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8.660343-44 - MERCADANTE, S.: Briganti (I) [Melodramma serio] (Mironov, Ivanova, Prato, Poznań Camerata Bach Choir, Virtuosi Brunensis, Fogliani)
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Saverio Mercadante (1795–1870)
I Briganti

 

Melodramma serio in Three Parts
Libretto by Jacopo Crescini after Friedrich Schiller’s play Die Räuber

Massimiliano, Graf von Moor – Bruno Praticò, Bass
Ermano, his son – Maxim Mironov, Tenor
Corrado, his son – Vittorio Prato, Bass
Amelia, his ward – Petya Ivanova, Soprano
Teresa, her friend – Rosita Fiocco, Mezzo-soprano
Bertrando, a hermit – Atanas Mladenov, Baritone
Rollero, a robber – Jesús Ayllón, Tenor

Saverio Mercadante ranked among Italy’s most productive composers of the nineteenth century. Instrumental and church music stand alongside 57 operas in his output. From 1808 to 1816 he studied violin and composition at the Conservatorio di San Sebastiano in Naples and, like Vincenzo Bellini, was a pupil of Niccolò Zingarelli. In 1819 he made his début as a composer at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples with the opera L’apoteosi di Ercole and in 1821 in Milan gained European fame with Elisa e Claudio. From 1823 to 1825 he was Rossini’s successor as the house composer at the Teatro San Carlo and from 1826 to 1831 he worked as a composer and conductor in the Iberian peninsula. From 1833 to 1840 he held the office of maestro di cappella at Novara Cathedral in upper Italy. He owed a stay in Paris in 1835/36 to his knowledge of French grand opera, whose principal elements he adapted to Italian theatrical practice in his ‘reform operas’, above all in Il giuramento and Il bravo (Milan, 1837 and 1839). Long before Verdi, Mercadante transformed pure bel canto opera into real music drama. In 1840 he succeeded his teacher Zingarelli as director of the Naples Conservatory and in 1843 was appointed chief conductor at the Teatro San Carlo. With the onset of blindness in 1862 his public activities ceased but he remained active as a composer and teacher right up to the end, when he taught and also dictated his own new works to his pupils.

When Mercadante set off for Paris in the summer of 1835 he was planning to stay for three months at the most. The fact that he was there for more than six months was due to Felice Romani. Mercadante had originally planned to stay in Paris from the end of 1835 into the beginning of 1836, but it was then that Romani, the original librettist for I Briganti, came up against deadline difficulties. Thus the commission for a new libretto passed to Jacopo Crescini, an Italian expatriate and poet who was then living in Paris, but who at that time had never written a libretto. The choice of subject fell on Schiller’s drama Die Räuber (The Robbers). This was a wise decision on two counts: on the one hand the dramatization of a stage play, as opposed to a libretto based on a novel, spared the librettist work and on the other Schiller’s play had been in the repertoire of Parisian theatres since the time of the French Revolution. Crescini, therefore, could proceed on the assumption that the opera-going public would be familiar with the rather complex nature of the plot. As a result, he declined (unlike Verdi in I masnadieri) extensively to develop the action and focussed instead entirely on the tragic ending (although he took great pains, often only in half-sentences, to call to mind the work’s complex back story).

With its coherent plot, Crescini had produced a libretto which from his dramaturgical point of view aligned itself with French opera of the time, rather than with Italian practice. Mercadante, who had travelled to Paris with the naïve notion that the difference between Italian and French opera consisted merely in the fact that in Paris more value would be put on a lavish production, had meanwhile realized full well that grand opera was more than simply a succession of virtuoso vocal pieces. He therefore organised the four scenes into seven large-scale musical numbers, which nevertheless contained within them the traditional Italian forms such as scena and aria or prayer and duet, which he used, however, as an additional element and which was bound together through the use of through-composed transitional music (and which would pre-empt applause for the singers, a practice which was then customary in Italy).

The second act in particular can be recognized immediately as being through-composed. It is worth noting also that although Corrado has two big arias, there are none for Ermano or Amelia in this act. They are compensated for this lack by being given shorter character numbers (drinking song, romanza, prayer etc). Clearly it would be wrong to label I Briganti simply as grand opera. It is, and remains, as its unique hybrid form suggests, a bel canto opera. It arose out of a troupe of singers, including the same ones who gave the première of Bellini’s I puritani in 1835. And of course I puritani was the yardstick by which Mercadante would have wanted to prove himself to the Paris public. So it was that the meeting with the quartet of singers from I puritani was, for Mercadante, almost like a family reunion. Admittedly, he was writing for Giuditta Grisi for the first time, whereas he had already played together with Luigi Lablache in the conservatory orchestra. At the beginning of their careers around 1820 Antonio Tamburini and Giovanni Rubini had both sung in Naples and had created the principal rôles in Mercadante’s second opera (Violenza e costanza) and in his third (Anacreonte in Samo), so Mercadante was very well acquainted with their vocal possibilities. And the score gives the impression that he intended to offer his friends something quite special—vocal parts which would also pose a real challenge to superstar singers. Only this can explain the sometimes extremely high tessitura of the vocal writing. Furthermore, close inspection reveals that Mercadante came up with a very independent type of canto fiorito (lit. flowery singing) of his own devising (and not one simply modelled on Rossini). Likewise this intensification of possibilities of canto fiorito, in conjunction with the adaptation of a dramaturgy stemming from grand opera, accounts for the distinctiveness of this opera, which outdoes Bellini and paves the way for Verdi’s later dramas. In palaeontological parlance one could describe Mercadante as the “missing link” between Bellini and Verdi.

