Mercadante: Virginia; Wekerlin: La Laitière de Trianon

Patterson, Castronovo, LPO/Benini (Opera Rara ORC39); Rodgers, Beuron (Opera Rara ORR245)

20 March 2009 3 stars

VirginiaWith the Donizetti revival now firmly established – his works receive regular revival all over the world now, and at least three of them will be heard in London this year – it's surely time that more attention be given to his fellow Italian opera composer, Saverio Mercadante. His oeuvre is full of distinguished pieces, several of which have been recorded such as Il giuramento on Orfeo, live from Vienna with Baltsa and Domingo, and Orazi e Curiazi, a splendid studio recording from Opera Rara, who've now turned their attention to Virginia.

This is a piece with a curious performance history, of which this is Opera Rara's second contribution. In the first place, the subject was suggested to La Fenice by Mercadante in 1839, but it was turned down. Then the tragedy – which was based on a Roman story from Livy's History of Rome and had already been turned into plays by John Webster (1609) and Alfieri (1777-8) – was turned into operas by Nini (1843) and Vaccaj (1845). In both cases, the composers came up against severe censorship, because the plot dealt with sensitive subject such as corrupt power. Mercadante completed his version in 1851 but it was turned down by the censors, and the composer refused to make changes to his masterpiece dictated by non-musical authorities.

Then when the Bourbons were overthrown in 1860, Enrico Petrella jumped in and staged his own setting of the story, leaving Mercadante's score unperformed in his desk until 1866, when the management of the San Carlo theatre in Naples approached him. The premiere was problematic, but the composer was rapturously received when he attended the second performance. The opera received few subsequent performances, and after a revival in Naples in 1901 it was not heard again until 1976, when Opera Rara staged the piece in Belfast with the Welsh soprano Janet Price.
 
A pirate recording of that exists, and I've long cherished it. This new studio recording is much better conducted, has a thrilling performance from the London Philharmonic Orchestra and one or two fine supporting singers, but on balance I'm not convinced that the cast is as fine as that for the 1976 staging. Certainly Price's vitality is unrivalled by Susan Patterson in the title role. In the cabaletta of her first aria, Patterson is severely stretched by the high-lying tessitura; indeed, throughout the opera her intonation is uneven in the faster and higher passages, while diction is also a problem. She certainly has the pathos for the tortured character, but to my ears this is too much a bel canto piece for her voice.

Both Charles Castronovo (Icilio) and Paul Charles Clarke (Appio) sound overstretched in the more extreme passages of their arias, too; there's enormous commitment and excitement from both, but more tonal warmth is needed from Castronovo and greater elegance of line is needed from Clarke. Stefano Antonucci's Virginio is cursed by too dry a tone most of the time, and oddly enough the best singing comes from Andrew Foster-Williams as Marco.

It's all a shame, because the whole cast does join together with a common spirit to invoke the fire of the opera, which is reminiscent of late Donizetti in character and even darker and richer in orchestration. Maurizio Benini is an inspiring conductor who drive the LPO and the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir to give a high octane performance, especially of the concerted numbers. The recording is visceral and fills an important gap in the catalogue; it's just a shame that the soloists are not up to Opera Rara's highest standards.

We go from grand opera to the far more intimate world of a Parisian salon in the company's other recent release, Wekerlin's La Laitière de Trianon. This opérette de salon or 'drawing-room operetta' is the work of a composer who was born in Alsace and moved to Paris at the age of twenty-two to study at the Conservatoire. All his life, he tried to get a full-scale work staged in a Paris theatre, but he always met with disappointment. However, he made a name for himself as a writer of works such as La Laitière de Trianon, which was given a baptism of fire at the very first of Rossini's famous Saturday night soirees on 18 December 1858.

Let's face it: the story of a Countess dressing up as a milkmaid isn't substantial, and the score (for two singers and a pianist) is frothy rather than memorable. But it's none the worse for that, and in lively performances from Yann Beuron and Joan Rodgers, accompanied by Jeff Cohen, it comes across as a lovely little novelty.

By Dominic McHugh

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