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Saverio MERCADANTE (1795-1870)
Didone Abbandonata - dramma per musica in two acts (1823)
Didone – Viktorija Miškūnaitė (soprano), Enea – Katrin Wundsham (mezzo-soprano), Jarba – Carlo Vincenzo Allemano (tenor), Araspe – Diego Godoy (tenor), Osmida – Pietro Di Bianco (bass-baritone), Selene – Emilie Renard (mezzo)
Coro Magini
Chiara Cattani (pianoforte)
Academia Montis Regalis/Alessandro De Marchi
Jürgen Flimm (direction), Magdalena Gut (sets), Kristina Bell (costumes), Irene Selka (lighting), Tiziana Colombo (choreography)
rec. live, August 4-18, 2018, in the Tiroler Landestheater during the Innsbruck Early Music Festival
Sung in Italian with subtitles in English, German, French, Italian, Korean, Japanese
Picture: 1080i/16:9 anamorphic widescreen.
Sound: LPCM Stereo/ DTS-HD 5.1.
Region code: A,B,C.
NAXOS Blu-ray NBD0095V [146 mins]

The 2018 Innsbruck Festival of Early Music chose to introduce the first modern revival of an opera by Saverio Mercadante. Didone Abbandonata was a somewhat unusual choice for them, as it falls into the Italian romantic period. There is a valid argument that it was a natural fit since the libretto was adapted from the one by Metasasio, with some additions by Tottola. Metastasio’s original libretto had served numerous other composers well during the baroque period.

This is one of Mercadante’s earlier operas, first performed in Turin in 1823. The last performance that I could find mention of was the premiere for La Scala in Milan during 1827. This, then, was the first revival of the work in well over 100 years. The other opera to receive a premiere in 1823 was Rossini’s Semiramide. A comparison is interesting: Rossini’s style comes across as more formal, yet the arias and duets are a great deal more elaborate and show off the singers’ techniques than the simpler, more classical style of Mercadante. On first encounter, it seems that Mercadante’s music is less virtuosic than Rossini’s but this would be a mistaken assumption to make. I do find the melodies not quite as memorable as in some of Mercadante’s later operas, such as Zaira (1831), Emma d’Antiochia (1834), and Il Giuramento (1837).

The story concerns the love of Queen Dido of Carthage for the Trojan hero Aeneas, who is driven to leave his North African love nest and move on to establish the Roman empire. Things are complicated by the villainous Moorish King Iarba, who antagonizes just about everyone character in the opera.

Alessandro De Marchi carefully researched this performance for the period orchestra Academia Montis Regalis. The entire score is presented at the lower pitch of A=430 Hz, a common early music practice. This has the effect of lowering the music by ¼ tone throughout. I cannot say that the difference was very apparent to me as I was listening. The orchestra play their music with a beautiful sheen to their sound and feeling for the bel canto style, although the French horns had a few very unfortunate problems with pitch that were captured by the microphones.

The Festival has assembled a very impressive cast of mostly young singers with excellent technique and solid, well produced voices. That makes this first encounter a distinct pleasure.
Lithuanian singer Viktorija Miškūnaitė as the title character is a fantastic lyric coloratura soprano, who should be better known. She looks stunning, and she gets deeply involved in her role. Her voice is very fleet at coping with the coloratura demands, and her vocal quality expands excitingly in the upper register. As Aeneas, the Austrian lyric mezzo Katrin Wundsam has a vibrantly coloured voice that is even throughout all registers. Her voice has the ideal weight of sound for the lyric Italian repertoire of the romantic period. She dispatches her coloratura passages neatly, especially in her exciting Act 2 aria (chapters 37-39 on the disc). The Anglo-French mezzo Emilie Renard makes a bright and lively Selene, the sister of Queen Dido.
The villainous Iarba is the generally excellent Carlo Vincenzo Allemano. He has a robust tenor with attractive and solidly produced tone. He sings the coloratura passages well enough but the cameras draw attention to an unfortunate tendency of making physical contortions in order to manage the rapid roulades required by his role. His advisor Araspe is sung by the much higher reaching tenor Chilean Diego Godoy. His lighter, very clear sounding tenor is ideal for bel canto works, notwithstanding a couple of overly piercing high notes. His role calls for some freakishly high singing of the kind found in Guillaume Tell or I Puritani. He certainly gives us full measure in his brief scenes. Queen Dido’s advisor Osmida is sung and acted with sinister creepiness by bass-baritone Pietro Di Bianco. His voice is mostly secure, and he negotiates coloratura passages much better than most basses do in this repertoire.

Now, a comment on the production itself. The director is the well-known German impresario Jürgen Flimm. I feel that he does this opera a great disservice by not taking it seriously at face value. This “stand and sing” opera responds best to that approach. Instead, he presents it as an exaggerated melodrama in the style of the old TV series Dynasty, and so turns the opera into a parody of itself. The principals are encouraged to overly emote the romantic era sensibilities. The singer who suffers the most is Mr. Allemano, asked to give a hyper-physical performance in the worst grandstanding manner of an Al Jolson impersonator. There is a long list of absurdities that I could mention, chiefly how the male chorus is treated like a bunch of French Foreign Legionaries in an old Abbott and Costello movie. When Aeneas finally takes his leave of Carthage, he does so with a canoe piled high with suitcases. At the end of the opera, the director abandons the TV soap approach and degenerates in utter brutality. It is a sad experience in general. The excellent set, however, is a fascinating revolving stage with assorted elements added in, such as a refrigerator and a very prominent cement mixer.

The recording and video engineers have expertly captured the performance inside the Tiroler Landestheater. The PCM stereo sound is natural and warm-sounding. I have not heard the DTS 5.1 surround track to evaluate it.

Mike Parr

Previous review: Dave Billinge

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