An Enjoyable Discovery
The Jane Mallett Theatre
Saverio Mercadante: I due Figaro
Nicholas Borg (Figaro), Holly Chaplin (Susanna), Beste Kalender (Countess Almaviva), Tonatiuh Abrego (Count Almaviva), Ilana Zarankin (Inez), Marjorie Maltais (Cherubino), Stuart Graham (Plagio), Edward Larocque (Torribio)
The Opera in Concert Chorus, Robert Cooper (chorus director), Narmina Afandiyeva (music director and pianist)
Guillermo Silva-Marin (dramatic advisor, lighting designer)
B. Kalender (Codrut Tolea)
Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870) composed about 60 operas that were performed by some of the top singers of his day in many of the most prestigious opera houses. He has fallen into deep shadows cast by his contemporaries Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and the young Giuseppe Verdi. The website Operabase, that tracks most of the planet’s opera performances, currently lists just four works with a total of 12 performances, one of them a belated world premiere. (The list includes this single performance by Toronto’s ever-venturesome Voicebox: Opera in Concert).
I due Figaro (“The Two Figaros”) is based on a French play by Honoré-Antoine Richaud Martelly with a libretto by Felice Romani, a man even more productive than Mercadante, with some 100 libretti, many used by multiple composers. Mercadante composed the work in 1826 but it wasn’t premiered (in Madrid) until 1835. It was (approximately) his 43th opera to be staged. After that it lay unperformed until 2011 when Riccardo Muti championed the rediscovered score and presented it in Ravenna (and subsequently in Salzburg and Madrid) and made a recording (on the Ducale label).
The plot takes place some years after the events in Le nozze di Figaro. Count and Countess Almaviva have a daughter, Inez, of marriageable age. Figaro has convinced the Count that she should marry one “Don Alvaro” who is actually a friend of his named Torribio, with whom he arranged to receive half the dowry for his machinations. At the same time he is helping a poet friend, Plagio, to come up with a plot for a new comedy - and the plot that unfolds eventually becomes the plot of the play. (This dramatic device also appears in Romani’s libretto for Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia of 1817 - although the Martelly play precedes that by 23 years.)
While Figaro has convinced the Count to favour Don Alvaro as a son-in-law, Susanna and the Countess favour Colonel Cherubino - yes, the boy from Le nozze, now well into his 30s but still a trouser role. Cherubino shows up dressed as a would-be servant (unrecognized by the Count and Figaro) and applies for a job on the estate, telling them his name is Figaro (what a coincidence! and Figaro II pronounces himself delighted to share the name of the renowned Figaro I).
What follows depends on a lot of conversations being overheard, some of them intentionally misleading. Cherubino displays a quick wit and soon displaces Figaro as the Count’s favorite. However after many twists and turns it looks as if the hopes of Cherubino and Inez are dashed - but at the betrothal event it turns out that “Don Alvaro” is actually Cherubino’s servant.
The work does not plumb depths in the manner of way Le nozze di Figaro - a work to which it appears to pay tribute in a number of ways - but it is a well-crafted amusement. All the main roles have at least one expressive aria, and there are three fizzing ensemble numbers. While this was a lightly-staged concert performance, all singers were “off book” and this resulted in greater freedom and a sense of spontaneity.
Voicebox has a fine tradition of astute casting and once again this was the case. Outstanding was the Cherubino of Marjorie Maltais who comes across as a younger version of Elīna Garanca. Beste Kalender was warmly expressive as the Countess, and Ilana Zarankin impressed as the lovelorn Inez. The Count is a lyric tenor role (à la Rossini) and Tonatiuh Abrego ably expresses his hauteur (which never fails to melt when Susanna works her wiles). Nicholas Borg made a vivid impression as the besieged Figaro on a day when everything goes wrong for him, as did Stuart Graham as the blustery Plagio. Narmina Afandiyeva rendered staunch - even eloquent - support, and Robert Cooper’s chorus of gossiping onlookers contributed nicely to the joviality.
The performance was followed by the presentation of a new award named in honour of Stewart Hamilton, who founded Toronto’s Opera in Concert in 1974 and directed it for its first 20 years. He died Jan 1, 2017, and an annual award for an emerging singer has been established. There is a wealth of aspiring talent to choose from, and the inaugural recipient is Beste Kalender, today’s Countess Almaviva.