By David Shengold
NEW YORK – Some of the numerous operas of Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870) once held the stage and rivaled the late works of Donizetti and the earlier efforts of Verdi. In performance, they are not quite unknown in contemporary North America. Il giuramento (1837), first heard in New York as early as 1848, has been ventured by Juilliard (1970), Opera Orchestra of New York (1981), and Washington Concert Opera (2009). Minnesota Opera gamely staged 1846’s Orazi e Curiazi in 2006. The composer called the former a melodramma and the latter a tragedia lirica.
But Mercadante also worked in comic modes, and one of the more piquant operatic musicological discoveries in recent years was the long-shelved score of the melodramma buffo entitled I due Figaro (The Two Figaros), composed in 1826 but revised and finally premièred in 1835. Riccardo Muti has championed the opera, even recording it in 2011 with a young cast including two lyric sopranos of recent Metropolitan Opera note, Eleonora Buratto and Rosa Feola. Amore Opera presented the piece the same year on their tiny Greenwich Village stage. Manhattan School of Music offered a more thorough treatment Dec. 12, certainly an upgrade in orchestral terms.
Mercadante’s pleasant overture provides, in its second subject, some Spanish coloration. Unlike the Figaro-related works by Mozart, Giovanni Paisiello, and Rossini (not to mention Darius Milhaud and John Corigliano), this work first saw light in Spain, at Madrid’s Teatro Principe. By that time, Beaumarchais’ characters were familiar properties, and other writers had long since taken up the challenges of – and presumed financial incentives for – crafting sequels and prequels. Mercadante’s pre-existing libretto, by Bellini and Donizetti’s frequent collaborator Felice Romani, drew on a 1795 five-act prose comedy by Honoré-Antoine Richaud Martelly. Dramatically, the opera is composed of rather stock situations.
Almost nothing the libretto tells us adds to the psychological insight accrued by Beaumarchais, da Ponte, and Mozart, respectively – which places I due Figaro rather as a precursor of those film franchises and TV sitcom reunions that merely gives the spectator the pleasure of spending more time with familiar characters. In this opera, Figaro is both scheming and schemed against in terms of marrying off the Almavivas’ daughter Inez, either to a bogus aristocratic suitor named Alvaro or to her actual beloved, the now adult Cherubino, posing as another “Figaro.” The only frisson comes in scenes that replay in inverted form scenes we already know: for example, when Cherubino is locked in a closet and it’s a suspicious Figaro and Susanna (posing as Cherubino’s love object to cover for Inez) who argue about opening the door; and then later when Conte Almaviva (of all people) tries to persuade Figaro to be a forgiving spouse. There may be just two Figaros, but the opera has at least two too many scenes of formulaic forgiveness.
Stefano Sarzani, fresh off conducting two operas for Lyric Opera of Chicago, provided impressive leadership in the pit. The playing seemed confident, with little sense of the first-night jitters that sometimes afflict student orchestras. The instrumental solos, deployed according to extant Rossinian models, were generally quite eloquent. Dona D. Vaughn’s production was aptly bright and bouncy, with sherbet-hued sets by Shoko Kambara and elaborate period costumes (Tracy Dorman) and wig, hair, and make-up (Bobbie Zlotnik). It was, however, dispiriting to see some of the singers bouncing and twirling on the music’s beat – the cheap bane of so many provincial Nozze and Barbiere productions.
The student singers, well coached in Italian and mostly on good musical behavior as concerned decoration, all showed some promise. Laureano Quant (Figaro) unfurled a basically good, strong baritone and much energy, but tended to roar too often. Opposite him, Carolina López Moreno’s Susanna showed take-charge presence, but only at times did her voice, clearly possessed of an engaging quality and some skill in staccati, do her bidding as regards true pitch. Yu Ding looked imposingly handsome as Conte Almaviva but tended to direct his singing towards the audience and not his colleagues, with too much hand waving. His clearly produced tenor had some agility but seems more destined for German or Slavic repertory. Shélen Hughes acted the count’s put-upon daughter Inez well and sang with a bright, accurate soprano poised between soubrette and lyric timbre.
The real discoveries among the cast were the two mezzo-sopranos. British-born Joanne Evans as Cherubino (and thus the supposed “second Figaro” in disguise) had presence, charm, and comic timing to burn, and her agile, tangy, and individual-sounding instrument displayed remarkable agility in runs in what Mercadante made the opera’s showiest role. Only a few unknit topmost notes distracted from Evans’ impressive showing, which indicated she’d already be a mettlesome Pippo (La gazza ladra) or Isolier (Le comte Ory) on a professional stage. She is a singer to watch, as is Maria Consamus, who voiced the Contessa in a pleasing, evenly produced nut-brown timbre that – an accomplishment for a conservatory student – made her convincing and sympathetic as a mature person of social stature. The Contessa has the nearest thing to a solo scene expressive of true character development (“Prender che val marito?”), and Consamus gave it real impact.
Baritone Marcel Sokalski vocalized the omnipresent “playwright within the play,” Plagio, with due elegance, but Mercadante gives the character very little of interest in the way of solo lines, whereas most of the other leads have genuine challenges and privileges either as solo arias plus cabalettas (be they fairly generic) or as multi-part ensembles (sometimes quite extended, and easily the most accomplished and compelling parts of the score). The character, plainly modeled on Prosdocimo in 1814’s Il turco in Italia, gives (as with Prosdocimo) modern critics something to latch onto and label as Pirandellian, but with all due respect to Rossini and Mercadante, in neither case is the trope worked out with especial point. Here it takes almost the whole opera for Plagio’s presence to have any dramatic payoff whatsoever; and the staging had poor Sokalski continually hiding behind set units and cowering under chairs, scribbling in a notebook, which got tiresome very quickly. As the servant disguised as a suitor Alvaro, Sehyun Lee brought forth an incisive but non-legato tenor that almost sounded as if he was employing a lowered larynx technique: potentially exciting but ill-suited to the demands of bel canto repertoire.
Like many conservatory productions, this four-performance run of I due Figaro utilized an alternate cast for some roles. Two shows featured Evan Lazdowski (Figaro), Blair Cagney (Susanna), Alanna Fraize (Cherubino), Jiyu Kim (Inez), Xiao Xiao (Contessa), and Daniel Choi (Plagio), with Ongama Mhlontolo as listed cover for the Conte.
Mercadante’s Figaro comedy was well worth MSM’s effort. Now, what company will let us hear his operatic treatments of Hamlet, Henry V, Don Quixote, Mary Stuart, and Francesca da Rimini?
Critic/lecturer David Shengold resides in New York City. He regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt and other venues. He’s written program essays for companies including the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden, and the Wexford and Glyndebourne festivals.