the opera enables Twenty-First-Century listeners to establish or deepen a meaningful acquaintance not with the malevolent, mendacious Salieri of myth but with the real Salieri and one of the most appealing products of his prodigious talents.

A setting of a witty libretto by Caterino Mazzolà, court poet at Dresden and most known to modern observers for having adapted Metastasio’s text of La clemenza di Tito for Mozart, La scuola de’ gelosi must have seemed the zenith of modernity to Venetian audiences in 1778—and perhaps even more so to the Viennese, accustomed to the formalities of Maria Theresa’s reign, when the opera was first performed in the Habsburg capital in 1783. As played by l’arte del mondo and conducted by Werner Ehrhardt, the score retains a delightful ability to surprise. It cannot be claimed that Salieri was consistently Mozart’s equal as an orchestrator or a composer of operatic ensembles, but his work merits considerably greater respect than that afforded a mere craftsman. Conducting with a sure grasp of the opera’s carefully-planned rhythmic flow, Ehrhardt provides a solidly musical foundation upon which the many virtues of Salieri’s score are subsequently built. No composer active in the second half of the Eighteenth Century possessed theatrical flair superior to Mozart’s, but this performance of La scuola de’ gelosi confirms that the miraculous Salzburger could and undoubtedly did learn much from his Italian colleague. Much of the writing for orchestra in La scuola de’ gelosi recalls the finest efforts of both Haydns and the mature Mozart, and l’arte del mondo’s instrumentalists play every bar of their parts with concentration and virtuosity. Massimiliano Toni’s fortepiano continuo is cleverly enlivened with allusions to Mozart’s famous alla Turca Piano Sonata in A major (K. 331), perhaps composed as early as 1778 but most plausibly in 1783 and not published until 1784, contemporaneous with the first Vienna production of La scuola de’ gelosi. Propelled by this musical current, the performance engagingly circumnavigates Salieri’s score, providing the listener with alluring vistas of every musical port of call. Energetically paced by Ehrhardt and effervescently played by l’arte del mondo, this performance not only delights but also both legitimizes the esteem that Salieri enjoyed among his contemporaries and confirms the breadth of the influence that his music exerted on his own and future generations.

One of the unexpected surprises that La scuola de’ gelosi has in store for listeners is the gift for vivid musical characterization that the opera discloses. As in most aspects of his artistry, Salieri’s skill at creating musical portraiture is commonly deemed secondary to Mozart’s, but the denizens of La scuola de’ gelosi are worthy comrades of the finest of Mozart’s operatic personages. Each of the rôles in La scuola de’ gelosi possesses unique charms, and the wonderfully entertaining music for il Tenente is sung with keen intuition by tenor Patrick Vogel. Salieri’s ensemble writing in the Act One terzetto in which il Tenente spars with the Contessa and Conte makes no demands on the singer that are not well within Vogel’s technical compass, and he launches ‘La guerra s’incomincia, che diavolo ho da far?’ with unaffected humor. He then sings the aria ‘Ah, non siate ognor sì facili’ with vocal and dramatic immediacy. In Act Two, Vogel voices il Tenente’s aria ‘Chi vuol nella femmina trovar fedeltà’ brilliantly, the voice shimmering with a broad spectrum of colors. Singing with great flair, Vogel is always present in the drama, reveling in the bounty of Salieri’s musical ingenuity and establishing himself as a first-rate exponent of the composer’s idiom.

Bumbling charismatically without excessive bluster or buffoonery, baritone Florian Götz graces this performance of La scuola de’ gelosi with an ebullient, genuinely funny Lumaca. The character’s aria in Act One, ‘Una donna che affetto non sente,’ is sung with panache and expert comedic timing, every syllable of the text enunciated with obvious knowledge of both its literal meaning and its implications within the opera’s cumulative context. In Act Two, Götz delivers the aria ‘Lumaca, giudizio! Amor è un bel vizio’ with an ideal blend of poetry and pomposity. In his every appearance, the baritone’s vocal acting is no less astute in recitatives and ensembles than in arias. The range of Lumaca’s music poses few challenges for Götz, but a few instances of roughness and compromised intonation in his singing serve as reminders that, despite the ease with which he inhabits the rôle, this is not easy music.

