Spontini’s Rossini Opera, Revisited

Fuga in Maschera cover

SPONTINI: La Fuga in Maschera / Ruth Rosique, sop (Elena); Filippo Morace, bass (Marzullo); Alessandro Spina, bass (Nastalgio); Dionigi d’Ostuni, ten (Doralbo/Dr. Filebo); Caterina di Tonno, sop (Olimpia); Alessandra Marianelli, sop ( Corallina); Clemente Daliotti, bar (Nardullo); I Virtuosi Italiani; Corrado Rovaris, cond / EuroArts/Unitel DVD 2072644 or available for free streaming on YouTube (live: Jesi, Italy, 2012)

Here’s something I missed when I was a reviewer for a well-known classical music magazine: the world premiere of a 212-year-old comic face by Gaspare Spontini, composer of the much more famous La Vestale and Agnes von Hohenstaufen. What’s interesting about it is that, in one fell swoop, Spontini invented the “Rossinian” comic opera form…except that at the time it was premiered in Naples during the 1800 carnival season, Rossini was an eight-year-old in knee pants!

I first learned something about this opera, without knowing its name, from David Cairns’ excellent two-volume biography of Hector Berlioz, who became Spontini’s friend during the 1830s. In one of their conversations, Spontini made the claim that he had himself invented the Rossini comic opera form when Rossini was still in knee pants, but since the score was lost he couldn’t prove it. The score was discovered in 2007 in, of all places, the shop of a British antique book dealer. How it managed to transport itself from Naples to London remains a mystery.

Another interesting thing about this opera is the light it sheds on Spontini’s first work for Paris, the lightweight one-act opera Milton, based on the life of the blind poet who wrote Paradise Lost. Milton, which has been recorded, is a very strange work and not one that does much credit to Spontini. The music is extremely lightweight, almost a throwaway opera-comique, which I find quite incongruous with any story concerning the very serious and stodgy poet. The music is really in-one-ear-and-out-the-other, which is certainly not the case with his first big Parisian hit, La Vestale. But by his own admission, Spontini was so used to writing lightweight fluff during his “galley years” in Italy that it took him a while to break out of that mold and indulge himself in the Gluck-like world that he admired most.

There are, however, two differences between La Fuga in Maschera and the typical Rossinian comedy. First is the one feature this music lacks is the famed “Rossini crescendo,” which Spontini admitted was not his. The second is that Spontini did not create “memorable tunes” as Rossini often did, particularly in Il Barbiere di Siviglia and L’Italiana in Algeri. But Spontini, in this opera, was already experimenting with the one feature that was to characterize the great operas of his maturity, and that was a unified musical construction. Granted, certain scenes in Rossini’s operas have musical continuity, but the overall operas do not. In this work Spontini created a unified whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Even the secco recitative, which always sounds like a distraction in Rossini’s works, somehow magically fits into the surrounding material here.

The plot is a real over-the-top farce of the kind that was, and had been, immensely popular in Italy for generations. The rich, elderly artist Marzucco wants to marry his daughter Elena off to an erudite Doctor Doralbo, who is a fraud and a charlatan.  She isn’t interested in him and instead fancies a vegetable grower, the rather thick-skulled Nardullo.  Things become complicated because Marzucco’s well endowed (in many ways) niece Olimpia fancies Doralbo. It gets even wackier when the scheming tart Corallina arrives. Her plans to marry Marzucco are complicated by the fact that Nardullo is her brother and owes her a lot of money, while she knows all about Doralbo and may in fact have been his mistress at one time. Throw in some wacky servants, a fake seance set up by Corallina but hijacked by Nardullo, multiple conflicting wedding contracts and a whole series of predictable misunderstandings, and there is the basis of a pretty good farce.

The visual production, as you can see in the video, is also over-the-top, with the characters cavorting around the stage like vaudeville comedians—but that’s fine in the context of the work. The main problem with the performance is the conducting of Corrado Rovaris. He sets up good tempi and moves things along at the right pace, but he uses absolutely no dynamics changes. Instead of pointing up the music with rhythmic accents and shifts in volume, he conducts everything at a monotonous mezzo-forte while his cast carries the comedy for him. This rather “flattens the curve,” so to speak, and robs the music of some of its humor.

Fortunately, his cast is really superb, virtually from top to bottom. All of the singers have the kind of small, compact, pointed, bright voices that one would likely have heard at the premiere. They also have superb coloratura technique, great command of diction (every word is as clear as a bell) and are absolutely fantastic in their patter ensembles. What became of most of them, I don’t know, but Catalan soprano Ruth Rosique, baritone Clemente Daliotti and basso Filippo Morace seem to have built good careers singing Rossini and Mozart roles in smaller European opera houses. As for tenor Dionini d’Ostuni, he seems to have gone into performing Italian songs and arias at Italian dinner theaters. But they’re all good in their own way and several of them are better than that. In their capable hands, the music dances and sparkles despite Rovaris’ one-dimensional leadership.

Considering the fact that this is undoubtedly going to be the only recording we get of this work, at least it is a better than adequate representation of the composer’s intentions. But oh, what this production might have sounded like if Claudio Abbado or Carlo Rizzi had been the conductor!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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