The Festival della Valle D'Itria, held every summer in Martina Franca, Italy, is one of the most valuable artistic ventures of our time. I say this, because to my knowledge, this small-scale festival (generally three operas per year) has never lost track of their mission: to research hidden corners of the operatic repertoire and bring long forgotten works (or alternate versions of familiar works) to the stage for reexamination. Founded in 1975, the festival has produced an ever-fascinating list of titles from composers both obscure (last year, they gave Antonio Cagnoni's Re Lear) and familiar (Mozart's Idomeneo in the re-worked version by Richard Strauss or the baritone 'Battistini version' of Massenet's Werther, for example).
The current artistic director, Sergio Segalini, has continued to uphold this lofty artistic mission since he was appointed in 1994. In addition to the explorations of unusual repertoire, the festival has also sought to hire aspiring young singers, and many now-famous names had significant international exposure through their work in Martina Franca. Fortunately, opera fans around the world have been able to enjoy the works staged at the festival through live recordings, many of which have been issued commercially over the last decade by the enterprising Italian recording label 'Dynamic'. The present recording, of Mercadante's Pelagio, was recorded at the festival in 2008.
The Italian composer Saverio Mercadante was born in Altamura in 1795 and made his operatic debut at the illustrious Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1819. Rossini was at the height of his fame during this period, and was by several accounts, very encouraging to Mercadante, urging him complete his first opera, L'apoteosi d'Ercole. Although he traveled as far abroad as Spain, Portugal, and Austria, Mercadante was thoroughly immersed in the Italian bel canto tradition, and over a long career, premiered most of his approximately sixty operas at Italian theaters. While he didn't achieve the same sort of lasting fame as the three bel canto masters – Bellini, Rossini, and Donizetti – Mercadante was widely celebrated in his day, and many of his operas scored major financial successes.
Along with Giovanni Pacini, Mercadante helped the evolution of Italian opera from an art form dominated by bel canto conventions into a strikingly less regimented form – one we might now recognize as 'proto-Verdian'. In fact, Mercadante – like Gluck – went through a 'reform' period in which he sought to dispense with traditional closed, 'set-piece' forms in favor of a more 'through-composed' style. Several of his most important works were composed during this period in the late 1830's, including Il giuramento, Elisa e Claudio, and La vestale. These operas show the composer moving away from intricate vocal acrobatics, excising repeated statements of melodic material, and dispensing with cabalettas almost entirely. Despite the public success of these operas however, Mercadante did not permanently adhere to his own reforms, and gradually reverted back to the more traditional conventions over the succeeding years. As he aged, his compositional style moved backward, while his contemporaries – especially the younger Giuseppe Verdi – continued to innovate, causing Mercadante's works to fall out of public favor.
Pelagio was the last opera Mercadante completed and was premiered in Naples in 1857. Despite its roots in the bel canto tradition, its forward-looking structural layout clearly shows the influence of Verdi – particularly in the orchestrations and the demanding vocal parts, which require both agility and power. The story concerns the Spanish military leader Pelagio (baritone) and his attempts to thwart the political marriage of his daughter Bianca (soprano) to his Arab enemy, Abdel-Aor (tenor). Though Bianca and Abdel-Aor are sincerely in love, Pelagio cannot tolerate his daughter's racial and religious betrayal. Eventually, Abdel-Aor is convinced that Bianca is secretly betraying him, and he stabs her, leaving her to beg for her father's forgiveness as she dies. The plot themes are strikingly similar to those of Bellini's Zaira and even Rossini's Maometto Secondo. Marco d'Arienzo's utilitarian poetry serves the rather all-purpose story effectively enough and sets up all the confrontations and emotional turmoil Mercadante could possibly want in order to compose exciting, crowd-pleasing arias and ensembles.
If you enjoy early and middle period Verdi, then you will love Pelagio. I won't argue that it's a lost masterpiece, but there is plenty of excellent music here, and the opera easily outclasses some of Verdi's more routine scores like Alzira or Il corsaro. The soprano role is very difficult: it's long and requires agility, a two octave range and vivid acting ability. Soprano Clara Polito gives her all, and succeeds in convincing the listener that Bianca is a cousin to both Bellini's Zaira and Verdi's Elvira. She has a good thrust to her voice – a bit overly darkened at times – and her agility and high register are above average. Best of all, she seems to understand the style, including the need for an extroverted approach to her role. She's a committed artist and her sheer involvement will win you over, despite some occasional, minor lapses in intonation and some smudged passagework.
Baritone Costantino Finucci offers true Verdian amplitude in his assumption of the title role, yet he is able to scale back as necessary, showing off both fine flexibility and attention to phrasing. Tenor Danilo Formaggia has an occasionally grainy tone, but otherwise fills out his vocal lines impressively with admirable technique and the same persuasively energetic approach as his soprano and baritone co-stars. His aria and cabaletta at the end of Act 2 are very well done, and he truly shines in his heartfelt rendition of the Act 3 scene in which he laments Bianca's (supposed) betrayal. The remaining roles are all adequately taken, and both choir and orchestra offer solid, no-frills support to the soloists.
Conductor Mariano Rivas gets credit not only for leading the forces with a steady, well-informed baton, but also for much of the research that went into finalizing the textual edition used for these performances. He has done a great service to the legacy of Mercadante by promoting this excellent score and catalyzing its first modern performances. And he has given us a chance to hear another valuable link in the development of ottocento opera. Hopefully, the strength of this recording, together with the well-received concert performance in Gijon, Spain will encourage other festivals to mount this worthy opera. It would be an ideal score for the Chelsea Opera Group, the Washington Concert Opera, or the Opera Orchestra of New York. I hope to have the chance to hear it again soon.