The posthumous reputation of the composer Saverio Mercadante (1795–1870) suffers from the inability of any of his sixty operas to have gained a place in the repertoire. He didn’t even attain the status of a “one-opera” composer like Amilcare Ponchielli, whose La Gioconda (1876) continues to be cherished by those who like their opera the old-fashioned way. But he was a major figure in early-nineteenth-century Italian opera. Thanks to several operas from the 1830s that sought, in his words, to place greater “emphasis on the drama . . . without imperiling the voices,” Mercadante is often thought of as a precursor to Verdi, yet chronologically his operas stretch from Verdi’s childhood to Don Carlos (1867) and beyond.
For its first-ever production of a nineteenth-century opera in its forty-year history, the venerable Innsbruck Festival of Early Music chose a Mercadante work from the older side of the spectrum, and one with a significant eighteenth-century component, Didone Abbandonata (Turin, 1823): it has a libretto by Pietro Metastasio, the great figure of the eighteenth-century operatic elite, whose librettos were set to music over and over again. Didone Abbandonata relates the familiar story (known to operagoers from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, ca. 1683–88, and Berlioz’s 1863 Les Troyens) of the Trojan hero Aeneas’s romance with the Carthaginian queen Dido and his wrenching departure from her to fulfill his destiny in Italy. One of Metastasio’s earliest librettos, it first appeared in a musical setting in 1724, ninety-nine years before Mercadante’s opera, which ranks among the last Metastasio-based operas.
The Innsbruck production demonstrated that Mercadante and Tottola not only discharged their responsibilities skillfully but also produced a tuneful, dramatically potent work likely to appeal to anyone attracted to Italian opera of this period.
Metastasio’s librettos had staying power, but that doesn’t mean they could be reused “as is.” Conceived during the heyday of the da capoaria, they had to be brought up to date to reflect changes in musical forms and style, as Mozart recognized with his last opera, La clemenza di Tito (1791). By the 1820s the task was essentially to create an opera that looked and behaved like one by the wildly popular Gioachino Rossini, Mercadante’s senior by three years and Italy’s dominant composer. This meant a work with musical numbers that are greater in length but fewer in number, and one that makes significant room for duets and ensembles. Following Mozart’s example, Mercadante didn’t revise the libretto himself, but entrusted the job to a librettist, Andrea Leone Tottola.
At its August 10 premiere, the Innsbruck production demonstrated that Mercadante and Tottola not only discharged their responsibilities skillfully but also produced a tuneful, dramatically potent work likely to appeal to anyone attracted to Italian opera of this period. The affinity to Rossini is established in the overture, which has a characteristic crescendo and the familiar percussion complement of cymbals, triangle, and bass drum. The likeness continues in the vocal numbers. A notable achievement is the multi-sectional Act I finale, which deals with the consequences of a failed attempt on Aeneas’s life. Another striking, highly dramatic piece is a trio in Act II for Dido, Aeneas, and the Moorish king Jarba, who has designs on Dido but whom she scathingly rejects.
Didone is one of the few Metastasio librettos with a tragic ending—a solo scene for the abandoned Dido, following which she throws herself into the smoldering ruins of her palace. Mercadante’s version is cast in the familiar two-part aria form, with a lovely cantabile, in which Dido laments the gods’ pitiless nature, followed by an ornate cabaletta. The latter may lack the weight of Donizetti’s comparable pieces for doomed heroines written in the 1830s, but it brings the opera to a gripping close.
If the scene failed to make the effect it should have here, it is because, in the staging by the veteran Jürgen Flimm, Jarba becomes unhinged, does a crazed dance, and tries to murder as many of the subsidiary characters as possible. He attracted attention by upstaging Dido, on whom all eyes should rightly have been focused. Otherwise, the production, with sets by Magdalena Gut that, with the help of a turntable, suggested diverse locales, was satisfactory enough.
The Lithuanian soprano Viktorija Miškūnaitė brought a winning combination of vocal agility and dramatic flair to the title role, despite a couple of vocally harsh moments. Like Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi,Aeneas is a trouser role, and the gifted mezzo-soprano Katrin Wundsam, a member of the Cologne Opera, sang it beautifully and with an engaging stage presence. Jarba was written for a tenor with a baritonal vocal quality, which suited Carlo Vincenzo Allemano’s voice nicely, although its sound was rather covered. The other roles were capably taken by Pietro Di Bianco (Osmida), Diego Godoy (Araspe), and Emilie Renard (Selene).
The conductor Alessandro De Marchi, who has conducted all three surviving Monteverdi operas at La Scala, is one of Europe’s leading practitioners of opera on period instruments, and it was a pleasure to find him applying his talents on an early-nineteenth-century opera. Fortunately, opportunities for hearing such operas performed on period instruments are on the rise—the recent inaugural season of Will Crutchfield’s Teatro Nuovo at Purchase, New York, being a case in point—and it is by now apparent that their timbre and orchestral textures are a boon to both the music and the voices. De Marchi led a vital, stylistically sound performance that eschewed the lamentable but entrenched practice of closing an aria with a sustained, unwritten high note by the singer.