Liszt thought him Italy’s best composer
by Stefan Zucker
Who wrote an opera set against a priestly background, with a triumphal scene and the chief character dying in a tomb? Here’s a hint:
Well, yes, Verdi. But what’s this? The original words aren’t “Ritorna vincitor” but “De’Galli vincitor.” An earlier version, surely. No! The opera in question is Mercadante’s La vestale, the clamorously successful world premiere of which Verdi witnessed in Genoa in 1841. A critic, Amintore Galli, declared that Mercadante merely “served as Verdi’s footstool.” But as recent revivals have shown, his best works are genuinely compelling.
Giuseppe Saverio Raffaele Mercadante was born a bastard in Altamura, near Bari. The exact date is unknown; however, he was baptized September 17, 1795. He moved to Naples with his family at about age 11. In 1808, seeking free tuition at the city’s San Sebastiano conservatory but being too old and not a local citizen, he claimed his first name was Francesco and that he was born a Neapolitan in 1797–which he upheld for much of his life.
At the San Sebastiano he studied solfeggio, violin and flute, also figured bass and harmony with Furno and counterpoint with Tritto, who both later taught Bellini. From 1816-20 he became the prize student of Zingarelli, the conservatory’s director, who shortly thereafter became Bellini’s principal teacher. Rossini, then director of the San Carlo, wrote to Zingarelli, “My compliments: your young pupil Mercadante begins where we leave off.” Zingarelli thought Rossini’s musical influence so pernicious that he had forbidden the San Sebastiano composition students even to read the scores of his operas–a ban he had to rescind in late 1815 at the command of King Ferdinand, after the triumph of Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra. In Mercadante’s first operas the vocal lines seldom consist of coloratura lacking in melodic nucleus, as is sometimes true in Rossini. To my ears, however, his first major success, his seventh opera, the 1821 Elisa e Claudio,seems Rossinian but boring.
Through 1818 Mercadante devoted himself to instrumental music almost exclusively. After the success of the third of his three 1818 ballets written for the San Carlo, ll flauto incantato, a critic urged him to renounce “sterile symphonies” in favor of vocal music. Naples applauded his first opera, L’apoteosi d’Ercole, San Carlo, 1819. In 1820 he wrote two operas for Naples and two for Rome. Elisa e Claudio with which he made his La Scala debut, ran for 30 successive nights and six months later for 28 more. His next work for La Scala was the 1822 melodramma semiserio Il posto abbandonato, ossia Adele ed Emerico, which he thought well enough of to revise for some Spanish performances six years later. He took charge of the Vienna premiere of Elisa e Claudio, in 1823, staying to write three operas, poorly received. His next big success was Caritea, regina di Spagna, 1826, in Venice. According to the Italian critic Rodolfo Celletti, Caritea “initiates the strain of Iyrical pathos later conspicuous in Il pirata, I Capuleti, Anna Bolena, Parisina, Lucia and subsequent works. It shows the first significant step Mercadante took away from Rossini’s style and the influence he would have on Bellini and Donizetti.”
For the next five years Mercadante’s activities centered on Spain and Portugal, with several of his projects thwarted by contractual and political difficulties. His Gabriella di Vergy, 1828, later enjoyed an Italian vogue in a revised version. Other works at this time included Don Chisciotte and Francesca da Rimini. In 1830 he was the director of Madrid’s Italian opera.
Rossini’s view was that attempts at slavishly capturing words in music resulted in music devoid of interest independent of the words. However, before 1830, Bellini in particular had become obsessed with composing so as to “express words with the utmost exactness.” Back in Italy in 1831 Mercadante also turned to word setting, premiering Zaira in Naples that year (to the same Romani libretto Bellini had used in 1829) and, to great acclaim, I Normanni a Parigi in Turin, the next. Also in 1832 he married Sofia Gambaro, a widow, in Genoa, fathering a daughter and two sons. In ’33 he succeeded composer Pietro Generali as maestro di cappella to the Novara Cathedral, for which over the next seven years he wrote a substantial amount of sacred music. In 1835 he journeyed to Paris at Rossini’s invitation to write an opera for the Théâtre-Italien. Romani didn’t furnish a libretto as scheduled, so Mercadante quickly composed to one supplied by Crescini. The result, I briganti, failed, though the lead singers were the “Puritani” quartet, Grisi, Rubini, Tamburini and Lablache. While in Paris, Mercadante is generally thought to have come under the spell of Meyerbeer, whose Les Huguenots was produced at the Opéra in February 1836.
