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A Glorious Refuge from Identity Politics

books and culture

A Glorious Refuge from Identity Politics

The Manhattan School of Music offers a rediscovered comic gem. December 27, 2019
Arts and Culture
New York

Every so often a theatergoer comes across that incandescent creature—the stage animal—whose body is electrified by performance and whose joy in communication is palpable. Such was the young British mezzo soprano Joanne Evans in the long-lost comic opera I due Figaro (The two Figaros) at the Manhattan School of Music this month.

This rare work, by the prolific Italian composer Saverio Mercadante and the even more fecund librettist Felice Romani, was torpedoed from its Madrid premiere in 1826 by royal censors and the machinations of a jealous soprano. A subsequent effort to revive it in 1833 failed; musical tastes had moved on from the antics of buffa opera to more melodramatic Romantic fare. The opera disappeared yet again, this time for more than a century and a half. In 2009, an Italian musicologist discovered the only extant manuscript score in Madrid’s Biblioteca Municipal. The conductor Riccardo Muti, to his great credit, revived the work at the Ravenna and Salzburg festivals in 2011, as part of his resuscitation of late Classical Neapolitan composers. (Mercadante entered the Naples conservatory at age 11 and directed the august institution from 1840 to his death in 1870.)

Manhattan School of Music opera director Dona Vaughn deserves almost equal applause for bringing the still unknown work to New York City. Her delightful production, in conjunction with Stefano Sarzini’s ebullient conducting, brought out the score’s comic delights and foregrounded the musical resources of the school itself, not the least of which was the charismatic Evans.

I due Figaro returns to the well of French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais’s Figaro trilogy, already the source of two of the greatest masterpieces in the repertoire: Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. The opera answers the question: was Rossini’s comic style sui generis? If all one knew were the operas of his most well-known bel canto contemporaries and near-contemporaries—Donizetti and Bellini—one would conclude: yes. But Mercadante, who has dropped from sight with nearly as much finality as afflicted I due Figaro, employs in this early work many of the mechanisms that make Rossini’s comic operas so infectious: accelerating crescendi and galloping rhythms, staccato syllabic choruses, and syncopated ensemble numbers, ranging here from trios to an octet. Is Mercadante’s buffa style derivative of Rossini’s? Yes—and who cares? There are never enough comedies in the world, whether dramatic or operatic; indeed, Mercadante would write only one more opera buffa after I due Figaro. To discover a work in the same idiom as Rossini is an unexpected boon.

I due Figaro’s windswept overture, however, is a novel tour de force, evoking the Sevillian setting of the Beaumarchais trilogy with a precision that Rossini (or Mozart, for that matter) did not even attempt. It combines lilting Spanish dance forms and harmonies with Rossinian bursts of energy. An Act II duet between Figaro and his wife Susanna has another gently rocking Spanish folk dance embedded within it (here starting at minute 2:25), whose bittersweet melody conveys the melancholy in Spanish culture.

Rossini first encountered Mercadante when the latter was a student at the Naples conservatory. At that point, Mercadante was writing predominantly instrumental, rather than vocal, compositions, unusually for an Italian composer. (Indeed, a critic in 1818 urged Mercadante to give up his “sterile symphonies” in favor of vocal music—a comment that speaks volumes about the differences between German and Italian musical culture.) Rossini is reputed to have pronounced Mercadante a worthy successor who begins “where we leave off”—though this successor was born but three years after him. Despite Mercadante’s early absorption of the Rossinian language, he is now viewed as a reformer who moved opera beyond the early nineteenth-century composers and toward Verdi.

I due Figaro begins 15 years after the intrigues of Le Nozze di Figaro. The characters have shifted in their relationships: Figaro, the servant of Count Almaviva, now conspires with his master rather than against him. Together they plan to marry off the Count’s daughter Inez—a new character in the trilogy—to the usual unwanted suitor. The young page, Cherubino, from Nozze, has grown up and has redirected his infatuation with the Count’s wife to the Count’s daughter. It is now Cherubino, not Figaro, who aspires to foil the dimwitted nobleman. Cherubino shows up to Almaviva’s castle in disguise, just as the younger and wilier Count had done in Il Barbiere. Cherubino passes himself off not as a music master or drunken soldier, however, but as a second Figaro who for a while displaces the first from the Count’s trust. The ladies—the Countess, Inez, and the ever-sassy Susanna—form a united front against the Count and the real Figaro. Romani recycles a conceit from his libretto for Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia: a poet who is writing about the action while also in some mysterious way directing it. As in the Rossini, this marginal character adds nothing of value to the story.

From the moment that Evans stepped onstage as a slender, suavely mustachioed Cherubino, one recognized the presence of a star. Her eyes were lit by sardonic wit; her knowing glances at the audience made it a co-conspirator in her plots. Most singers and actors maintain an upright and relatively rigid core. Evans’s limbs, torso, head, and hands were all mobile. The stage animal extends a physical gesture a moment longer than an ordinary performer would; Fred Astaire traces a curve with his fingers a few millimeters beyond its expected arc, for example, and hovers over a syncopated beat a pulse longer than the average dancer would. Evans’s movements reflected an awareness that theatre, particularly comedy, demands self-conscious artifice.

Evans’s singing was as elastic as her gestures. Her low notes were startlingly resonant, with an organ’s fullness; her upper reaches clear and supple, with a subtle control of dynamics. The rest of the young cast was superb as well. These were remarkably powerful voices, perhaps scaled to the impossibly cavernous opera house 70 blocks to the south. In the much smaller Manhattan School of Music auditorium, they practically blasted you out of your seat. Columbian baritone Laureano Quant as Figaro—like Evans, delicate of limb—produced an incongruously massive and rich tone, modulated by an erotic vibrato, recalling fellow South American baritone Erwin Schrott. Soprano Carolina López Moreno as Susanna navigated the challenging coloratura passages with brilliance. Asians were overrepresented as soloists in the two alternating casts and in the chorus, suggesting that the Asian dominance of Western classical music is now extending from the instrumental to the vocal realm. One can only cheer on these new enthusiasts.

Vaughn’s directing was lively; the sets were a colorful abstraction of Moorish architecture and garden alcoves. The males wore elegant nineteenth-century swallow-tail coats and slender pants; the females’ full red and yellow skirts combined Commedia dell’Arte with Spanish traditions. There was not a hint of directorial revisionism in sight, despite an intimate scene between Susanna and her employer that just screamed for a #MeToo rewrite. The opera’s first act was its high point, with a fast pace of plot reversals and quick-thinking deceptions. The second act bogged down in the obligatory virtuoso solos demanded by grandstanding eighteenth- and early nineteenth- century singers. It was leavened, however, by some complex ensemble numbers, including the standard chorus of confusion, in which each singer expresses perplexity at the dramatic chaos before Enlightenment order is restored through forgiveness and reconciliation.

One can only hope that casting agents eager to find the next electrifying stage sensation attended these performances. For arts philanthropists wondering where to put their support as the art world becomes engulfed in poisonous identity politics, the Manhattan School of Music, overshadowed by the Juilliard behemoth to its south, would be a worthy vessel.

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