Stella, Nemica Infausta
Article by Thea Cook with a review by John Yohalem
November 26, 2014
The programme included:-
Romanza "Stella nemica infausta", Cavatina: "Fra lo splendore e i cantici…Nell’ebbrezza del contento"
A recording of the cavantina can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8aeKofapBMo
A recording of the aria can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=am2yStLe3iA
There was then an encore from Act I of Federico Ricci's Luigi Rolla, "Fra le belle di tutte più bella", a recording of which can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhTRlvgLB5g
Thea Cook, who organised the concert and researched the items on the programme, has provided the following article, which includes a review of the concert by John Yohalem.
I first saw mezzo-soprano Hayden DeWitt in 2012 when she performed the role of Cherubino in the American premiere of Mercadante’s I Due Figaro. I was won over by her command of coloratura technique and superb acting ability; I instantly knew I wanted to work with her on a recital.
When I propose a program of rare 19th century vocal music, I am always prepared for a brush-off. Many singers (quite understandably) don’t see the benefit of expending time and energy to learn music they will likely never have a chance to sing again. Hayden, however, was intrigued and asked me to send her a few pieces. After looking at them, she immediately agreed to collaborate on a recital.
I hadn’t anticipated how insatiably curious Hayden is. She took genuine pleasure in tackling challenging and unfamiliar pieces. I have produced a few other recitals, and the singers all did a fantastic job. Hayden took things to a new level. Not only did she learn the music, but by the time of the performance, she was completely off book, and insisted on singing the arias in character and in costume. I was at first skeptical of the idea – I had envisioned a more formal event. But, having faith in her instincts, I decided to loosen my grip and let things develop naturally. The recital assumed a much more intimate and informal shape, with Hayden joking with audiences, explaining the plots of the various operas between arias as she changed costumes. Her instincts were completely spot-on: the format won over even those who knew little about opera. It was as if we had been invited into the singer’s living room for an intimate private event.
The concert has so far been given twice, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on October 24, and on October 30 in Brooklyn under the umbrella of Vertical Player Repertory’s "Miniatures Behind the Door" recital series. Both events were blessed with very enthusiastic crowds.
Hayden has sung Cherubino in Mercadante’s I Due Figaro on stage, so it was natural to include his splendid last-act aria in the program. She was also engaged by Amore Opera to sing the role of Camillo in Donizetti’s Olivo e Pasquale, but in her research she found that the tenor role of LeBross had also been sung by a musico in other productions. So she re-wrote the role for mezzo and sang both roles onstage on separate nights! Hence the transposed Le Bross aria was part of our recital.
The last number in the regular program was Pacini’s Barcaruola "Come nube che leggera", published in the Neapolitan serial "Il Sibilo" and recorded by Opera Rara on its album of the same title. This piece has always been a personal favorite among the salon repertory, with its sad, melancholic tune and hypnotic piano accompaniment. In the Opera Rara album, it is sung by a bass. Hayden slightly adapted it, adding some tasteful ornamentation as well as a final cadenza that conformed with both performance practices of the period and the mood of the piece. Several audience members who approached me afterward singled this out as their favorite number on the program.
I was especially excited to feature arias from three operas for which I have a particular fondness and which have had no modern revivals: Pacini’s Malvina di Scozia, Nini’s Ida della Torre, and Federico Ricci’s Luigi Rolla composed by Persiani for Malibran in 1835, but with the action moved to medieval Scotland to appease the Neapolitan censors.
Cammarano considerably pruned the libretto of Ines to fit more modern tastes, also adding Ossianic references. At the same time, he expanded the role of the antagonista Bianca (renamed Morna in this Scottish version of the story) to accommodate the great contralto Adelaide Borghi-Mamo. La Borghi must have been a phenomenon. There are to this day streets in Italy named for her. Verdi tweaked the role of Azucena for her in Le Trouvère (her interpretation of the gypsy was legendary) but she was equally comfortable singing coloratura contralto roles such as Arsace. In this score Pacini pushed the limits of her abilities, requiring fantastic agility as well as great declamatory power.
"Stella nemica Infausta", her act II romanza, is an introspective piece, brief, elegiac, full of delicious harmonic twists and turns. By contrast, her Act I cavatina is flamboyant, the andante an ardent declaration of love, the cabaletta a joyous explosion of coloratura and a reminder why Pacini was called "Il Maestro delle Cabalette". Everyone – myself, Hayden, our accompanist Cathy Venable, and our costumer Allegra Durante – found the cabaletta replaying continually in their heads outside of rehearsal! Hayden confessed that this aria was one of the most exhausting pieces she had ever sung. As a footnote, she almost exclusively performs trouser roles, and joked with the audience that the only thing rarer than this music was seeing her in a dress!
I had always been curious about Federico Ricci’s Luigi Rolla, which was alternately titled Michelangelo e Rolla. Also with a Cammarano libretto – one that has to my mind been unfairly criticized – it is another work so closely tailored to the talents of its original cast that adequately casting it today is not easy. The fabulous dramatic coloratura Francesca Mondanaro included the heroine’s daunting Act III aria in our August, 2012 tribute to Giuseppina Strepponi (for whom it was written). It garnered the biggest ovation of that concert.
The mezzo-soprano role in that opera, however, is also very rewarding. It reflects the evolution of the trouser mezzo in Italian opera from romantic hero to stripling boy. Like Oscar in Ballo and Urbain in Les Huguenots, Stefano (the brother of the hero Luigi) provides moments of comic relief in an otherwise lugubrious plot. I have not uncovered much information about its original interpreter, Irene Secchi-Corsi, but she must have been a gifted singer and actress, for Stefano is given two arias. The first – which Hayden sang as the encore to the regular program - is a brief ballata in which Stefano boasts (emptily, one feels) about his conquests of women of various nationalities. The first verse of the second aria reflects upon the divine source of artistic inspiration; in the second very Stefano implies that when he’s out of ideas for his art, he has only disport himself with women to reconnect with his Muse. Hayden was particularly winning in both of these pieces, which feature irresistible tunes and plenty of opportunity for hamming it up. Rolla is another opera that begs to be revived – the tenor role, written for Napoleone Moriani, has a great deal of emotionally charged music, and one passage was known to whip up patriotic rioting in its Risorgimento audiences.
