Saverio Mercadante: I Briganti (1836)

Opera in tre atti. Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes.

This is the first to be released in a series of Mercadante reviews that I have been working on for about six months now.

The last of the pre-reform operas, this is a reworking of Die Rauber, and thus it is the same basic story as I masnadieri which is to say, given my opinion of the later Verdi work, not that interesting a story, but yet again, stories are usually the weakness with Mercadante. This was the third opera composed for the Theatre-Italien at the behest of Rossini for the 1835 and 1836 seasons which also gave us I Puritani and Marino Faliero, in fact it was written for the same four lead singers as both of those operas and if I can note this opera for anything, it is its florid tenor vocals. Also, the second act starts off with what is marked as an Orgia. Structural comparison to the Verdi opera would indicate that act one is basically parts of acts one and two of the Verdi opera, act two is essentially act three in Verdi, and act three is essentially act four. Given my dislike for the Verdi version, I would say that the only thing it has over this is the vocal isolation of Amelia (she is the only female role in the Verdi opera), the rest of the cast is male. There are fewer scene changes than in Verdi, thus it is less episodic, with from what I can garner only four tableaux in an opera longer than the Verdi score.

SETTING: Bohemia, 17th century. Evil Corrado (baritone) is in love with Amelia (soprano) who is in love with his good brother Ermano (tenor) who just so happens to be the leader of a band of brigands, leading to the recovery of their father Massimiliano (bass) and Amelia being killed by Ermano for reasons that make sense to Fredrich Schiller since he wrote this darn play! Cast is rounded out by a monk named Bertrando (bass), Rollero (tenor) who is the second to Ermano, and a friend for Amelia named Teresa (mezzo-soprano).

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (68 minutes)

Scene 1: The Moor Estate.

1: Le gramaglie The opera opens with the typical brief brooding prelude and cheerful chorus combo *. This is followed by a rather forlorn cavatina from Corrado as he pines over Amelia in the most Rossiniesque way.

9: Per lei che mi sprezza This continues, nevertheless still rather forlorn which eventually demonstrates traces of the fact that we are in the 1830s and Bellini existed. But considering that Corrado is the bad guy, this is ridiculously placid. The chorus eventually gives things a little more oomph and then Corrado embarks on what sounds more like a rigorous rowing exercise **.

13, 16: Come un etereo spirto, Quando Guerrier A feminine chorus pops in *, which seems to suffer from a case of Wagnerian soul pre-existence (there are traces here of both Rienzi and Dutchman), and introduces Amelia in an aria which is saved by its excellent orchestra effects **, finishing with a good choral flourish from the girls.

23: Fin che un resto Amelia is confront by Corrado in a furious duet ** as she tells him to back down.

Scene 2: An interior of the castle.

33, 38, 44, 48, 50: Prode garzone/Questi due verdi salici/Tutto quaggiu si solve/Tu vivi! Tu vivi!/Sempre ripete mi And now the opera hits jackpot territory with a gorgeous cello prelude and we meet Ermano in a high tenor extravaganza *** (first a recitative with sustained high Gs that never goes below a D4, the prelude theme returns in the flute, he then goes down to an A3, almost just to tell us that he can sing that low, Rollero comes on singing in a more normal tenor range, but then we get even more from Ermano, and before the recitative is over he has already given us an Eb5!) The cavatina **** is even more remarkable as it teases with that golden trill melody (you know the one, it shows up in the prelude to Orazi e Curiazi and it is the single greatest thing in music) but never actually satisfying us with the fullness thereof. We end up in four star territory here as I am starting to experience music purge ending in the ecstasy of multiple, multiple Eb5s!. The afterglow consists of Amelia being heard briefly off stage at the castle and Ermano decides that he must see her, followed by a beautiful off-stage prayer *** (Amelia and chorus with the soprano coming very close to the golden melody as Ermano realizes (so he thinks) that they are praying for the apparently deceased soul of his father). He runs into Amelia suddenly in recitative, and discovers that they are in fact praying for him. He reveals that he is in fact alive and they embark on a happy reunion duet ** which picks back up with some vocal fireworks *** from the lovers.

54, 59, 64: Che veggo, che veggo/Incerto, che peso/Scopri alfin Suddenly Corrado arrives and we are off into a quintet *** which stops dead for an oddly low patch for Ermano (G3s) and a deflated and slow variant of the golden melody *** (Amelia takes it up briefly as well, same tempo). All that is left is the stretta as the lovers are separated as the women beg for mercy and the men decline **.

ACT 2: A forest near the Brigand camp. (38 minutes)

0: The act opens with a tempest as we come upon the Brigands **.

3: Orgia ** not as surprising as one would think, more the first part of a massive two-part tenor aria. Something of a Romani sound-world surrounding the brilliant vocals from Ermano (sustained high Cs are the highlight).

