Alessandro Scarlatti, Ready for his Close Up?

Gender Knows No Bounds in Contemporary Revival

Tuesday, May 14, 2013 - 11:42 AM

When someone asks you what you think of the music of Scarlatti, would you know to respond, “Alessandro or Domenico?” Nowadays, both Alessandro and his sixth child, Domenico, seem confined to the margins of musicology and performance, their works only occasionally reaching our ears on recordings that include snippets of baroque pieces. We hear them, but don’t really listen.

Alessandro Scarlatti was born in Palermo, Sicily in 1660 and died in Naples in 1725. Domenico was born in Naples 1685, the same year as Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. He traveled with his father to important cities such as Rome and Florence before proceeding to Venice on his own to further his studies. In that city he came to know both Handel and Vivaldi. Domenico is thought to have written about 15 operas, mostly early in his career, before going to work for royal families in Lisbon and Madrid, where he died in 1757. He left a great amount of harpsichord sonatas and other pieces touched with genius and an individual voice.

During his time in Spain, Domenico knew Carlo Broschi (1705-1782), an Italian who, under the name Farinelli, was one of the most colorful and prominent castrati of the 18th century. Many of the solo works Domenico wrote for Farinelli have disappeared. It would be interesting to know more about their professional and perhaps personal relationships. Not long after Domenico died, Farinelli returned to Italy, buying a splendid villa near Bologna in which he welcomed illustrious guests including Gluck, Casanova and, in 1770, the 14 year-old Mozart and his father Leopold.

Now that you know a bit about Domenico, let us return to his father and briefly meet a few other family members. Alessandro had two musical brothers: Francesco Antonio (1666-ca 1741), who wrote a comic opera, oratorios and sacred music, and Tommaso (1671-ca.1760, a tenor. Alessandro had another musical son, Pietro Filippo (1679-1750), who wrote one opera and six toccatas for harpsichord. There was another Scarlatti named Giuseppe (1712-1777), whose precise relationship to the others is not clear but who wrote works for the stage, for the church and for individual instruments.

Alessandro Scarlatti moved to Rome at the age of 19 to study and married the next year. He and his wife had ten children, but he also was busy as a composer. He completed his first opera, Gli equivoci nel sembiante and, at the age of 24, moved to Naples, which rivaled Venice as the most important opera city in Europe. He became the chief composer to the royal family and wrote about 35 operas between 1684 and 1702 in addition to countless pieces for special royal occasions. He then sought work in Florence and Venice and again in Rome. Finally, he returned to Naples but had been replaced in royal favor by a younger generation of composers. Nonetheless, he composed operas that combined his musical gifts and wisdom of human frailties that he gained in his long, busy life.

Alessandro is considered by many scholars to be the most important Italian opera composer between Monteverdi and Rossini. In all, he wrote some 65 operas and about ten “elaborations” of stage works by other composers. He is thought to have developed the aria as a distinct form in which the comic or dramatic traits of a character received fuller expression in musical terms than had happened previously. He also advanced the use of duets, trios, quartets and, in one case (Il Prigioniero Fortunato in 1698), even a septet. Many of his operas were comedic and the interweaving of voices sometimes had the effect of provoking smiles of pleasure and astonishment among audience members.

Finding Relevance in Comedic Works

One of the reasons that Alessandro Scarlatti’s operas are not as well-known as they should be is that comedy of any kind is much harder to perform than tragedy, and the situations in some of the works might seem more like caricature with certain archetypes such as the lecherous older man and the clever young woman who outwits him. At least that is what the few scholars and musicologists who have studied Scarlatti would have us believe. And, in this era in which opera presenters and stage directors insist that everything be “relevant”—whatever that means—all kinds of operas that would delight us with their music and insights into human behavior are cast aside in favor of creating new productions of standard repertory that are distressingly irrelevant.

Enter Underworld Productions Opera, another of New York’s enterprising opera companies, which is about to perform Alessandro Scarlatti’s Il Trionfo dell’Onore (The Triumph of Honor) just as local operaphiles are looking for something to attend now that the Nibelungs and Carmelites have left the building and turned the stage of the Met over to ballerinas. Il Trionfo dell’Onore will be performed on May 17 at NYU’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò and on May 22 and 23 at Symphony Space.

The opera, with a libretto by Francesco Antonio Tullio, had its premiere on November 26, 1718, making it one of Scarlatti’s late works. There are eight characters, whose interlocking stories might seem complicated, but there is also a sophistication present that makes this opera worth attending. It was warmly received by the Neapolitan public and had 19 performances in its initial run. But, like many works, it was not revived. In fact, it was not heard again until an adaptation given in London in 1938 and a revival in Italian in Siena in 1941. The opera has popped up here and there in recent years, including student performances at NYU and Yale.

I got in touch with Gina Crusco, artistic director of Underworld Productions Opera and the stage director of Il Trionfo dell’Onore. She noted that this will be the opera’s professional premiere in New York. Crusco wrote, “I had happened upon the piano/vocal score in Lincoln Center’s library when I had a conversation with Christine Gummere, Artistic Director of Sinfonia New York (now collaborating with UPO for the third time). She told me that she had performed Scarlatti’s Gli equivoci nel sembiante in Palermo and that his works needed to be heard in New York. As she puts it, ‘part of early music's mission is to reassess history.’”

Crusco added that the opera “offers glorious music as well as the combination of dramatic features that I find most attractive in a staged work: the potential to entertain through comedy, stimulate the mind through wordplay, and lift the audience to higher ground...The plot reads like a modern romantic comedy times four: eight characters in search of their ideal mates, mismatched and thwarted at every turn, yet properly paired up at the end. With musical and dramatic mirroring among relationships and fast-paced interweaving from scene to scene, opportunities for bawdiness, romantic love, slapstick, and transcendence abound."

According to Dorian Komanoff Bandy, UPO’s music director and conductor of this production, the beauty of resurrecting this opera is that it “has the power shock, please, and tickle our innocent ears. Scarlatti reminds us just how exciting it is to hear a great piece for the first time. He was a master-dramatist and psychologist, crafting pieces that were designed to confound our expectations in the most astonishing ways. Scarlatti teaches us, because he is not a canonized opera composer, that early opera is a living art.”

Crusco and Bandy will be using music drawn not from the Lincoln Center piano/vocal score but a full orchestral one, perhaps in Scarlatti’s own hand, found at the Library of Congress. She noted that the work is more subtle than customary comic operas of the times, with “serious” characters who utter ribald puns and “comic” characters whose music bespeaks an unexpected amount of heroism.

Crusco told me, “I found that, in 1718, Riccardo, a Don Juan-like womanizer, was portrayed at the premiere by a woman, Caterina Testi. And, incidentally an unidentified tenor, perhaps an amateur, played the old-lady character Cornelia, essentially forming a pair of older male lovers. For a company alive to the way in which the gender-bending messages of opera can speak to modern audiences, this was a perfect fit for UPO.  

“Together with Mr. Bandy, I decided to select the best singer for each role regardless of sex, resulting in one cast led by a female Riccardo and including a male countertenor Erminio, and another cast led by a male soprano Riccardo and including a female mezzo-soprano Erminio. What New York audiences attending Il Trionfo dell’Onore will see is result of perhaps the first 'gender-blind' auditions in modern times.”

Who said Alessandro Scarlatti is irrelevant?

Photo: Countertenor Eric Brenner plays Riccardo in the Underworld production of Il Trionfo dell'Onore

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