Furthermore, Mercadante’s stay in Paris in 1835/6 heralded a decisive turning-point in his own career, inasmuch as from then on he concentrated completely on the Italian market. His opera Il giuramento, which was given its première in 1837 in Milan, drew on his Parisian experiences and expanded on them. On the one hand he abandoned the Italian practice of providing all the soloists with extensive solo arias, while on the other he cut back on excessive canto fiorito in the solo parts—as he had done already in Corrado’s second aria in I Briganti. In contrast he posits a canto dramatico. But this is not a fundamental contradiction: Mercadante did not reject bel canto, but opted instead to cut back on canto fiorito wherever there was a danger that it would run counter to the dramatic truth of the action. Transgressing this boundary remained reserved for middle-period Verdi who, with his insistence on far brutto, finally placed veracity of expression above its beauty.

It was precisely this boundary which Mercadante in his late period was unable or unwilling to cross and it highlights the distance between his works and those of Verdi from the end of the 1840s. For the short period between 1836 until about 1840 Mercadante was busy with his ‘reform operas’. He was at that time Italy’s leading, most advanced, composer of operas. After completing Il giuramento in 1837, Mercadante also revised I Briganti (for La Scala, Milan). His working manuscript shows how he revised the Paris version of the opera almost bar for bar in order to assimilate his newly-acquired aesthetic of opera. With today’s ears, one would not readily rate a performance of this Milan version any higher than one would early Verdi. Admittedly Mercadante had to tone down the plot on grounds of censorship: at the end of the Milan version Ermano stabs himself to death. Such a simple melodramma romantico comes out of Schiller’s Sturm und Drang play. Remarkably enough the Paris version, which is generally accepted to be the stronger, enjoyed success also in Italy and was heard for the last time in 1847 in Pisa.

Synopsis

Part I

[1] The old Count Massimiliano has died and his second son Corrado has come into the inheritance after he had earlier involved his father in a plot to disown the first-born son Ermano. Ermano is thought to have died abroad, whereas in fact he has joined up with a band of brigands which specifically targets the aristocracy and, although of noble birth, he has meanwhile become the band’s leader. Meanwhile Corrado believes that his own scheming has achieved its end: at this very time he has made it known that he wishes to shorten the appropriate period of court mourning (for the count) so that he can marry Amelia, the old count’s ward. After a few bars of orchestral introduction, the opera begins with a chorus expressing hope that, from now on, happiness will come again to the castle.

[2][4] Corrado enters and makes known his plans for Amelia. In the following aria he turns out to be at odds with himself: driven by a desire for power, yet fearful of being unmasked as the murderer of his father.

[5] A chorus of Amelia’s ladies-in-waiting invites her to join in the celebrations.

[6][7] But Amelia is still in mourning for the old count, as well as for his first-born son Ermano, whom she once loved.

[8][10] Corrado enters and explains to Amelia that he will not now marry her. Amelia is incensed and a violent argument ensues.

[11][12] Meanwhile, the brigands, quite by chance, find themselves taking a path close to Ermano’s home castle. That night Ermano steals into his father’s castle, seeking his forgiveness. The finale begins. After an extended orchestral introduction the despairing Ermano reflects on past happiness.

[13] A harp sounds and from afar he hears Amelia singing a melancholy ballad.

[14] This is interrupted by a chorus of mourning for the dead count.

[15][16] Ermano is in a state of shock. Amelia appears and Ermano makes himself known to her, but he does not dare confess to her his allegiance to the revolutionaries. Amelia declares her undying love for him.

[17][19] They are both surprised by Corrado, who at first simply thinks that there has been an intrusion into the castle. Finally Ermano reveals himself also to Corrado. The members of the court now have divided loyalties. The brothers challenge each other to a duel at dawn.

Part II

[1] On a stormy night the brigands assemble in a wood.

[2] They try to cheer up the despondent Ermano by singing him a drinking song and he extols the virtues of the brigand culture and its ideal of an autonomous life.

[3] As his companions retire for the night, Ermano can find no sleep. He comes across the picture of the Virgin Mary before which, long ago, he had pledged his troth with Amelia; suddenly he becomes aware of the discrepancy between the social-revolutionary requirements of the partisans and the reality of their banditry. He offers up a prayer.

[4] From afar he hears a plaintive voice.

[5][8] He surprises an old hermit bringing meat and drink to a prisoner. Ermano sets the prisoner free and realizes that it is none other than his own father. The hermit had persuaded the hired killer contracted by Corrado not to kill the old count and had concealed this from Corrado. The count bemoans his sad fate; Ermano (at first pretending to be one of his own friends) tells of his own sad fate abroad and of the plot with which his brother had discredited him to their father. Finally Ermano makes himself known to his father.

[9] The old count is overjoyed, yet at the same time alarmed at Ermano’s appearance. Ermano’s men swear to restore the count’s rights to him. Corrado is to be spared.

Part III

[10] The brigands have seized the castle.

[11][12] Corrado, close to madness, realizes that, as the perpetrator of the intrigue, his guilt has been revealed and he resolves to seek death in battle.

[13][14] Amelia worries about Ermano’s fate and prays for him.

[15] Women’s voices are heard proclaiming that the old count is still alive and Amelia is reunited with him.

[16][18] Then Ermano appears with a blood-stained sword. The count accuses him of fratricide. In vain Ermano tries to explain to his father that Corrado has killed himself with his own (i.e. Ermano’s) sword.

[19] Ermano’s followers enter. They are encircled and in danger and urge Ermano to flee with them. He is aware of his duty and follows them. Only now does Amelia realize that Ermano has become a brigand and she falls down dead. The old count is left as though petrified.


Michael Wittmann

English translations by David Stevens


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