Saturday, September 18, 2010

Scandalous opera: next Friday at Zilkha Hall!


A Scarlatti opera usually means a work by Alessandro, the Neapolitan master of both opera and oratorio and father of Domenico, whose strikingly original sonatas continue to fascinate, regardless of medium. But the younger Scarlatti, following in his father’s footsteps, composed some fourteen stage works during his youth, only a few of which survive. Leaving his native Italy in 1719, Domenico Scarlatti spent the rest of his life in Portugal and Spain, where he served as music master to Princess Maria Barbara and composed more than 500 keyboard sonatas. To opera — the genre that defined Italian music for generations — he never returned, despite keen dramatic instincts and the lure of great fame.

La Dirindina is, technically speaking, an intermezzo — or, as its original subtitle announces, a “musical farce” — and like all works in this subgenre, it’s both comic and compact. Intermezzi typically feature a pretty young girl, a father figure (which could be an uncle, teacher, or guardian), and some kind of love interest. Designed to lighten the mood of a full-length Italian opera, at whose intermissions its two parts were heard, the intermezzo gave companies the opportunity to cut loose and poke fun at not only stock character types but the entire edifice of serious opera. Strongly satirical works like La Dirindina became more common later in the eighteenth century, after Domenico Scarlatti had abandoned the opera house for more stable employment.

Set to a libretto by Girolamo Gigli, La Dirindina was intended to serve as a companion piece to Scarlatti’s Ambleto, a three-act opera seria, at its Roman première in 1715. The censors intervened, however, banning La Dirindina from the stage on account of its racy libretto — with the collusion, it seems, of the original cast, who feared they would look ridiculous. Not to be outmaneuvered, Gigli got his naughty little satire published elsewhere, and it quickly became a “must-have” among the cognoscenti.

The story concerns a wily but gifted young singer, Dirindina, and her teacher Don Carissimo, whose interest in his pupil is more than a little untoward. As the curtain goes up, a singing lesson is underway, and it is clear that neither student nor teacher are much interested in the day’s lesson plan. Dirindina’s independent spirit and her ability to sing (when she wants to) annoy Don Carissimo, who is further vexed by the appearance of Liscione, a famous castrato who brings some surprising news: the Milan theater wants to engage Dirindina as its prima donna. Don Carissimo flies into a rage, stammering his way through a highly amusing (and forward-looking) aria, only to see that his pretty pupil is now flirting openly with the castrato. An obligatory ensemble, with Dirindina and Liscione in musical and dramatic opposition to Don Carissimo, brings Part I to a close.

Part II opens with the unctuous Liscione plying Dirindina with a little minuet, which manages simultaneously to flatter the young singer’s ego while lampooning the fashionable but shamelessly sentimental manners of the aristocracy. Dirindina responds with perhaps the oddest aria in the work, full of syncopations and serpentine melodies that cheekily invoke various bodily fluids, with which she promises to seduce the Milanese public. The ensuing “play within a play,” a mock enactment of the tragic Dido’s rejection of the feckless Aeneas, is witnessed by Don Carissimo, who fails to get the joke and thinks that his ward is not only with child but ready to commit suicide. As with all good comedies, the joke’s on him: the finale is both outrageous and touching, as the capon and the hen are joined in hand by a thoroughly deceived old man.

The two concertos on this evening’s program come from a set of twelve arrangements made by English organist and composer Charles Avison from Scarlatti keyboard sonatas. Published in 1743, these concerti fed the craze for such works, launched by Geminiani’s arrangements of Corelli sonatas just a few years before, and helped to popularize Scarlatti’s music in England. Scored for two concertino (solo) plus two ripieno (tutti) violins plus viola, cello and continuo, these concerti respect the content of the original sonatas while adapting them idiomatically to string instruments. © Matthew Dirst