Alessandro Nini’s Ida della Torre of 1837 was his first stage work. Nini was freshly returned from his musical training in St. Petersburg when he was commissioned to write this opera for the Teatro San Benedetto in Venice. It earned enthusiastic audience and critical response, and was subsequently produced in Milan and again in Venice. It appears not to have been performed since 1840. Those familiar with Nini’s La Marescialla d’Ancre will not be surprised that the opera, right from the overture, is written in a style we ordinarily associate with the young Verdi – brash, energetic, a bit on the crude side – but with such compelling forward momentum that it is irresistible. Verdi probably heard the 1838 Milan revival and it is difficult to believe that he wasn’t strongly influenced by Nini’s style.
A Romeo and Juliet tale set in the Guelph-Ghibelline conflicts during the 13th century in Milan, the story is quite powerful, with a heartbreaking mad/suicide scene for the heroine as the final tableau – one that was unfortunately replaced in subsequent productions by the "Era dessa il figlio mio" from Lucrezia Borgia with its words slightly altered.
The contralto hero Alfredo – a Marietta Brambilla role – has some very strong pages; for this recital I chose his Act I cavatina "Te derelitta vergine", an aria whose accompaniment, harmonies and vocal line resemble a Verdi tenor romanza transposed upward for mezzo!
I would be remiss if I didn’t give special mention to Allegra Durante – our wonderful costumer, prop-master and lighting tech – who contributed greatly to the overall audience experience.
Our multi-talented and tireless pianist Cathy Venable was boundless in her enthusiasm for the project. She not only gave invaluable support to Hayden but also received her own well-merited ovations for her solo, a piano reduction of the very showy military sinfonia from Pacini’s Stella di Napoli. And in a delightful surprise, Cathy joined her pleasing soprano with Hayden’s in the final few bars of the encore! It was truly a pleasure to collaborate with her.
Critic John Yohalem was present at the October 24 performance, and with his permission we have reprinted the following review which appeared on parterre.com on October 26, 2014.
by John Yohalem
"Stella Nemica Infausta:- Rare Italian Arias for Mezzo-Soprano"
"You’re getting a bargain with bel canto," said Hayden DeWitt, our prima donna, or rather, primo musico, since most of her roles are in trousers. "This whole concert is about an hour’s worth of music but you get the same number of notes as the Ring."
Some of us were drawn to opera in the first place by the astonishing glories of bel canto melody and can never get enough of the stuff. This concert was for us. And it will be repeated next week.
The program, under the auspices of Thea Cook of the Donizetti Society, consisted largely of music that had not been sung in a century and a half, arias by half-forgotten bel canto giants like Pacini and Mercadante, and by truly forgotten guys like Nini and Ricci. What startles and delights is how very high the quality of melody was from one and all. That Miss DeWitt would sing the music beautifully was not such a surprise—one has heard her sing Schubert and Scarlatti, and in Porpora’s Arminio in Armenia and in the New York premieres (thank-you, Opera Amore) of two delightful operas whose music was excerpted in this concert, Donizetti’s Olivo e Pasquale and Mercadante’s I Due Figaro.
It was a bit of a shock to see DeWitt in a dress, in both a tragic romanza and a joyous double aria for the Irish Princess Morna from Pacini’s Malvina di Scozia. (Morna, though she gets more to sing, is the "other woman" in that opera, sharing a passion for the Scottish Prince Arturo with the eponymous Malvina. All you need know of the plot is that Morna’s brilliant, happy aria occurs in Act I, when she’s first seen her handsome fiancé, and the tragic one is from Act II.) But even encumbered by skirts, DeWitt gave a warm account with full regard to the flowing bel canto line and charming ornamental style of this piece. Pacini, whom Rossini regarded as the finest melodist of the crowd, famous for his cabalettas, is now perhaps a rising star, as a number from his Stella di Napoli is the title cut from Joyce DiDonato’s new album of bel canto rarities. The overture to that charming opera was performed as an entr’acte for DeWitt’s concert by her accompanist, Cathy Venable, and the program concluded with a barcarole he dashed off for a popular musical journal of the time.
Switching to trousers of various eras to suit the period of the operas being excerpted, DeWitt gave us a man-about-town’s air from Donizetti’s Olivo e Pasquale, a Guelf warrior’s sighs for his Ghibelline true love from Alessandro Nini’s Ida della Torre (which is sort of Romeo and Juliet with an additional, fratricidal turn of the screw), a double aria for Cherubino disguised as Figaro (and in love with the Count’s daughter) from I Due Figaro and a merry "If I can’t chase girls I’ll just get drunk" turn for Stefano, an adolescent kid brother, from Federico Ricci’s Luigi Rolla. The plot of that opera (which starred many of the greatest tenors of its era) was so depressing that Stefano had to turn up twice to cheer us up. His second aria, comparing girls of various nationalities, was DeWitt’s encore. Merry is a manner that suits her bubbling personality, although you’d never know it from her star turn as Irish Morna.
The location for this concert was an atmospheric, Renaissance-style room in the complex attached to the Church of the Ascension on West 108th Street, which must have historic associations as the stairwells were painted by Keith Haring in his riotous disco-dancing-and-coupling phase.
Published on parterre.com on October 26, 2014