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June 1, 2009

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.

Krisztina SzaboPerforming 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 ...

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

James ValentiIl 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.)

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.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:02 PM | | Comments (1)


I was not able to attend some years back the Julliard School’s staged
performance of Mercadante’s Il Giuramento, so seeing it even in concert
form was a special treat. This work has been done in Europe by the likes of
Carreras and Domingo in our lifetimes… each time this work and a handful of
other Mercadante works are done many critics and observers state the a
Mercadante revival is overdue. The operas are always well crafted and many times
inspired. Critics state the obvious that his operas are major, stage worthy and
provide the missing link between Donizetti and early (some even go as far as
saying mid) Verdi. I’ve always wondered why opera companies do not stage some of
the less known works of the 19th century. When Rigoletto was being
premiered in Naples, Verdi insisted that Mercadante supervise the production
because he believed the composer from Altamura would be the only one in that
city that would understand what he was training to achieve. 

I was also saddened by the next “bread and butter” repertory that Washington
Concert Opera is doing next year. If I want to hear Faust or
Cenerentola, it’s not hard to catch a fully staged performance or listen to
the half dozen or so recordings and DVD’s of each. Concert Opera for me is
always about discovering less know repertory. I hope “playing safe” does not
backfire on the Washington Concert Opera folks.

Thanks for your comments. The exciting live recording of the 1979 concert version with Domingo provides evidence enough that Il giuramento is ripe for major revivals on the stage. (One small point. I think it was for 'Macbeth' that Verdi called upon Mercadante's assistance.) TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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