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Washington Concert Opera uncovers Mercadante's neglected 'Il giuramento'

Washington Concert Opera closed its season Sunday at Lisner Auditorium with quite a rarity, Saverio Mercadante's Il giuramento from 1837.

Performing theatrical works without their theatricality has obvious drawbacks, but, whether the piece in question is well-known or obscure, there’s something to be said for moving the music to center stage. It can be quite rewarding to focus strongly on all the vocal and instrumental elements, allowing the imagination to fill in the scenic ones. When an opera has as messy a plot as Il giuramento, the concert format may even be the preferable way to go.

The story (more or less the same one that inspired Ponchielli's La gioconda about 40 years later) revolves around Elaisa, who falls for Viscardo, who loves Bianca, who is unhappily married to Manfredo. There's a big party, a call to arms, a lot of misunderstanding, and a death-simulating poison along the way. It all ends with ...

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an unnecessary tragedy and, I guess, some tough lessons learned by all.

Il giuramento is widely considered Mercadante's masterpiece, a work that sums up the composer's talent and his role as a kind of bridge between the Rossini-Donizetti-Bellini school of Italian opera and the mighty Verdi. (Mercadante was terribly jealous of Verdi and even did a little plotting against him.)

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The score of Il giuramento abounds in tunefulness and vivid orchestration. Not everything lingers long in the ear, but the craftsmanship is never in doubt. At its best — the enchanting, Bellini-worthy soprano/mezzo duet in Act 2, for example — the music really soars.

Washington Concert Opera artistic director Antony Walker might have taken a little more time with that music here and there (he seems to prefer to keep everything on a tight rhythmic leash), but his intensity certainly paid off.

Soprano Elizabeth Futral (Elaisa) offered gleaming tone and ardent phrasing. Krisztina Szabo (Bianca) used her light mezzo with stylistic flair. The two women blended exquisitely in that duet, Oh! Qual nome pronunziaste. Donnie Ray Albert's rich baritone and communicative power filled out Manfredo's music handsomely. James Valenti (Viscardo) encountered some strain in the upper reaches and didn't summon a particularly wide range of tonal colors, but he delivered considerable passion and eloquence. The chorus and orchestra came through firmly, for the most part.

I was a little disappointed to see that next season's WCO lineup is devoted to standard fare — Gounod's Faust and Rossini's La Cenerentola — rather than more discoveries like Il giuramento. The music-making, though, is bound to be as dynamic as ever. And, of course, the best news about next season is that there will be one. WCO, like many arts groups, has endured its share of financial pressures, but seems to have pulled through, and that's great for opera fans in the region.

PHOTO OF KRISZTINA SZABO BY DAVID LEYES, COURTESY OF HERBERT BARRETT MANAGEMENT; PHOTO OF JAMES VALENTI BY LISA KOHLER, COURTESY OF JAMESVELENTI.COM

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