About this Recording
2.110630 - MERCADANTE, S.: Didone abbandonata [Opera] (Innsbruck Festival of Early Music, 2018) (NTSC)
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Didone Must Be Capable of Everything

A conversation with Alessandro De Marchi on the challenge and necessity of resurrecting a Mercadante opera in its original sound

For the first time the Early Music Festival is venturing into the early 19th century, into what we now call the Age of Bel Canto. Why did you choose a Mercadante opera? Why not one by Rossini, Bellini or Donizetti?

Alessandro De Marchi: Bel canto began much earlier than that. It started with the very first operas of Caccini, Peri and Monteverdi and ended with Rossini. That’s a huge historical arch from the late Renaissance to early Romanticism. The Festival has unearthed many operas from those 200 years, and now we’ve arrived at the other end of the arch. We often fill gaps in the repertoire in Innsbruck, just as we’re doing now with

Didone abbandonata. And Mercadante has unjustly vanished from the stage. Is there nothing left for period performers to discover in the Baroque and Classical periods, so that you’re now taking on the Italian ottocento?

The crucial point for us is the original sound. Even early 19th-century operas need instruments built just as they were when the music was written if they are to sound to best advantage. The original sound is finer, more limpid, and a far better foundation for the singers. What better place than Innsbruck to present these operas with the sound and playing style of their own era!

Does that also call for a lower pitch than today’s standard 440 hertz?

Of course. We play at 430 hertz. That’s a quarter-tone lower, and a great relief to the singers of the high parts. It means they can sing more notes in the comfortable middle register and not at the precarious break to the high register. Even Verdi pleaded for a universal tuning pitch of A=432 hertz when he represented Italy at an international tuning pitch conference. That’s fairly close to our A=430 hertz. He was dismayed when they chose a higher standard tuning pitch. Then it was raised yet again in the 20th century.

Giuseppe Saverio Mercadante came from Altamura in southern Italy and was trained in Naples from his early youth. Like Bellini he studied composition with an opera composer from the Neapolitan school, Niccolò Antonio Zingarelli. Did he carry on this tradition, and was the Neapolitan School consistent with the new style emerging in Italy at the time, the melodrama romantico?

All previous composers of Neapolitan opera spoke a common musical language. Even Viennese classical composers like Haydn and Mozart were in contact with this school. Haydn did an apprenticeship with the Neapolitan master Porpora, and when the young Mozart was in Milan he encountered operas by a leading figure of this style, Johann Adolf Hasse. They left him hugely impressed. Early 19th-century composers inherited this language and continued to develop it.

Didone abbandonata was premiered in 1823, the same year as Rossini’s Semiramide. Are the two operas comparable?

They both have strong ties to the 18th century. Indeed, Semiramide has been called the last great opera in the Baroque tradition. But we’ve discovered many things in Didone that point to the future. It marks an end and a beginning at once.

The common thread: Metastasio

Mercadante left behind more than 60 operas. They were written between 1819, when Rossini was already triumphant, and 1866, when Verdi reigned supreme in Italian opera. Why did Innsbruck choose Didone abbandonata from Mercadante’s early years?

It begins with the libretto, which was written by Pietro Metastasio. With Didone abbandonata we draw on a common thread that passes through the entire 40-year history of the Innsbruck Festival, which has mounted many earlier settings of Metastasio.

But Metastasio’s librettos were laid out in the form of 18th-century opera. That’s why his Didone was adapted by Andrea Leone Tottola for Mercadante’s 19thcentury setting. What did he change?

Most of all he shifted things around. A Metastasio libretto has a simple structure of alternating recitatives and arias. There are very few duets and a single chorus sung by all the soloists at the end. This structure was out of the question for Mercadante. So Tottola was commissioned to modernize the libretto, meaning he had to insert a lot of choruses, duets, trios, sextets, a grand Act I finale and a rondò at the end. He did this by retooling many passages that were plain recitative in Metastasio’s original.

Does the chorus play an important role in Didone?

Indeed it does, in the machismo manner typical of Romantic opera for showing martial and soldierly scenes. Didone uses an exclusively male chorus; we hear it as Enea’s cohorts and as a host of warriors for the Moorish king Jarba. But more than that, the chorus also comments on the action, just like the chorus in ancient Greek tragedy.

What sources were you able to draw on for Didone? Is there a complete set of performance material from the 1823 premiere in Turin and later productions?

Our edition for the Innsbruck production is based on the autograph score preserved in Turin. We also consulted a copy in Naples for comparison purposes and adopted many things from it, especially in the overture. You have to know that manuscript paper at that time was often too small to accommodate all the orchestra parts on a single page. So many instrumental parts had to be written on separate sheets. The Turin autograph doesn’t call for percussion in the overture. It was probably written on a separate sheet that’s now lost—the Naples copy gives the overture a complete percussion part for the banda. At that time the standard percussion section in Italian opera orchestras had not only timpani but cymbals, bass drum, side drum, tamburo rullante and triangle. We’ve included them all.

Will we hear the complete opera in Innsbruck, or have cuts been made for dramaturgical and theatrical reasons?

