Mercadante’s “Il Giuramento”

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MERCADANTE: Il Giuramento / Maria Zampieri, soprano (Elaisa); Robert Kerns, baritone (Manfredo); Agnes Baltsa, mezzo-soprano (Bianca); Placido Domingo, tenor (Viscardo); Michele Flotta, tenor (Brunoro); Silvia Herman, soprano (Isaura); Vienna State Opera Chorus & Orch.; Gerd Albrecht, conductor / Orfeo d’Or C 860 0621 (live: Vienna, September 9, 1979)

Since I promised myself that I would listen to at least one of Saverio Mercadante’s 58 operas before I die, I asked Joe Pearce, an opera-loving friend of mine and president of the Vocal Record Collectors’ Society, to recommend one. He picked Il Giuramento so, even though Wikipedia raves about Orazi e Curiazi, which supposedly did away with florid cabalettas. I checked both operas out and, although the latter (based on the same plot as Salieri’s Les Horaces) does indeed dispense with cabalettas, I found the music much more conventional in other ways, particularly in the harmonically vapid orchestral passages which featured a great many solo flute solos.

First, the bad. The choruses of Il Giuramento are typical rat-a-tat pieces that, for me, go in one ear and out the other, and yes, there are florid cabalettas, particularly for the soprano and mezzo, that ruin the dramatic mood of the preceding arias. But in many cases, I’d say at least 70% of the opera, Mercadante wrote some truly affecting and sometimes dramatic music that convey the drama effectively. Indeed, the longer I listened to the opera, the more impressed I was overall. If I had to characterize the music in one sentence, I’d say that it sounds like an alternate version of Verdi’s Ernani, one of the most dramatic and successful of his “galley years” operas.

The plot also resembles many of Verdi’s early operas in that it is melodramatic and Romantic. Set in 1300 Sicily, Manfredo, the Count of Syracuse, has married Bianca at her parents’ insistence although she loves some guy named Viscardo. The problem is that, aside from her name, Viscardo doesn’t know her from a hole in the wall. As the opera opens it is five years since her marriage, and her hubby has the big eye for a sexy young thing from Anjou named Elaisa who is seeking a lost benefactor. When her father was once captured by an Aragonese captain in battle, his daughter got him to spare his life. (Already, you can bet the ranch that the woman in question was Bianca.)

Somehow or other, Bianca wandered out into the Apienne mountains where she was attacked by bandits and—guess what? You’ll NEVER guess! Viscardo rescued her! She lets him know of her love but he cannot reciprocate because he loves an “unknown beauty.” During a big party at the estate of Manfredo and Bianca, Viscardo decides to give in to her and they embrace, but later she hides Viscardo and pretends to be asleep. Elaisa, discovering them, threatens to expose the lovers, but—you guessed it—Bianca flashes the locket and Elaisa realizes that this is the woman she is bound to protect for better or worse (see? I told you it was related to Ernani.) When Manfredo enters, Elaisa tells him that she and Viscardo are there to prevent an attempt on his life. Manfredo and the Syracuse troops arm themselves for battle, win it, and celebrate. Viscardo comes back, overcome by his desire for Bianca, but heard a crowd of people lamenting her death.

A funeral dirge for Bianca is heard, but it turns out that Bianca is still alive and that Manfredo is merely staging a mock funeral in order to gain time and avenge himself for her adultery, which he believes in spite of Elaisa’s intervention. But Elaisa, pretending to be in on the plot, forces her way into the vault, meaning to rescue Bianca. She begs Bianca to trust her and give her a narcotic that will put her in a drugged sleep and make Manfredo think that she poisoned herself, at the same time assuring Bianca that she will see Viscardo again. But Manfredo bursts in before she can take the drug, insisting that she tell him the name of her rival; Bianca refuses, Manfredo orders her to drink the poison, and she drinks the narcotic instead. Carrying Bianca’s unconscious body to her house, Elaisa comes to believe that, since she cannot have happiness any longer, there is nothing left for her but to die. Viscardo bursts in, full of rage and despair; thinking that Bianca is indeed dead, he pulls out his dagger and stabs Elaisa, who offers no resistance. Bianca awakes as Elaisa lies dying; Viscardo is guilt-stricken by having killed an innocent woman, but it’s too late as Elaisa dies.

