Photo, Russell Duncan
Tuesday, June 28, 2022
Barbican Hall, London
Guest Reviewer, Curtis Rogers
For its latest offering (in this performance and a studio recording to be released soon) Opera Rara has raided the archives to rescue a long-forgotten work from obscurity. Since its premiere run at Naples in 1842, Mercadante’s Il proscritto has apparently remained unperformed, until this revival in a new edition based directly on the manuscript score. Mercadante’s musical career (in Italy and, for a period, in Portugal) overlapped with those of Rossini and Donizetti at one end, and Verdi at the other. Like Gluck in relation to Mozart, therefore, he constitutes a fascinating link to a greater era in operatic history that built on the foundations he laid. Mercadante was committed to reforming the conventions of Italian opera in favour of a more fluid structure, enabling the developments which Verdi would take further and eclipsing Mercadante’s achievements in the process.
Il proscritto – premiered in the same year as Nabucco, Verdi’s third opera, but first critical success – already sounds like the younger composer in its style and enthralling variety of musical expression, even if in the last resort it lacks any truly memorable passages, for all its accomplished handling of melody and harmony. That certainly did not hold back Carlo Rizzi and the Britten Sinfonia in their lithe and energetic account of the opera: they made the best possible case for it, both collectively in the eloquent flow of the continuous musical drama within each extended scene, and in some evocative solos from flute, clarinet, horns (though a little flat in accompanying Malvina’s death scene) and harp. Additional dazzle came from the brass instruments of the banda, vividly projected from the Barbican Hall’s gallery.
Like many of Verdi’s operas, the work (with a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, perhaps most famous for writing the texts of Il trovatore, and Lucia di Lammermoor, another Scottish-based opera) sets a personal, emotional dilemma against the backdrop of a historical, political conflict. In this case the era of Oliver Cromwell’s rule pits royalists against republicans in Edinburgh, as Malvina Douglas – believing her husband, Giorgio Argyll, of the former party, to have died in a shipwreck – is prevailed upon by her half-brother Guglielmo to marry Arturo Murray, both Cromwellians. Before Giorgio unexpectedly reappears, Malvina has convinced herself that she loves Arturo. Although the cast comprises nine soloists, the drama essentially resolves around the rivalry of the two men for Malvina’s loyalty, with no subplots to deepen or complicate the narrative. And, despite the musically forceful and rousing contributions from the Opera Rara Chorus, unlike in Verdi’s grand historical dramas its role in the story is incidental and not given any extensive, catchy tunes to create more striking contrast with the solo numbers; and as the Civil War has already been settled, there is no real interplay of opposing forces still working towards an uncertain outcome, which could give rise to any dramatic tension either in itself or as bearing upon the actions of the principal characters.
Fortunately any deficiency in substance had no effect in dampening the musical spirits of the uniformly excellent cast. A certain brittle approach to the part of Malvina by Irene Roberts expressed her anxious situation as she confronted Giorgio (the outlaw of the opera’s title) and the choice she has to make between him and Arturo, finally resolved in her more movingly sustained death scene – otherwise no aria as such is given to her.
Musically the score is anchored by the sections written for the two tenors, Giorgio and Arturo, either alone or together. Where Ramón Vargas was more sternly authoritative, Iván Ayón-Rivas combined a baritonal heft with an urgent, ringing register in his higher range, very much exuding the allure of a romantic lead. Their tense encounter erupted in the supple, gripping Act Two duet ‘Ah! Perché rovente acciaro’ as they vow to fight a duel.
Elizabeth DeShong stole the show as Malvina’s younger brother Odoardo (a late appearance in the history of opera of a trouser role) with the arresting sincerity of ‘Ah! del giorno sanguinoso’ as she agrees to help Giorgio and his fellow political exiles, succeeded by her wondrously agile cabaletta that had all the virtuosity that would normally be allotted to the main female character. Although their appearances are only sporadic, the other roles received idiosyncratic performances, particularly on the part of Goderdzi Janelidze’s dark-hued Guglielmo, and together all sustaining a superbly involving account of the opera.
It may not be a masterpiece, but there is enough in it which rewards attention and we will surely have been grateful for the chance to experience this fascinating rarity in such a riveting performance. Fans of nineteenth-century Italian opera can certainly look forward to the recording.
Il proscritto – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano [performed in a critical edition by Roger Parker & Ian Schofield; sung in Italian with English surtitles]
Giorgio Argyll – Ramón Vargas
Arturo Murray – Iván Ayón-Rivas
Malvina Douglas – Irene Roberts
Odoardo Douglas – Elizabeth DeShong
Anna Ruthven – Sally Matthews
Guglielmo Ruthven – Goderdzi Janelidze
Clara – Susana Gaspar
Osvaldo – Alessandro Fisher
An official of Cromwell – Niall Anderson
Opera Rara Chorus