Mercadante’s Emma d’Antiochia (LPO, 22 October)

Emma d’Antiochia

Emma – Nelly Miricioiu
Ruggiero – Bruce Ford
Adelia – Maria Costanza Nocentini
Corrado – Roberto Servile
Aladino – Colin Lee
Odetta – Rebecca von Lipinski

The Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
David Parry

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 22 October, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

After a week of recording Mercadante’s 1834 opera Emma d’Antiochia for Opera Rara, soloists, chorus and orchestra, under David Parry’s enthusiastic leadership, gave a concert performance in the Festival Hall before an appreciative audience.

Very much of its time, with a basis of recitative, aria (or duet) and cabaletta, Emma d’Antiochia is a story of passion, unfulfilled love and two suicides: of Emma herself by poison and of her devoted slave Aladino with a dagger. It is the type of story that one finds often in Italian opera from the first half of the 19th-century.

Emma is the former love of Ruggiero, who is due to marry Adelia, daughter of Corrado, Ruggiero’s uncle. Emma and Ruggiero meet again after Corrado, Count of Tyre, has taken a new bride, in order to cement an alliance between Tyre and Antioch. Of course, the lady is Emma. Ruggiero realises that Emma is his true love. Corrado, on becoming aware of Ruggiero’s unwillingness to marry Adelia, exiles the young man. Emma drinks the poison and dies just after she and Adelia are reconciled in the opera’s final duet. Duets for two sopranos were somewhat unusual.

Also unusual is the inclusion of an off-stage ’banda’ in the overture. Whether the overture can be called lively, amusing or banal is open to discussion: probably all three. Some of the arias and ensembles make their mark. Corrado’s scene, the big duet of Emma and Ruggiero and the final quartet in Act One are worthy of note, as is that duet for the sopranos, but best of all, I think, is Emma’s Act Three aria, its beautiful cavatina crowned by an exciting cabaletta.

The LPO was in good form, as was the chorus. Roberto Servile’s concentrated tone may lack the volume and ring of some others, but he knows the meaning of ’diminuendo’ and produced some shapely phrasing: this was the father concerned for his daughter rather than the seeker after vengeance. Corrado does not curse Ruggiero but hopes that God will guide and protect him in exile.

As the daughter, Adelia, Maria Costanza Nocentini (replacing Majella Cullagh), bright of timbre, managed the coloratura sections successfully and came through clearly in ensembles. Her voice sounded sufficiently different from that of Nelly Miricioiu to effect contrast yet blended well.

Bruce Ford, a frequent contributor to Opera Rara projects, brought expected musicality to his part, his voice moving easily through the demands of the role. He must have sung, ’live’ or on disc, more neglected tenor roles than anyone else around (just as David Parry must have conducted more ’forgotten’ operas than others have), and his contribution was a welcome constituent.

The eponymous Emma was the eximious Nelly Miricioiu, as involved and involving as ever. As I have written elsewhere, to listen to her in a complete opera is to undertake an exciting journey as she holds one’s attention, creating a flesh-and-blood character whether singing Tosca or an ottocento heroine. Her singing of the Act Three prayer was spellbinding.

One cannot claim that Emma d’Antiochia is among the 19th-century’s masterpieces or even that it is Mercadante’s finest, but among the expected, the formulaic, there are a few gems, certainly worth the exhumation by Opera Rara. I look forward to the CDs in about a year’s time.

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