Responding spiritedly to Götz’s Lumaca, mezzo-soprano Milena Storti is a fount of period-appropriate musical effervescence as the quick-thinking Carlotta. Bringing to Salieri’s music a voice of excellent quality over which she wields near-perfect control, Storti is a gifted artist whose restrained approach to comedy is so much more enjoyable than the efforts of singers who view comic rôles as a license to overdo buffo silliness. Though its sentiments are anything but silly, Storti maintains an entrancing lightness in Carlotta’s Act One aria ‘Gelosia d’amore è figlia,’ judiciously allowing the text to do the heavy lifting of fulfilling both the aria’s straightforward and its ironic purposes. The mezzo-soprano’s account of ‘Il cor nel seno balzar mi sento’ in Act Two pulses with honest emotion, the singer finding the character’s heart beating within the music and exposing it to the listener. As portrayed by Storti, Carlotta is no Carmen in Classical garb, hiding from Don José amidst minuets and periwigs. With a voice as attractive as her mind is sharp, Storti’s Carlotta is a lady of class and cunning who sings accordingly.

The Blasio of bass Federico Sacchi is a mercurial, silver-tongued fellow with much in common with Mozart’s Figaro and Don Alfonso. When he bellows, he does so with authority that not even the opera’s aristocratic couple can ignore, but there is sweetness in him, too—a trait used by Sacchi to give Blasio a nucleus of humanity that ultimately proves quite touching. Bursting into the Act One Introduzione with a statement of ‘Zitto! Alcun sentir mi parve’ that immediately captures both the listener’s and the other characters’ attention, Sacchi’s voice vaults through the music. The duettino with Ernestina draws from him a deluge of flawlessly-inflected comic singing, the sonorous mock-seriousness of his ‘Al gran Can di Tartaria’ fruitfully tapping the vein of zaniness in the score. Sacchi sings Blasio’s aria ‘Fate buona compagnia, trattenete il signor Conte’ strongly, and he articulates ‘Con mille smanie al core attendo qui mia moglie’ in the rollicking Act One finale—an ensemble that surely served as a model for similar scenes in Mozart’s mature operas—with hilariously overwrought intensity. Blasio’s aria in Act Two, ‘Adagio...allor potrei...è moglie, io son marito,’ is a gift to a talented basso buffo, a piece that presages Rossini’s writing for the Fach. Sacchi performs the aria with the brio of an accomplished Don Magnifico or Mustafà. Singers all too often succumb to the lure of resorting to over-emoting in comic rôles, exploiting rather than exploring the music, but in this performance Sacchi actually sings Blasio’s music; and very well, moreover, a few bumpy bars detracting nothing from his winsome portrayal.

The wily Ernestina emerges with abundant charm and musical finesse from the mind and throat of soprano Roberta Mameli, a singer whose expertise in Baroque and early Classical repertories render her an exceptionally well-qualified applicant to Salieri’s Scuola. From her first line of recitative, Mameli handles Salieri’s music with dexterity and dulcet tone. In the Act One duettino with Blasio, her Ernestina utters ‘Perdonate: amor è audace’ with beguiling demureness, and the joy that her singing of the aria ‘Se verrete a me vicino con le belle, con le buone’ evinces is infectious. Likewise, Mameli voices ‘Queste donne sussiegate che disprezzano gli amanti’ in Act Two with passion and precision. Musically and dramatically, the apogee of her performance is her account of Ernestina’s Act Two cavatina, ‘Cattivo sego, sposine amabili,’ one of the finest numbers in the score. In every scene in which Ernestina appears, however, Mameli delves deeply into the character’s motivations, seeking in the text causes for Salieri’s musical effects. Ever a wise singer who makes well-informed decisions about repertory, Mameli finds in Ernestina a rôle that might have been composed specially for her and sings her with insightful focus.

