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Giuseppe Saverio MERCADANTE (1795-1870)
Didone Abbandonata, Dramma per musica in two acts (1823)
Viktorija Miškūnaitė, Didone; Katrin Wundsam, Enea; Carlo Vincenzo Allemano, Jarba; Pietro Di Bianco, Osmida; Diego Gody, Araspe; Emile Renard, Selene
Coro Maghini, Academia Montis Regalis/De Marchi
Recorded live at the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music, Tiroler Landestheater, Innsbruck, Austria, 8-14 August 2018
Sound Format PCM Stereo, DTS HD MA 5.1 Surround; Picture Format 16:9, 1080i; Regions A, B, C: Subtitles English, Italian, German, Korean, Japanese
Reviewed in surround
NAXOS NBD0095V Blu-ray [146 mins]

Saverio Mercadante was a contemporary of Rossini, indeed he quite impressed the three-years-older composer when at the Naples conservatory. He had early success and did influence the young Verdi much later. But whilst successful in his lifetime, composing nearly 60 operas, he is remembered now as an influence rather than for specific works. Three figures particularly gained lasting success, Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, and the stage now has little use for another Bel Canto composer, however skilful. This being so, the Innsbruck Baroque Festival of 2018 went right out on a limb by staging Didone Abbandonata. A limb twice over because Mercadante is definitely not Baroque as well as being almost unknown to modern opera-goers. Some excellent singers grace this performance, particularly the women, Viktorija Miškūnaitė as the eponymous Didone, Katrin Wundsam as Enea and Emile Renard as Selene. The men are less distinguished on this showing but Carlo Vincenzo Allemano is a striking Jarba and Pietro Di Bianco, though having some pitch difficulties towards the end, makes a decent fist of Osmida. It is very clear both from the quality of playing and the instrumental colours, that the investigations of conductor Alessandro De Marchi and the work of his fine period orchestra have been productive. Though it is no match for either Purcell or Berlioz a lot of effort has been expended to make the best possible case for Mercadante's version of the Dido and Aeneas story. The music is dramatic and lyrical by turns. The opera overall propels the listener through the story with great energy. It gives weight to the claim made in the lengthy accompanying interview with De Marchi, that the neglect of Mercadante is unjust. There is discussion of the chosen pitch and the need for appropriate instruments of the period to make this sound as well as it does. The conductor also cares about the singers' phrasing and embellishment of their lines. It all reflects the sterling efforts made at Innsbruck to resurrect neglected music.

So is this well recorded and documented Blu-ray an unqualified success? Well, no, because someone forgot to tell the stage director and designer that efforts were being made to resurrect the original Mercadante. The stage team have clearly worked this production up on autopilot with no regard for the period or indeed dramatic logic. Thus the bewildering opening scene of "the Carthaginians discuss(ing) Enea's preparations for departure...", when Osmida runs on in dishevelled evening dress and grabs a beer from the prominent fridge that sits firmly centre stage. The fridge plays a key role in supporting characters who choose to lean on it and plenty who go for the contents. This last usage accounting, maybe, for Jarba's very unedifying sexual assault on Selene near the end. The dominant rotating set looks like a building site from any one of the many Mediterranean countries with steel cables sticking out of the half-finished concrete. Members of the French foreign legion en-route to nowhere-in-particular tote the usual depressing accoutrements of rifles and pistols, and even sound a bit depressed as the all-purpose military chorus. What a risible shambles it is, culminating in Jarba doing silly walks, or perhaps it was a dance, as Carthage smokes. The dress designer makes Didone look vaguely queenly but the others often just look untidy. One would close one's eyes but then the subtitles would be invisible.

If the collector wants to investigate Mercadante there is only one other opera listed as available on Blu-ray, Francesca da Rimini, (review ~ review) which impressed my colleagues and it looks a less destructive staging than this. Didone Abbandonata is well performed and is worth hearing, you just need tolerance for the visuals.

Dave Billinge

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