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SUPPÉ: Il Ritorno del Marinaio

CD Button Tepponen; Puškarić, Farasin, Surjan, Fortunato; Rijeka Opera Choir and Symphony Orchestra, Martinolli-D’Arcy. Text and translation. CPO 555 120-2 (2)

Recordings Suppe Marinaio Cover 518
Critics Choice Button 1015 

THOUGH REMEMBERED today for his Light Cavalry and Poet and Peasant overtures, Franz von Suppé was a prolific composer of stage works. Of his grand operas, only Il Ritorno del Marinaio (The Return of the Sailor) was well received; it’s forgotten today, but this recording lovingly resurrects it. There are exciting scenes, for sure, enough to make this two-disc set worth hearing. That doesn’t become apparent, however, until halfway through Act I; the first seven tracks are dramaturgically plodding. 

After a lengthy overture, townspeople cheer the arrival of a ship with a rousing if not distinctive chorus. A ballet for the Ship’s Boys follows. Then the sailor Pietro (baritone Ljubomir Puškarić, suitably heroic) sings his greetings: although he loyally answered the call of war, he’s grateful after twenty years to be home. The chorus (the Rijeka Opera Choir, well trained but undermiked) sings in agreement. Everyone departs, and Pietro reveals how heartbroken he is—his beloved, Jela, from whom he was separated twenty years earlier, is dead. Thus, we spend seven tracks learning that Pietro is home, but sad.

Fortunately, a plot emerges. Quirino, the town’s elderly chief magistrate (Giorgio Surjan, whose grandly resonant bass deftly balances menace and comic bluster), desires a lovely young innkeeper, not coincidentally also named Jela (Marjukka Tepponen, vivacious and luscious-voiced). When she enters, she immediately brightens the show with joyful F-major coloratura roulades, which she tosses off during a love duet with her beloved, Niccolò (Aljaž Farasin, who displays an earnestly ringing tenor). This number, exemplarily performed, achieves lyrical heights any composer could be proud of. The final scene of Act I, during which Pietro and Jela realize they are father and daughter, is even better—gripping and emotional, with Verdian surety of dramatic pacing. For a moment, Il Ritorno del Marinaio seems like it could be a hidden treasure.

Act II, however, proves otherwise. Pietro and the chorus sing a long tribute to a historical warrior, a catchy but dramatically pointless anthem; the next five tracks are more ballet music. Quirino steps up with a cheerful, well-characterized aria that reveals his lecherous intentions, after which Niccolò essentially laughs the old man off the stage. Quirino returns to exact revenge: he orders Niccolò out to sea to replace a sailor who has completed his tour of duty, thus separating the lovers. A sophisticated, ravishing quartet for the four principals follows, suggesting once again that this might be a major work, not just an excavated obscurity. Pietro saves the day: he will reenlist in Niccolò’s place, allowing the young lovers to stay together.  

The good parts of this opera are very good. The rest of it is well sung, well played (by the Rijeka Opera Symphony Orchestra, under Adriano Martinolli-D’Arcy) and perfectly pleasant to listen to. —Joshua Rosenblum 



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