In January, 1802, almost exactly 216 years ago, Gaspare Spontini’s one act farsa, Le Metamorfosi di Pasquale (The Metamorphoses of Pasquale) played for a disappointing handful of performances at the small Teatro San Moisè in Venice. Spontini (1774-1851), born like Rossini in the Marche, and having learned his profession in Naples, left Italy and went to Paris where he became famous as Napoleon’s favorite composer, and produced large scale works like La Vestale, Fernand Cortez and Olympie. He enjoyed great success in Paris during the Napoleonic period, but fell out of favor there at the Bourbon restoration, and he transferred to Berlin, where his operas were well known. How this early, small-scale comic work came back to Venice over two-hundred years later is a tale in itself.
Spontini’s early career in Italy included the composition of several works, mostly comic, for different Italian cities. The first of them, Le puntigli delle donne (Rome, 1796) was revived in 1998 at the Putbus Festival, but most of the others were thought to be lost. But just last year several leather-bound volumes were found in a castle in Flanders containing four of the autograph scores of the early operas, including Le metamorfosi di Pasquale. Evidently, Spontini himself had treasured his early scores and kept them, and after his death, his faithful wife guarded them carefully. After her death, what happened to them is not clear, but they seem to have gone to her inheritors, and through hazy connections made it to Flanders. This work is the first of these short, comic operas to be revived, and since its less-than-successful premiere was in Venice, it seems appropriate that its first revival since 1802 would take place in Venice, this time at the Teatro Malibran.
The libretto of the opera is by Giuseppe Foppa, the extremely prolific writer, librettist and civil servant who also wrote the texts for three of Rossini’s early farse and his full length opera, Sigismondo. Ten years before Rossini’s first staged work, La cambiale di matrimonio, Foppa was using the same form for the small San Moisè. A small orchestra, no chorus, a work of about an hour and a half with a big concerted number in the middle—these were the nearly unchanging features of the Venetian farsa. At the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, Venetians, by now having lost their republic and under the thumb of the Austrians, then Napoleon, then back to the Austrians, wanted comedy and a familiar formula, not unlike the sitcoms which used to populate American TV. This particular farsa has two features which are variations on the formula though—the eponymous Pasquale is an adventurer who undergoes two “metamorphoses” and ends up without anyone or anything. He is an ambivalent character, clever and stupid at the same time. Lisetta, who was once his girlfriend, but now loves Frontino, is a servant, and she is the prima donna, not the wealthy daughter of the Baron, Costanza, as we might expect.
The plot is almost to silly to relate, but Pasquale, having returned from some years of wandering seeking his fortune, is back (we aren’t clear exactly where) to find Lisetta, who was once his love. When he falls asleep under a tree, the Cavalier changes clothes with him to escape the law. So Pasquale is transformed into a nobleman, which gets him in all manner of trouble. Towards the end, he is transformed again when he dresses as an old woman to escape the law himself, and neither ‘metamorphosis’ does him any good. Lisette loves Frontino, the Cavalier’s servant, and the Cavalier himself is in love with Costanza and opposed by her father, the Baron. The typical intrigues end up in a double wedding, but poor Pasquale is out in the cold—no girl and no money.
Thus this farsa will have particular interest for anyone interested in Rossini’s early farse, because it adds to our understanding of the ready-made form, but Spontini’s work is not a lost masterpiece in spite of some very nice musical moments which intervene in a LOT of secco recitative. Things get off to a good start with the overture, which was not written for this score, but apparently served Spontini for several of his early Italian comedies, all given in different cities where the audience would not have heard it before. It already establishes Spontini as a composer who makes the transition from eighteenth century Neapolitan music to classicism. Also most amusing is the sextet “Ahi la testa” which adumbrates much more accomplished movements in Rossini’s operas. Also fine is Lisetta’s aria “Signori galanti” and her final aria “Ah, dov’è chi ha l’ardimento.” There is a funny buffo duet, and what might have been a lovely romantic aria by the Cavalier had it been better sung. But those long passages of secco recitative are pretty “dry” for a modern audience.