The musical numbers, meaning the arias and scenas, will be performed intact. The only cuts and changes occur in the recitatives, but that was already standard practice at the time. Part of period performance practice lies in creating a version of the recitatives that suits the dramaturgy of the production.

Opera arose from sung recitation two centuries before Mercadante. What style did he use for the recitatives in Didone?

The Turin version still has many passages of secco recitative, as in 18th-century opera seria. But the grand scenas have throughcomposed accompagnato recitative with orchestra. This turns the orchestra into a commentator or a preparer of the singers’ moods.

At the time of the 1823 premiere, tenors still sang falsetto above a certain high register. Didone has two tenor roles: Jarba and Araspe. How did Mercadante compose them?

Jarba’s part is a sort of baritenore set mainly in the middle register. Araspe, being the ‘lover’, is set higher. High notes were sung falsetto at the time until the French tenor Gilbert Duprez first sang a high C with chest tone at a Lucca performance of Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell in 1831. The success was so great that more and more tenors tried to imitate him. But Rossini was by no means happy with the new singing style: he said it sounds like the scream of a capon having its throat slit.

How will the two Innsbruck tenors, Carlo Allemano and Diego Godoy, sing the high notes?

They command both techniques and will switch between falsetto and chest tone depending on whatever timbre, expression and character they need.

Embellishments in Mercadante’s day

Can we form any picture today of how singers phrased and embellished their parts at the time?

Yes, thanks to piano reductions of operas. They were prepared for amateur domestic use at the time so that the music could also be heard at home. There are hardly any embellishments in original scores for stage productions, since professional singers knew exactly where and how they had to sing. But amateur musicians didn’t know that, so the embellishments were written into the melody line of the piano part for their benefit. This allows us to reconstruct the embellishments customary at the time, and also to determine whether any tenor embellishments reach high C. I’ve added all the embellishments from the piano version of Didone to the score and will discuss with the singers how many of them they can and want to sing.

Enea is written as a trouser role for low female voice. Did Mercadante transfer the earlier tradition of the heroic castrato to a female singer?

There was still one famous castrato in Mercadante’s day, Giambattista Velluti. His embellishments were so popular that all composers took them as a model. In the years leading up to Didone, Velluti also sang principal parts in Mercadante’s Andronico and Alfonso ed Elisa.

But Enea was a trouser role in Turin, a male hero sung by the Italian mezzosoprano Fanny Eckerlin, who was also one of Donizetti’s preferred singers.

True, Enea was conceived for a mezzo. There’s another trouser role for mezzo written at the time that is still famous today: Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. But the part of Enea is comparable to Rossini’s female roles, such as L‘italiana in Algeri or Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia.

The title figure Didone is written for soprano. What character of voice and expression does she have? Can Didone be compared to other title heroines of the era, such as Bellini’s Norma or Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda?

Didone is probably more difficult to cast. The most sought-after voice teacher of the 19th century, Manuel García, referred to this vocal type as soprano assoluto. For Didone is basically a lyric role, but with very dramatic moments, lots of coloratura and some extremely high notes. In short, a soprano capable of everything! It’s thoroughly exhausting for the singer, for she’s also on stage most of the time, as are the other main roles, Enea and Jarba. It seems typical of this kind of opera that the big roles are huge and the small ones tiny.

Is Innsbruck hoping for a Mercadante renaissance with its performance of Didone?

The Innsbruck Festival has already launched several composer renaissances. My great wish is, of course, to kindle much more interest in Mercadante in the future.

Will Mercadante at some point be followed by Verdi at the Innsbruck Festival?

Many of Verdi’s early operas have remained rarities on the opera stage to the present day. There are a few awaiting rediscovery in their original sound. But it won’t be easy to find suitable singers and instruments for them.

Interview conducted by Rainer Lepuschitz
Translation: J. Bradford Robinson



Act I

The Carthaginians discuss Enea’s preparations for departure from their city. They feel with their queen, Didone, who will thus lose her recently found love. Didone’s advisor Osmida, however, looks forward to being rid of his rival since he is secretly in love with the queen. Didone’s sister Selene, on her part, is heart-broken since she pines furtively for Enea.

Overcome by sad feelings, Enea takes leave from Carthage, where he had been so happy. The Carthaginians entreat him to remain and become the new protector of their country. Enea tells the voices of love to fall silent. He must follow the Gods’ command and go forth to search for a land where Troy may rise once more.

Didone finds the aggrieved Enea. His words make her believe that he will love her even in foreign parts. But he urges her to forget him, which for Didone is inconceivable. Enea cannot bring himself to bid his beloved a final farewell and asks Osmida to do so for him.

Yet, Osmida too is afraid to tell his queen the truth. Using the imminent arrival of an envoy of the Moorish king Jarba as an excuse, he tells Didone that Enea’s decision to leave is in fact triggered by jealousy. According to Osmida’s lie, Enea is worried that Didone might accept Jarba’s marriage proposal in order to avoid a war with the Moors. Didone, however, insists that Enea need not question her faithfulness.