On March 11, 1837, at La Scala, Mercadante premiered his most famous work, Il giuramento, to a libretto by Rossi based on Hugo’s Angelo (on the same subject as Ponchielli’s La Gioconda). Mercadante’s next operas consolidated his fame, Le due illustre rivali, Elena da Feltre, Il bravo–a brilliant triumph at La Scala in 1839–and La vestale. During the composition of Elena da Feltre, he wrote to Florimo,
I have continued the revolution begun with Il giuramento: varied the forms, banished trivial cabalettas, exiled [Rossinian] crescendos, short tessitura, fewer repeats, some novelty in the cadences, care with the dramatic part, orchestra rich without covering the singing, no long solos in the ensembles, which force the other parts to be cold to the detriment of the action; little bass drum and still less brass band.
About this time Mercadante lost the sight of one eye. He became totally blind in 1862, after which he dictated his many compositions. In 1839 he became music director of Lanciano Cathedral. Rossini offered him the directorship of Bologna’s Liceo Musicale; he accepted, only to renege to become director of the San Pietro a Majella–the former San Sebastiano in 1840, succeeding Zingarelli. (Rossini then offered the Bologna post unsuccessfully to Donizetti and Pacini.) Among Mercadante’s most notable later operas are Orazi e Curiazi, a sensation at the San Carlo in 1846, Pelagio, a hit there in 1857, and a favorite of mine, Virginia, composed in 1850, proscribed by the censors because of its theme of political corruption and finally given with revised music at the San Carlo in 1866, to ecstatic acclaim.
The relationship between Mercadante and Verdi was complex and stormy. Verdi enlisted Mercadante to oversee the casting of the first Naples Macbeth in 1848. In 1853 Mercadante unsuccessfully endeavored to have the Neapolitan censors prohibit the last two acts of Il trovatore. Nevertheless, in 1868, when Verdi was attempting to organize a multi-composer requiem in memory of Rossini, he put Mercadante at the top of the list of contributors, “even for a few measures.” (The project foundered.)
Mercadante died in Naples, December 17, 1870, greatly venerated. His output totaled about 60 operas, four ballets, much chamber music, 21 masses, and a great quantity of other sacred works, orchestral fantasies, funeral symphonies to Donizetti, Bellini, Pacini and Rossini, selections for violin and piano, solfeggios and a substantial outpouring of songs.
Mercadante didn’t always carry out his reforms with invention. In some cases, as the German musicologist Friedrich Lippmann remarks, he simply omitted the cabalettas, without replacing them with new structures. Lippmann holds that Mercadante was best at ensembles, dialogue between characters, colorful harmonic background and slancio (surge, vehemence, sometimes ferocity) but generally average as a melodist and therefore unconvincing as a reformer. I agree that many of his melodies are of no great distinction, though there are notable exceptions. The reforms tended to fall by the wayside in the later operas. Some commentators accuse them of sometimes lapsing into bombast and harmonic contrivance. According to British musicologist Michael Rose, they “can be impressive, beautiful, passionate and physically exciting, but seldom spontaneous or directly personal.”
Many of Mercadante’s contemporaries felt differently–and it is important to remember they heard more of his music in actual performance than any of us. In response to the Giuramento world premiere, as Opera Rara’s Don White has noted, the critic of Il lucifero extolled the “majestic simplicity” of the orchestration, calling the work “a perfect blend of French declamation, German harmony and Italian melody.” Liszt, castigating Italian composers in 1838, stated,
Exception must always be made for Mercadante. He has the wisdom to write slowly and revises his compositions with care. . . . Several of the ensemble pieces are really remarkable. The latest works of Mercadante are without question the most carefully thought out of the contemporary repertory.
Scudo wrote in 1858, “One finds in [Giuramento] the elements that Verdi based his own style upon.” Rossini declared in 1862, “I can’t say more than that [Mercadante] makes good music, but I don’t at all care for his very rough character or his manners, which are almost boorish at times.”