The production by Bepi Morassi was lively, sometimes too lively in that the constant shtick distracted from the music. He seemed determined to stuff (‘farce’) the proceeding with constant visual jokes which had little or nothing to do with the story or the characters. I guess it alleviated the long passages of dialogue, but a little less would have been more. The set, and particularly the costumes, were very colorful and lively. Morassi set the story in early twentieth century Naples, in a kind of “Café Gambrinus,” where the characters come and go, and the costumes seemed out of the satiric magazines of that period. Both emerged from competitions held in the Scuola di Scenografia of the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice, specifically with sets by Piero de Francesco and costumes by Elena Utenti. They gave a lot of color to the goings-on!
The singing varied. Attractive Irina Dubrovskaya sang Lisetta with a lot of verve and solid coloratura. Towards the end, she has an aria addressed to the men in the audience, “Signori galanti.” She asks them (us) not to take advantage of women, ‘or you’ll find that it will come back to haunt you’. It is a perfect message for the “Me Too” moment, and Morassi and Dubrovskaya played it in front of a black curtain as a moment between the singer and the audience, not between the characters. It is obvious that what we call “harassment” today was a problem in 1802, and that Foppa and Spontini, through the determined character of Lisetta were making their comments, with no need to change the story, as the producers of Carmen had done in Florence. Unfortunately for Ms. Dubrovskaya, all the lights in the orchestra went out as she was launching this aria, and she had to stop and wait until lighting was restored before beginning again. Deliberate sabotage by an enemy of the singer? By someone who did not like feminist sentiment? Who knows, but the audience applauded all the more vociferously.
Andrea Patucelli was equally as engaging as Pasquale, and his ability with the long recitatives kept you engaged too. Carlo Checchi was just as good as the wily servant Frontino, but Christian Collia as the romantic Cavaliere (and doubling as a soldier) had trouble with his aria and duet with Costanza (Michela Antenucci). Francesco Basso was a stereotypical father, the Baron, and Giorgio Misseri was a dandified Marquis, the Cavalier’s rival in love. Conductor Gianluca Capuana led the La Fenice orchestra from the harpsichord, and his conducting was lively; he seemed to really believe in the score.
Venice is always Venice, and even in mid-January low season it is crowded with tourists. I can’t imagine coming here in summer anymore or even spring or fall when the huge cruise ship dump thousands of cruisers into this small town. As it was, the Teatro Malibran was full at 100 euro per seat (Venice prices! Where it now costs $10 for a two-stop ride on the water-bus. We had paid about $20 for a seat to Pia de’Tolomei in Livorno.). In any case it was a pleasant afternoon, and a chance to see a minor work which could still entertain after being lost for over 200 years. We left the theater and went next door to the Malibran Restaurant for a superb bronzino (sea bass), cooked in the oven with vegetables and potatoes, washed down with far too much white wine. Then we stumbled off to bed at the connected Malibran Hotel, with its clean, comfortable rooms in an old Venetian building. The theater (and much later the restaurant and hotel,) were named for the great nineteenth century singer Maria Malibran, who came to the city in 1835 to sing Bellini’s La sonnambula. She was so appalled by the state of the deteriorated theater, which was inaugurated in 1678, that she refused her fee, and donated it to restoration of the theater; in gratitude the impresario renamed it for her. The more famous La Fenice operates the smaller Malibran, and often mounts rarer titles in it like Le Metamorfosi di Pasquale. I have seen several memorable productions of rarities there over the years, including the Ricci brothers’ Crispino e la Comare and Donizetti’s Marin Falliero. The theater like its city, doomed by global warming (I once recall that the Malibran had to close down and cancel performances due to high water and flooding), hold a warm place in my heart (Foto oben: „Le metamorfosi di Pasquale“ am Teatro Malibran/ Szene/ Foto Antonio Farinelli). Charles Jernigan