The history of opera has not been kind to 19th-century Italian composers who were not one of the four titans of the genre. Saverio Mercadante had a long and successful career, but his star never shone as brightly as Bellini's, he never produced a string of hits like Rossini or Donizetti and his hopes to modernise Italian opera did not meet with the success that crowned Verdi. All of which makes him a perfect target for intrepid prospectors Opera Rara, whose quest for the forgotten masterpieces of yesteryear has led them to Mercadante’s Il proscritto, premiered at the San Carlo in 1842, a couple of months before Verdi’s Nabucco stormed La Scala, and performed in concert last night at the Barbican.

Ramón Vargas, Carlo Rizzi and Iván Ayón Rivas
© Russell Duncan

Carlo Rizzi’s passion for the music is transparent both from his programme notes and his demeanour on the podium, with sweeping gestures urging the orchestra and chorus to greater things. There’s plenty of genuinely exciting orchestral writing, starting with a huge opening fanfare from the off-stage banda and its ensuing call-and-response with the pit orchestra. Both the Act 1 and Act 2 finales have enormous and thrilling concertati where the chorus is joined by many soloists in turn, each giving their very disparate views on the action. The most ear-catching music in the whole opera is a gorgeous interlude in Act 2 for flute and harp (with horn support), presumably devised as entertainment to cover a set change. This was innovative stuff for 1842 and it’s perhaps unsurprising that it was all a bit much for the conservative Naples public and critics. Rizzi and the Britten Sinfonia gave us a splendid performance, only coming off the rails occasionally in the most complex numbers, and big hat tips to harpist Sally Pryce and flautist Laura Lucas for that interlude.

Il proscritto is set in Scotland during Cromwell’s Protectorate. Malvina (née Ruthven, mezzo) was married to  royalist Giorgio Argyll (tenor) who is presumed dead after a shipwreck, so her mother Anna and brother Guglielmo are taking the safe way out by marrying her off to Cromwell loyalist Arturo Murray. Malvina’s brother Odoardo (contralto trouser role) is fiercely loyal to his sister, but she reassures him that she has grown to love Arturo (who, in a breach of convention, is not an evil baritone but an exceptionally noble and appealing tenor). All is set fair, or at least fairish, until Giorgio shows up in Malvina’s apartments in the Ruthven castle: he has survived his shipwreck and has been living hand to mouth in exile. The appropriate levels of mayhem ensue and the big ensemble pieces and a good number of stirring duets, ariosi, arias and cabalettas carry us through to the end of a story which, as you might expect, does not end well for Malvina.

Carlo Rizzi, soloists, Opera Rara Chorus and Britten Sinfonia
© Russell Duncan

The problem is that Mercadante lacks Verdi’s sure-footedness in creating the ebb and flow of drama at the perfect pace. Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto has a plot where far too many of the crises result from sudden changes of heart and unexplained bursts of mercy (I will offer beer and respect to anyone who can give me a coherent reason as to why Cromwell offers a pardon and free passage not only to Giorgio but to the whole of his royalist dissident crew). Mercadante seems unable to have had the dialogue with Cammarano to tame the melodramatic excesses and fashion a more coherent drama, something that Verdi was later able to achieve in the creation of Il trovatore. In the big final meeting of Malvina and Giorgio, rather than discussing hopes and fears, love and duty, all they can think of to talk about is which of them has suffered more. It all falls a bit flat.

Elizabeth DeShong, Irene Roberts, Carlo Rizzi and the Britten Sinfonia
© Russell Duncan

Iván Ayón-Rivas was the pick of the singers, a bright lyric tenor in the mould of Flórez or Camarena who made me sit up and listen from the moment he started singing. Ramón Vargas’ more muscular tenor provided contrast but didn’t quite have the oomph to thrill me in the same way. Elizabeth DeShong brought the house down in Act 2 with a truly death-defying aria and cabaletta “Ah! del giorno sanguinoso”, moving up and down her registers at phenomenal pace. I’m afraid I wasn’t a fan of Irene Roberts as Malvina; her voice comes very much from the back of the mouth, which produces a lovely tone but loses most of the text.

Maybe, in the hands of an expert stage director, it would be possible to work around some of Il proscritto’s dramatic weaknesses, particularly with the help of a few judicious cuts. But as it stands, a great orchestral performance of a genuinely exciting score isn’t enough. I don’t think this is going to go down as one of Opera Rara’s greatest hits.