Today NPR’s World of Opera broadcast a performance of Saverio Mercadante’s opera Virginia. Mercadante (1795-1870) was a very prominent composer of operas in the 19th century. Both Rossini and Verdi held him in esteem. Now almost forgotten, Mercadante’s operas are performed rarely. This broadcast was recorded during a performance in 2010 at the Wexford Opera Festival in Ireland.
Mercadante and his 60 or so operas are a shadowy link between the works of Rossini and Donizetti on the one side and Verdi on the other. He became an obscure composer because of the quality of his competition. If he produced works of similar quality today he would be the undisputed king of the operatic world.
Virginia is set to a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, the librettist for Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lammermoor and Verdi’s Il Trovatore among many others. It takes place in ancient Rome. Virginia is in love with Icilio, the good tenor. But Appio, the bad tenor, lusts after her and is about to get his wicked way with her by very nefarious means when her father Virginio stabs her rather than have her suffer a fate worse than you know what. This inspires the plebeians to rise against the patricians ending the opera.
The opera is full of beautiful writing both for soloists and ensembles. If given at a major opera house with first rate voices I’m sure it would find a place in the repertory. Though written in 1850 the work was not first performed until 1866. It was the victim of censorship. Mercadante lived and worked in Naples. The Bourbons were not sympathetic to unfavorable depictions of nobility no matter how remote from 19th century life. By 1866 Garibaldi had driven them out.
Here are two excerpts from the third act. Sacre penati is a duet for soprano (Virginia) and baritone (Virginio). It starts with a beautiful introduction for cor anglais and harp. The father and daughter lament what they are sure will be a bad outcome to their perilous situation; of course they’re right. The piece is up to the highest standards of Italian opera of its time. The singers are Angela Meade and Hugh Russell. The last five minutes of the opera follow depicting the bad outcome. Virginia finale
Mercadante’s 59 other opera likely contain stuff as good as found in Virginia. I’ll have to seek some of them out.