A week ago we remarked that in the modern operatic canon, the works of Giacomo Meyerbeer are non-existent. That is even truer for Saverio Mercadante, a composer who was famous in his time but has not seen his works achieve anything resembling a revival.
Baptized on Sept. 17, 1795 (the date of his “illegitimate” birth remains a mystery), he was a contemporary of Donizetti, Rossini, and Bellini, though today he is nowhere near their level in terms of popularity. What compounds this is the fact that he wrote close to 60 operas in his lifetime and not one is a major part of the repertoire today. He was a huge influence on the work of Giuseppe Verdi and his own later works were more popular than some of the more famous composer’s operas during their overlapping years.
A revival could be imminent for Mercadante at some point in the near future. And if it is to happen, these are the operas that might point the way forward for the forgotten master.
Perhaps the opera for which Mercadante is best known today, this 1837 work was a massive success in its formative years following its premiere at La Scala. “Its taut dramatic structure and vivid musical scene-painting set it apart from the operas of his day…..Not only do we hear in its music a reliable Italian lyricism, but also the early moves away from ornamentation for its own sake. Mercadante uses the orchestra not as a pale accompaniment to dramatic action, but as a full partner in the drama,” stated Colleen Fay in an assessment of the work. While it was forgotten for most of the 20th century, it has seen a few revivals in recent years and even received a recording featuring Plácido Domingo, Mara Zampieri, and Agnes Baltsa in 1979.
Elena da Feltre
This 1839 work was not a major success at the time but following the success of “Il Giuramento,” the composer continued working within new frameworks of musical dramatic structure. The opera focuses less on vocal fireworks and more on adventurous harmonic interplay. He also makes the hero of the piece a bass-baritone while giving the villainous role to the tenor. “A work of harmonic daring, subtlety and originally orchestrated, it suddenly makes sense of oft-quoted comparisons between Mercadante and Verdi. It has the overall coherence one looks for and finds in middle and late Verdi – a surprising anticipation, for ‘Elena da Feltre’ dates from 1838, the year before Verdi’s first opera,” said Patric Schmidt in an analysis of the work.
I due Figaro
This opera predates the other two mentioned already on this list, but it is no less interesting. Showcasing a different side of Mercadante, the opera is filled with musical invention, particularly the use of Spanish dance that is aimed at providing the ambiance of the setting. This is most present in its overture which is often performed separately from the opera. It features all of your favorite characters from the Beaumarchais play, making it easier to mount than most other Mercadante operas (theaters could put on a series of operas featuring the characters to showcase their differing interpretations). Riccardo Muti made a recording of the work in 2011.
Elisa e Claudio
The first major success of Mercadante, the 1821 opera is also his only major comedy to have stood the test of time. While it does little musically that we haven’t seen or heard before (for the time anyway), its charming libretto and characters have given modern artists reason for reconsideration.
While Verdi was heavily influenced by Mercadante, it seems that the favor was returned with this latter work which shows a lot of influence from the younger, and greater master, to the older one. We see this in how Mercadante appropriates some of Verdi’s style for his melodic writing, particularly for solo passages. This isn’t mature Verdi in the least, but its similarities to the early masterworks of the great composer make this opera worth a listen.