1:52pm

Fri May 27, 2011
World of Opera

Brilliance In The Shadows: Mercadante's 'Virginia'

Do you know the British rock band Herman's Hermits, from the 1960s? If not, that's entirely understandable; their heyday was brief, to say the least. You might say Herman's Hermits became to 1960s' British rock what Saverio Mercadante was to 19th-century Italian opera.

During one year, 1965, the Hermits had two singles top the Billboard charts in the U.S. — "Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter" and "I'm Henry VIII, I Am." But that wasn't enough to keep them going for long.

The year before, The Beatles had released "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Then, just as the Hermits were making their mark, another British band had its first number one hit in America: The Rolling Stones, with "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." In the shadow of The Beatles and The Stones, Herman's Hermits didn't have much of a chance. And that's pretty much what happened to Mercadante in Italy in the 1800s.

Mercadante began his career early in the 1820s, and over the next 25 years he wrote nearly 60 operas. But even at the height of his popularity, he was filling a sort of gap. Gioachino Rossini left Italy for Paris in 1823. Gaetano Donizetti followed suit in the 1830s, and for a short time Mercadante dominated the Italian opera scene. Then Giuseppe Verdi came along: as the 1840s progressed, Verdi became more and more prominent, and Mercadante's time seemed to have come and gone. Not surprisingly, given strength of his competition, his operas remain obscure today.

Still, Mercadante's works do hit the stage from time to time, and when that happens it's easy to see why he was once the top dog of Italian opera. In the best of his work, Mercadante's music is rooted in the fluid lyricism of bel canto, reminiscent of Rossini and Bellini. At the same time, it anticipates the game-changing innovations that made Verdi's best operas some of the greatest ever composed.

Mercadante's Virginia tells a story that's part history and part legend from the early days of ancient Rome. The plot features cut-throat politics, erotic obsession and tragic romance, and it ends with a shocking, violent death. Not surprisingly, it drew the interest of a number of opera composers.

But the story also involves a nasty Roman ruler who's overthrown by his people — and Mercadante composed the opera in Naples, where the conservative ruling class was barely clinging to power. The Neapolitan censors took one look at the libretto and promptly banned it.

That was in 1851, and the score sat on a shelf until it was finally performed in 1866. The premiere took place at Naples' most famous opera house, the Teatro San Carlo, where it was one of the biggest hits on record. In a moving moment, Mercadante, by then old and blind, was cheered and applauded through dozens of curtain calls.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a new production of Mercadante's Virginia from the Wexford Opera Festival in Ireland. Tenors Bruno Ribeira and Ivan Magri play the drama's two main rivals; they're vying for the attention of the opera's title character, sung in an exciting performance by the young American soprano Angela Meade.

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