World Premiere Of Mercadante’s Francesca–A Nice Find

Review by: Robert Levine


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870), composer of 60 operas, was once up there with Bellini and Donizetti; his operas have taken longer to find 20th and 21st century champions than those of the others. Being composed, as it was, in 1830 (for Madrid), Francesca da Rimini was to be on the boards at the same time as La sonnambula and Anna Bolena, but it never quite happened and the work was never performed: problems with the Spanish company and then the prima donna were followed by similar issues at La Scala. The performances recorded here, live from the Martina Franca Festival in 2016, were the opera’s world premiere.

Those familiar with Riccado Zandonai’s hothouse, heavy-Romantic, pre-Raphaelite version of Francesca will doubtless find a bel canto version of it a bit dainty and strangely straightforward (Zandonai included some very heavy war scenes, not to mention pregnant pauses). In this version, with libretto by Felice Romani (who also wrote Bellini’s Il pirata, La straniera, Zaira, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, La sonnambula, Norma, and Beatrice di Tenda; Rossini’s Il turco in Italia and Bianca e Falliero; and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and L’elisir d’amore), Francesca (soprano) and Paolo (mezzo-soprano) are in love, and we happen on the scene as Lanciotto (tenor), Francesca’s betrothed and Paolo’s brother, returns from a business trip. (Okay, okay.) The lovers deny their attraction but Lanciotto discovers them and is about to kill Paolo when Guido, Francesca’s father (bass), stops him. The punchline, an act later, is that Lanciotto kills Francesca and Paolo commits suicide.

There are tunes galore, but Mercadante’s great problem as compared with the other three great bel canto composers, is that his tunes run out of steam and are not memorable after the first line or two. Compare any of them here, even the best (Francesca’s “E l’ultima lagrima”), to “Ah, non credea” or “Al dolce guidami”, and Mercadante comes out second. Paolo’s last-act cabaletta may be exciting, but it comes across as rote: This opera isn’t uninspired, it just isn’t inspired. But I listened three times to the three-plus hours and was vastly entertained, and I’m not certain that every 136-year-old opera is supposed to knock us for an emotional loop or scream the word “masterpiece”: entertainment is good enough.

And the singing is, for the most part good enough or better. Leonor Bonilla presents a lovely Francesca, both innocent and knowing, and she sings her florid music as cleanly and clearly as she does the more lyrical moments. Fearless of heights, her (sometimes) interpolated high notes are not an interruption; her pianissimos are expert. Paolo, the trouser role, is artfully portrayed by Japanese mezzo Aya Wakizono. The voice is warm and agile, her diction superb. Together the pair make much of their duets.

Turkish tenor Merto Sungu, as Lanciotto, the cuckolded fiancé, has more to sing than the others, and he gives it a good shot. The voice itself is attractive, but the technique is unsure; high notes are poorly approached and executed, and while his vocal flexibility and emotional response are admirable, one senses the effort. Antonio DiMatteo in the smallish but pivotal role of Guido, exhibits a woolly bass but a good sense of the text.

Orchestra and chorus are fine under the terrific Fabio Luisi, who nonetheless sounds a bit careful with the score and singers. In completely unfamiliar music I guess that’s about right, but we could have used a bit more panache. The sound is fine enough, albeit with some stage noises and a bit of coughing. This is a nice rarity. If bel canto is your cup of tea, you’ll enjoy this a great deal.

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Recording Details:

  • Leonor Bonilla (soprano); Aya Wakizono (mezzo-soprano); Merto Sungu (tenor); Antonio di Matteo (bass); others
  • Orchestra Internazionale d'Italia, Fabio Luisi

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