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I Normanni a Parigi (highlights)
Howarth, Karnéus; Banks, Novaro, Broadbent, Hall; Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra, Stratford. Notes, texts and translations. Opera Rara ORR 249
Why don't we hear more Mercadante? His posthumous fate reminds me of that competition among salesmen in the film Glengarry Glen Ross,in which "third prize means You're fired." A fifth-place finish immediately behind Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi would not seem a hanging offense, and yet….
Saverio Mercadante (1795–1860) wrote sixty operas, many successful, in competition with the immortals just cited. He influenced, and briefly championed, young Verdi. And his few recorded works, despite often mediocre performance, demonstrate a reliable melodic gift, skilled vocal crafting, dramatic intensity, and delightful surprises in orchestration. This world-premiere (albeit abridged) recording confirms those attributes.
On the debit side, his taste in librettos was faulty. In I Normanni a Parigi, the text reads like a parody — endless backstory, stilted language, formulaic adopted child, recognition scenes, reversals of allegiance. (My favorite line from the plot summary: "Ordamante … reveals, as soon as he is alone, that his allegiances and motives continue to be complex.") Mercadante also suffered from a shortage of individuality, the clear profile that can transcend formula and set a composer apart in a crowd. Finally, he was unlucky with his fans, never attracting a trend-setting champion such as Callas, Sutherland or Bartoli.
I Normanni reflects his more ornate style, before the streamlining that endeared his Il Giuramento (1837) to Verdi and made it almost forceful enough to catch on after some late-twentieth-century revivals. Even this 1832 effort has touches and passages that would surface in Macbeth, Ernani and Attila.
In fact, for any fan of bel canto opera, much of this score is purely irresistible, especially with the benefit of conductor Stuart Stratford's ear for color, rhythm and phrasing, plus the committed, if variable, work of the singers. Mercadante was already loosening up, but not dismissing, the recitative–cavatina–cabaletta template, cobbling together complete scenes that move through contrasting phases with a semblance of spontaneity. One telling technique is the absorption of recitative into a propulsive, often up-tempo melody that admits variations, interruptions, intensifications, all prepared or underlined by a smart, empathetic orchestra.
One strong sequence is the Act IV reconciliation between the long-estranged couple Berta and Ordamante, played by the agile Judith Howarth and a smooth, nimble Italian baritone, Riccardo Novaro, the only cast member who does not oversing.
An earlier confrontation, between Berta and her son (don't ask), the trouser role of Osvino (sung by mezzo Katarina Karnéus), is notable for its vehemence, but even more for the quieter interval, a lilting cantilena in triple meter, "Cielo, non v'ha fra gli uomini," over the waves of a warm cello solo, decorated by clarinet flourishes.
The performance is never dull, but the excitement comes at some cost to precision and steadiness. The female leads, along with tenor Barry Banks, seem always ready to tap the adrenaline, lash out harshly, collide with guide rails (including proper pitch) and lunge at risky interpolated top notes.
Then there are treats such as Berta's final cavatina "Ah! Non mai … si ria non sono" — bel canto grace at its finest, interwoven with mellifluous French horn obbligato. Howarth is both stylish and affecting here, her vibrant timbre illuminating the arching line.
The Opera Rara label continues to help Mercadante's cause, mostly with dedicated samplings like this. But without true superstar singers, he is likely to remain a curiosity, and his operas rare.
DAVID J. BAKER
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