Among the several excellent pieces in this opera, one of the finest is the Bianca-Viscardo duet in Act I, “Bianca! Ah, ti trovai!” with its rising chromatics and, in the second half sung by Elaisa and Bianca, “Tutto e’ tenebre,” some superb writing for low brass in sustained notes to create a dark mood. Mercadante has also written a melodic line that is both catchy and appropriate to the dramatic situation. Perhaps it is due to the conducting of Gerd Albrecht, but it seemed to me that Mercadante’s orchestration is at times subtler than Verdi’s while still showing how much of an influence he wielded on the younger composer. Viscardo’s opening scene in Act II, again excepting the B.S. cabaletta, is also very fine music, and even in the cabaletta there are some moments of interest.

As for the cast, it is mostly superb, particularly for the two women. Maria Zampieri, a soprano I had never heard before because I don’t much like bel canto operas and these were her specialty, had a voice of extraordinary beauty, steadiness and perfect placement. In addition, she exhibits here a fine feeling for the character’s oft-conflicting emotions in various situations and, wonder of wonders, she is an Italian soprano who actually had a trill. Agnes Baltsa, heard here in her younger years, may surprise some listeners with the roundness of her tone: she had not yet picked up that “metal” in the voice that would make her even more interesting as an interpreter as she matured, yet still sings with enough sympathy for the role of Elaisa. Baritone Robert Kerns, in the bad-guy role of Manfredo, is a little rough and ready of voice but only exhibits a very slight spread in his tone, not a full-fledged tremolo, and he, too, sings with commitment if not with as much subtlety as the two ladies.

Then we come to Placido Domingo. This may startle most of my readers, particularly those who have seen his name at least a dozen times or more in my Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music, but I don’t much like his voice and never did. The first time I heard him, on the 1970 EMI recording of Don Carlo with Caballé, Milnes, Raimondi and Giulini, I thought it sounded both covered and strained at the same time, and in my view he has only occasionally escaped sounding like that over the decades. And yes, I heard him twice in person, in the 1970s when he was supposedly in his prime, in Adriana Lecouvreur and Turandot, and I didn’t like him live, either. What nearly always saves his performances from my actually hating them is the fact that he is a good musician who sings the notes in the exact rhythm and doesn’t exaggerate anything, and in fact I read in the liner notes for this performance that “No one in the audience would have guesses that he first set eyes on the score only four days before the performance and that he had had only a single orchestral rehearsal.” That musicianship, combined with the fact that he has almost never canceled a performance over the decades and can sing virtually the entire Romantic-era tenor and baritone roles, have made him an indispensable figure in the opera house, but as for me I like a LOT of tenors better: not just his older colleagues Flaviano Labó, Richard Tucker (whose death at age 60 was one of the great tragedies of the opera world), Pavarotti, Veriano Luchetti and Franco Bonisolli, not to mention the unique Jon Vickers, but even some of those who have emerged during his long career (Michael Spyres, Johan Botha, Marcello Giordani etc.). But since Domingo is everywhere and often sings with the elite of his time, he’s on a whole bunch of complete opera recordings in my collection. I just keep trying to replace him as often as I can, but it seems like I’m stuck with him on Il Giuramente since the only other performances I’ve been able to track down have either hideous sound quality, awful singers, or both. To his credit, he actually sings a couple of passages softly, something he has been loath to do throughout his career.

Orfeo d’Or’s sound quality for this broadcast is a little covered on top, so adjust your treble controls appropriately. The booklet contains a pretty detailed synopsis (which I used as the basis for my own above) but no full libretto. Still, it’s a very interesting opera overall, not nearly as annoying as most of those Donizetti losers.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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