Sunday, 28 October 2018

Mercadante - Il Bravo (Wexford, 2018)

Saverio Mercadante - Il Bravo

Wexford Festival Opera, 2018

Jonathan Brandani, André Barbe, Renaud Doucet, Rubens Pelizzari, Alessandro Luciano, Gustavo Castillo, Simon Mechlinski, Ekaterina Bakanova, Yasko Sato, José de Eça, Toni Nežić, Richard Shaffrey, Ioana Constatin-Pipelea

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 24 October 2018

Wexford, if no-where else, continues to make a case for Saverio Mercadante. Falling somewhere between Rossini on one side and Verdi on the other, Mercadante has been overshadowed by two titans of Italian opera and that's a situation that is surely unjust. The world can unfortunately be unjust and essentially that is what Mercadante's Il Bravo is all about. The opera itself, pretty much obscure and forgotten, makes a good case for this sad reality.

The evidence so far in terms of the few opportunities we have had to see Mercadante staged, are that his 'hit rate' as the composer of around 60 operas surely couldn't have been lesser than that of Rossini or Verdi. Il Bravo in fact is musically much more adventurous than much of Rossini and certainly superior to early Verdi, Il Bravo coming in 1839 the same year as Verdi's debut opera Oberto. Or perhaps just a little more adventurous maybe, but certainly far enough away from the strict rules and expectations of the public to worry the critics and his audience of the time.

Where Il Bravo is perhaps a little over-ambitious however is in the nature of the drama and the plotting itself, although perhaps no more so than an audience would be accustomed to from Rossini and Verdi. The plot is perhaps too convoluted to detail, but as it is necessary to understand the impact that Mercadante is striving for, I'll make use of the Wexford Festival Opera's admirably concise early outline summary rather than attempt a full synopsis:

Set in 16th-century Venice, the Bravo of the title is a tormented character who long ago killed his wife in a fit of jealousy; unjustly accused of plotting against the state, he has been forced by the Council of Ten to become their secret hired assassin, while his father is held hostage to compel his obedience. The story also involves Pisani, a young man under sentence of banishment, in love with a girl whom he believes to be immured in Venice; Violetta, the girl in question, who has been under the protection of the Bravo since the murder of her guardian by a would-be abductor; and Teodora, a wealthy foreigner living in Venice, who turns out to be not only Violetta’s mother but also the Bravo’s wife, whom he had not killed after all.

All of the characters in Il Bravo are fighting against injustice done to them, usually by a higher human power or corrupt agency rather than fate or outrageous fortune. They consequently try to put their belief in truth and natural justice and are prepared to stand up for it, but are unjustly rewarded for their efforts. Some of the twists that lead to those conclusions however don't quite adhere to the same sense of reality or human response to situations. The disappearance of Il Bravo/Carlo's wife Violetta and her reappearance as Teodora with a daughter called Violetta is not only confusing, it's not really fully explained either, nor are the motivations clear why she is so glad to be reunited with him.

Dramatic contrivances go with the territory however and there's no denying that they have a tremendous impact. The final twist of Carlo discovering that his father has died, freeing him of his obligations as an assassin comes hot on the heels of Teodora's sacrificial suicide to free Il Bravo from his final unthinkable commission, and it's a real kicker, particularly in its musical delivery. Il Bravo is restrained in its use of big number arias, Mercadante permitting no unnecessary vocal fireworks but remaining rather dramatically attuned to the action musically and in terms of singing, allowing the drama to direct impact, with a few thunderous choruses thrown in for good measure. Rubens Pelizzari certainly lives up to the challenges of the title role of the assassin.

There are no bel canto extravaganzas or melodic flourishes either in the singing, but that doesn't make it any less demanding. Mercadante doesn't waste a scene in the opera and doesn't waste any characters. In another opera of its time Act II could be filler crowd-pleasing material but Mercadante keeps up the tension, scoring each scene for full dramatic impact. Nearly all the performers, with the exception possibly of Ekaterina Bakanova's Violetta, took time to find their feet, either too hesitant or too forced, lacking fluidity and barking our words. Under Jonathan Brandani's musical direction however, they soon warm up and the momentum of the work itself seems to carry them thrillingly along. Sometimes a little over-zealously, as is the nature of the drama where there is a lot going on and a lot of characters competing for attention but Brandini does well to reign them in and manage the powerful dynamic that is impassioned but controlled and alive to the drama.

It's also vital that the stage production goes along with this dynamic and controlled passion to deliver the necessary impacts, and despite a few unnecessary touches, André Barbe's designs and Renaud Doucet's direction for Wexford is sympathetic and in touch with the heart of the work, and it's really quite impressive looking too. It's grand and spectacular in its creative abstraction of classical Venice, with all its pomp ceremonies and splendour. The setting is largely period, the dramatic action is 'operatic' in delivery, frequently in stand and deliver mode, but this may be the best way to present Mercadante, and it would be a mistake to try to make Il Bravo contemporary and 'relevant'.

There is a half-hearted effort made in this direction but it feels contrived and doesn't really add to the themes at all, consisting mainly of tourists walking along the same Venice locations, oblivious to the true history of the place and the nature of the kind of drama that once took place there, taking selfies with the Doge and buying souvenirs. Evidently Barbe and Doucet want to at least make a token effort to bring the drama closer to home in the present day, or at least a reminder of the idea of injustice persisting, which is certainly the case for the neglect of the operas of Saverio Mercadante. The performance on the 27th October was broadcast live and is well worth a view on YouTube or ARTE Concert.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera, RTE/YouTube