Accompanied by his advisor Araspe, Jarba appears before Didone. Pretending to be his envoy Arbaces he offers her great treasures in Jarba’s name. He then reminds the queen of how she had found refuge on Africa’s shores and built Carthage. At that time, Jarba had already asked for her hand in marriage but Didone declined, claiming she would remain eternally faithful to her murdered husband.

Now, things look differently since Didone seems to be in love with Enea. The ‘envoy’ makes it clear that Didone’s refusal of the King of Moors in favour of a ship-wrecked survivor from Troy will not be tolerated. If, on the contrary, she agrees to marry Jarba, there will be peace. Moreover, Didone must cede Enea’s head to the king. Didone dismisses Jarba’s claims and declares that her heart belongs to Enea.

Meanwhile, Didone’s sister Selene asks Enea to postpone his departure and come to the Temple of Neptune, where Didone will be waiting for him. Without recognizing one another, Enea and Jarba meet and quarrel.

Jarba, who continues to play the role of the envoy, learns from Semele that the unknown man is actually Enea.

Araspe, Jarba’s advisor, declares Selene his love but is repudiated.

Jarba tells Araspe that he will reveal his true identity, destroy Carthage and kill Enea. Osmida informs him that Didone is on her way to the Temple of Neptune where she intends to marry Enea. Furthermore, he offers Jarba his services in the hope that the Moor will rid him of his loathsome rival Enea.

Osmida pretends to be shocked when he hears about Enea’s intention to inform Didone about his imminent departure from Carthage.

Jarba attacks Enea with a dagger but is stopped by Araspe, who snatches up the weapon from the ground. Enea sees this and assumes that he has been assaulted by Araspe.

Didone and her guards arrive and rescue Enea. Didone inquires who assailed Enea. Jarba, Osmida and Enea point to Araspe, who is taken by the guards.

The following events unfurl rapidly: Enea tells Didone about his departure, Didone turns away in disgust. Enea acknowledges the ‘envoy’ as the man who saved his life but Jarba finally makes his true identity known and that he is Enea’s deadly foe. Didone orders the detention of Jarba, who draws his sword but is disarmed and taken to prison.

Act II

Selene sings about the unpredictable ways of love.

Didone holds the King of Moors’ death warrant in her hand when Selene announces Enea. Didone who thought he had already left the country, greets him with disdain. Enea advises her not to have the death sentence carried out in order to avoid infuriating the Moors even further. First, Didone ignores his words but when Enea renews his protestations of love she hands him over the document. Both lament over the pains caused by the need to part.

In their attempt to free Jarba, the Moors have already fought their way to the foot of Carthage’s walls. Araspe dismisses the treacherous Osmida’s offer to serve the Moors.

Jarba, freed from prison by his warriors, meets Enea. A duel follows, which is won by Enea, who gracefully spares the Moor’s life. Enea remains torn between feelings of love and manly valour.

Unable to accept that the nobleminded Enea has saved his life twice, Jarba swears bitter revenge. In this, he is encouraged by Osmida, who requests a reward from the Moor for his faithfulness. But Jarba only sees the traitor in him and calls for Osmida to be disarmed and killed. Araspe refuses to help Osmida, who remains behind and tries to pluck up courage for what is to come.

Didone tries to put Enea’s faithfulness to the test: She declares that he must kill and thereby free her from the pains of love. Alternatively, she will give herself up to the King of Moors.

Next, Didone announces to Jarba how in the meantime she has fallen in love with him. In his anger, Enea decides to leave. Seeing his jealousy, Didone ends her false play and tells Jarba she does not love him after all. Enea understands that he will never lose Didone’s affection, even if he abandons her for ever. All three deplore their fate which brings them only suffering.

Selene sheds tears over her unfortunate love for Enea and his impending embarkation. Osmida, whom Enea saved from Jarba’s rage, implores Didone’s mercy for his unfaithfulness, which she grants him. She bids him stop Enea from boarding the ship and bring him before her once more.

Araspe joins Didone in order to save her from any peril arising from the Moors, who, led by their vengeful king are pillaging and plundering Carthage.

Osmida returns, only to tell the queen that Carthage is ablaze and that the Trojan fleet has already cast off. In her despair, Didone orders Osmida to pursue Enea by sea, sink his ships and carry him back, dead or alive.

Amidst burning ruins Jarba and Didone encounter one another. Once more he offers to pardon and lead her to the altar. When Didone refuses yet again, Jarba gives order to destroy the city completely.

Selene implores her sister to give in to Jarba and thus save Carthage and everyone’s lives. She also entreats Didone to calm her anger and forgive Enea, whom she loves dearly too. Upon hearing this, Didone disowns Selene and cries out that all around her is treachery: Enea has left her, her sister betrayed her, Jarba destroyed her kingdom, Osmida deceived her. And nonetheless, neither of them met the destiny they deserve. All Didone wishes for now is to die in the flames of her city. The choir mourns Didone’s tragic fate: having become a widow and refugee, she is now abandoned by her beloved and confronted by death herself.

Translation: Markus Wyler
from the original Innsbruck Festival programme note

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