Taking no prisoners in his good-natured but uncompromising siege on the Count’s music, tenor Emanuele D’Aguanno gives unexpected depth and importance to a character who could all too easily be played as an arrogant, dim-witted fop. A noted master of bel canto, D’Aguanno traces the elegant line of the Conte’s Act One cavatina, ‘A me par che il mondo sia di ragazze d’ogni sorte,’ with natural grace. In the terzetto with the Contessa and il Tenente, the tenor’s voicing of ‘Eh via, saggia Penelope, non siate sì feroce’ emits a charge of satirical electricity: one can almost see the Conte rolling his eyes in bemused annoyance. In the aria ‘Chi può vedere oppresso un idolo d’amor,’ D’Aguanno’s technical prowess is put to use with astonishing fluidity. Here, too, in music through which otherwise capable singers might stammer, D’Aguanno’s bel canto training yields a performance of wondrous confidence. This alone heightens the nobility of the singer’s portrayal of the Conte. Joining with his Contessa in the Act Two duettino, this Conte delivers ‘Quel visino è da ritratto’ with the futile virility of a wasp trapped in honey. The aria ‘Più sereni quegli occhi volgete’ is sung with unapologetic romanticism, D’Aguanno again making magic with his negotiation of the vocal line. D’Aguanno is an expressive, communicative singer who deserves greater global recognition, and his performance on this recording is a compelling exhibition of his abilities.

A spiritual kinswoman of Beaumarchais’s, Mozart’s, and Rossini’s Rosina, Mazzolà’s and Salieri’s Contessa is a figure of intelligence and integrity. There is never any doubt that she is the headmistress of La scuola de’ gelosi, her emotional journey shaping the course of the opera in ways that clearly stoked Salieri’s imagination. Depicting the Contessa as an evocatively feminine force with an iron core, soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli reigns over this performance, her singing radiantly beautiful in cantilena and excitingly fleet in fiorature. Her rapt phrasing of the Act One cavatina ‘Ah, non è ver che in seno amor germogli amore’ is sustained with superb breath control, and she dispatches ‘Ridete pur, ridete, caro il mio bel Narciso’ in the terzetto with the Conte and il Tenente with a disarming giggle in the voice. All traces of mirth are suppressed in her heated performance of the aria ‘Gelosia, dispetto e sdegno lacerando il cor mi vanno,’ the contrasts among her pure vowels and sharp but unexaggerated consonants lifting the text off of the page and transforming it into audible thought. The Act Two duettino with the Conte discloses a more minxish facet of the Contessa’s personality, and the soprano rises to the occasion with an understated ‘Siete amabile e giocondo, ogni bella a voi l’attesta’ in which an almost ferocious competitiveness undulates beyond the serene façade. In the ingenious quintetto with the Conte, Blasio, Ernestina, and il Tenente, Lombardi Mazzulli leads her colleagues in a fabulous display of intricate vocal interplay, her voice always distinguishable from Mameli’s and shimmering with a golden hue at the top of the stave. The aria ‘Ah, sia già de’ miei sospiri sazio il fato e sazio il Ciel’ is sung with heart-warming lyricism that indelibly embodies the singer’s concept of her rôle. Impressive as Lombardi Mazzulli’s undaunted meeting of the punishing demands of the Contessa’s florid music invariably is, she impresses most with the untarnished beauty of her vocalism and the sincerity of her acting. In opera, simplicity is rarely the easiest but is often the best choice. For Lombardi Mazzulli, the simplicity of learning music and singing it as its composer intended it to be sung is not a choice but an organic component of her technique. There is no doubt that, when composing La scuola de’ gelosi, Salieri’s sympathies were dominated by the Contessa. When hearing this performance of the opera, Lombardi Mazzulli’s singing ensures that the Contessa wins listeners’ affection just as handily.

In the four-century history of opera, there have been a handful of composers whose work steered the genre’s development from its earliest Italian roots to the complex, many-branched organism that today spreads its canopy over the musical topography. Among those branches, composers with vastly different qualifications have created scores that meandered in and out of the international repertory. A particular wonder of the first seventeen years of the new century is the reappraisal that has been granted to a number of scores that in their infancy were rightly or wrongly deemed inadequate or insignificant. Still awaiting rediscovery are many operas that were welcomed with enthusiasm when first performed but have subsequently been supplanted by pieces that achieved greater popularity. In many cases, first impressions are as important in opera as on any of life’s other stages: a forgotten opera may have only one opportunity to plead its case before the discerning jury of today’s listeners. With this recording, distinguished by fantastic performances by cast, conductor, and orchestra, Antonio Salieri’s La scuola de’ gelosi makes an argument that could not fail to persuade even the most prejudiced juror to acquit the score of charges of musical inferiority. It is tempting to suggest that, without Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte, La scuola de’ gelosi might never have been forced from its place of prominence among the most revered operas from the second half of the Eighteenth Century, but one of the most profound lessons imparted by this school is that, without La scuola de’ gelosi, Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte may never have reached the stage.