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Reviving Mozart’s Operatic Competitors

<i> Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar</i>

In the supper scene in “Don Giovanni,” an onstage wind band plays an innocuous little tune not by Mozart. The Don comments on its excellence. The audience is usually puzzled.

In its day, that tune was known to all of musical Vienna as being from the comic opera “Una Cosa Rara,” by the city’s operatic darling, Spanish composer Vicente Martin y Soler (1754-1806). Its librettist was Lorenzo da Ponte, author of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro"--which “Una Cosa Rara” knocked right off the Viennese boards in 1783--and later, “Don Giovanni.”

It was an imaginative move during this Mozart bicentennial to revive Martin’s long-forgotten opera and stage it, as was done earlier this year at Gran Teatro del Liceu in Barcelona, Spain. The result has been preserved in a live-performance recording (Astree 8760, three CDs) in which Jordi Savall leads his orchestra of period instruments, Le Concert des Nations.

Even on first encounter it isn’t easy to regard “Un Cosa Rara” as another merely modest accomplishment, doomed to oblivion by Mozart’s blinding light. By any other standards--certainly those of Mozart’s competitors, Salieri and Dittersdorf (Da Ponte wrote librettos for them too)--it is music of quality, although three hours of it (this set’s playing time) is a bit much.

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Da Ponte’s book is a clever concoction of familiar elements: confused identities and amorous misunderstandings, errant aristocrats and sharp-witted peasants. Martin’s tunes are strong, his orchestration superb, with affecting use of the woodwinds within a sophisticated harmonic fabric employed to strengthen characterization, a concern by no means commonplace in 18th-Century opera.

Among four or five arias of considerable interest, there is particular distinction in the Prince’s first-act “Piu bianca di giglio,” sweetly sung by Ernesto Palacio, the best-known member of a generally strong cast of young Spanish singers. And of course there’s the tune Mozart picked up, the sextet “O quanto un si bel giubilo,” interestingly, one of the few Mozartean moments in a score that otherwise gives us more foretaste of Rossini than memories of Mozart.

Another side benefit of Mozart ’91 is the chance to hear the other “Don Giovanni,” composed by one Giuseppe Gazzaniga.

Gazzaniga (1743-1818) and his librettist, Giovanni Bertati, scored a hit with their one-act comic opera in Venice just a few months before Mozart and Da Ponte conquered Prague with their version in 1789.

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Mozart and his librettist borrowed some plot details and even a few minor musical turns from Gazzaniga-Bertati. But it’s no contest.

Gazzaniga and his collaborator tell their tale in simple comic terms. Their Don, a tenor, is not the dangerously complex character with whom we are familiar but merely a witless, if occasionally tenderhearted, skirt chaser.

What Gazzaniga-Bertati never give us is Mozart’s pity, terror and dark humor, the confused mental states and conflicting loyalties of his characters.

Amazingly, we have two recordings of this work, forgotten until the Mozart bicentennial.

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Gazzaniga’s conservative orchestration and lack of daring in matters of modulation and dynamics are more obvious in the complete recording (Orfeo 214 902, two CDs), in which Stefan Soltesz dutifully leads the Munich Radio Orchestra.

The score seems better crafted (and perhaps it is better edited) as played by Canada’s period-instrument Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, under the crisp leadership of Bruno Weil, in a single-disc version that omits the recitatives (Sony 46693).

There’s some first-rate singing in both. Both Dons are fine, with Orfeo’s John Aler a bit more comfortable with the fioritura than Sony’s Douglas Johnson.

Ferruccio Furlanetto brings snarling wit and basso richness to the plum part of Pasquariello (a.k.a. Leporello) on Sony, and Pamela Coburn is a sympathetic Donna Elvira for Orfeo--although the character is a bit of a stick when compared to her wonderfully human namesake in Mozart-Da Ponte.

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Baritone Anton Scharinger, who sings the Masetto character (here called Biagio) in both recordings, sounds like a real find, his warm, solid tone and pointed enunciation reminiscent of a young Hermann Prey.


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