If you happened to listen to Mercadante’s Il bravo blindly, you could almost swear you were listening to some unknown Verdi opera; except that Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, was only going to appear eight months later, while this was already Mercadante’s 44th opera! This is the sixth of the canon to be rediscovered at Wexford Festival Opera over the past twenty years, and one can easily understand why this is.

Chorus of Wexford Festival Opera © Clive Barda
Chorus of Wexford Festival Opera
© Clive Barda

Director Renault Doucet goes for a split kind of staging, where the opera is set in its original time – 16th-century Venice – and uses beautiful period costumes (André Barbe) but the action is occasionally framed and contrasted by contemporary scenes of tourists getting off cruise ships and walking around in herds around Piazza San Marco taking selfies. While the meaning of this directorial choice eluded me (clarifying that the action was set in Venice?), it was still possible to focus on the period scene and try to follow the story.

We come to the thorny point of the libretto, written by Gaetano Rossi and Marco Marcello and based on a French play, in turn based on James Fennimore Cooper's novel The Bravo. Of all the senseless plots that give opera a bad name, this ranks pretty high. Beyond the unlikelihood of the story, the problem here is the dramatic structure of the libretto, which is weak and hampers immediate comprehension and, therefore, identification with the story. Il bravo demonstrates the importance of the libretto.

Gustavo Castillo (Foscari) © Clive Barda
Gustavo Castillo (Foscari)
© Clive Barda

But then we have Mercadante’s music, which is nothing less than sublime. He is the missing link between Italian bel canto and Verdi. While we can recognise touches of Rossini and Donizetti in the score, we can more clearly hear Verdi’s style, and are suddenly faced with the huge debt the more famous composer owes to Mercadante.

You won’t find many distinct, memorable arias in Il bravo, but the opera doesn’t have a musically dull moment, with rich orchestration, unexpected combinations of singers (there are two tenor and two soprano duets), great variety ranging from the delicate harp of the initial soprano’s aria to the loudest orchestral end and many impressive choruses.

There are also some good arias, like Foscari's near the beginning (“Della vita nel sentiero” and “Abbellita da un tuo riso”), here sung by baritone Gustavo Castillo with a lovely voice, if with limited projection.

Alessandro Luciano (Pisani) and Ekaterina Bakanova (Violetta) © Clive Barda
Alessandro Luciano (Pisani) and Ekaterina Bakanova (Violetta)
© Clive Barda

Tenor Rubens Pelizzari plays Carlo (Il bravo). His voice has the weight to ride the orchestra, although his interpretation did not always convince. So Yasko Sato (Teodora) has a good dramatic soprano, but both her singing and acting came across as somewhat mechanical. Alessandro Luciano, plays Pisani, Violetta’s lover, but Russian lyric soprano Ekaterina Bakanova, in the role of Violetta, towered over the rest of the cast. Apart from some slight thinning of the voice in top notes, her performance was flawless.

If the singing didn’t always excite and there was a perceived lack of attention to detail to some aspects of the production, like in the vocal direction and the surtitles translation, the orchestra’s performance of this beautiful score (conducted by Jonathan Brandani), greatly compensated. This was, by far, the best of the operas presented this year on the main stage. While not all the stones unearthed at Wexford Festival Opera are precious gems, Mercadante’s music is certainly one of them, and deserves every revival attempt.

****1