10: Fra nembi crudeli The second part is a glorious andante prayer to the Virgin Mary ***. It will flash by, being only 44 bars. Again, the cello solo provides most of the orchestral effect. This is followed by the discovery of the still living Massimiliano by Ermano and a monk named Bertrando.

20, 24: Deh, risparmia, Io si, che un figlio The father-son reunion duet ***, at first coming off as a little too bright but flowering with the tenor vocals. It becomes more grave ** as Massimiliano goes into how Corrado treated him (traces of what will end up the in the overture to Elena da Feltre appear) finally ending with a happier section with more tenor fireworks from Ermano (if you listen carefully you can hear traces of the act one finale of Puritani).

32: Al armi! Al armi! The Brigands prepare for war to a single strong repeated tune as the curtain falls **.

ACT 3: A room in the Castle Moor (38 minutes)

0: Notte, il silenzio doppia A strong opening chorus ** (traces of the golden melody from act one return).

5: Ah! no vivi Corrado is going crazy because evil and embarks on a weird little aria ironically saved by a bizarre cello *. Soldiers come on for some pulse as Ermano is laying siege to the castle.

13: Ciel! del mio prode Amelia embarks on a sweet prayer **. The harp is especially nice. If Verdi took a cue from Mercadante in the following decade, it was here. The women come on in a panic because brigands at the gates but Amelia rejoices in a daft cabaletta which at least has some good, if standard, bel canto soprano fireworks. Amelia watches the battle with her ladies. A cry is heard, Corrado has been slain by Ermano.

25, 31, 35: Giunge alcun/Sul mio fronte/Deh non scemar con lagrime The finale ** starts off comparatively weak but builds with traces of the golden melody (it never consummates) before Ermano comes on and Massimiliano judges his son (this is rather furious). It is with Ermano giving a rather impassioned plea *** (gorgeous coloratura here), followed by a brilliant closing finaletto *** in which Ermano (in waltz time) declares that he will never see them again and Amelia dies of a broken heart (the tenor does not stab her to death as per Schiller).

COMMENTS:

This was a strange instance of me deliberately wanting to write a panning review and the result is far from it. This is actually my third attempt, I never got beyond the first scene because I found it rather dull initially, obviously because the first scene is the most boring in the entire opera! When I finally heard the beginning of the second scene, I was hooked. Although by far the best features are the tenor vocals for Ermano (the role was written for Giovanni Battista Rubini, more on this below) and the orchestration (after all, this was written to impress the French!), the soprano and chorus get some very good material here as well. Although it is obvious that Mercadante will mine this score (the introductory music for Ermano, particularly that cello solo, will end up in the overture to Elena da Feltre) and there are very strong traces of Rossini and Donizetti, the best of the score is far more worth looking out for than the overall reputation, or rather lack thereof, that this work has. There are melodies here that are musical platinum gold, and they will end up in later Mercadante scores (thank goodness). Dare I commit the ultimate musical abomination of claiming that this is actually better than I Puritani? Certainly this is lightyears ahead of what Verdi will do with the same material. Even the characters, the same characters, are musically and dramatically more interesting than what Verdi will do for London (and to Jenny Lind) just twelve years later. They are more human beings and less Verdi pupi (that is an image!).

The tenor music is very high, possibly because this was to the best effect of the Rubini voice, as apparently his middle and lower range were almost inaudible (the role rarely goes below middle C, making it extremely difficult for normal tenors). This role, ironically the best in the opera, is so difficult that this is probably also the reason why the opera never carried over well. There is one section where the tenor takes a G3 (not exactly a low note for a tenor) which even for Mironov comes off as almost inaudible possibly because of its distance to the tessitura of the role (which seems to be from around D4 to A#4).

My question now is: how did this fail in Paris in 1836? The plot? Does it sounds too Italian? Mercadante certainly handles his orchestra, in all of his operas, with more ability than Bellini ever did, yet it is Puritani that we remember? I can see Faliero flopping, but this?

There are some structural problems, like the fact that the first five numbers come and go within the first half hour followed by the next SEVEN which take a combined 75 minutes! This core of the opera is the most interesting however, as the first scene and the last act (apart from the finale) are comparatively dull. In spite of this, for the tenor music alone this is an A+ and even without the role of Ermano, it would still be an alpha or alpha minus. Check it out!

3 thoughts on “Saverio Mercadante: I Briganti (1836)

  1. Thank you for the review, I hope to listen to this over the coming week. Mercadante was my discovery of 2020, one of those composers whose name I had known for years but never really listened to his music.
    My goodness, four stars****!! I didn’t know that even existed. Are there any other four-star ratings in your reviews??
    Looking forward to checking this one out.

    Like

  2. Oh, thank you. I’ll check that out as well.
    The year has just started, but looks like Pacini could be my new discovery for 2021.

    Like

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