- Drama per musica in 2 acts
- Composer: Antonio Salieri
- Libretto: Mattia Verazi
- First performed: Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 3 August 1778
|ASTERIO||Soprano castrato||Gaspare Pacchiarotti|
|ISSÉO||Mezzo-soprano castrato||Giovanni Rubinelli|
Was Salieri the missing link between Gluck and Rossini?
Europa riconosciuta was the first opera performed at La Scala. Gluck himself was originally invited to write the inaugural piece, but demurred – he was busy with his great Parisian works – and recommended his pupil, Salieri. (Six years later, Gluck would anoint Salieri his successor with Les Danaïdes.)
- For an overview of Salieri’s career, see here.
The young Italian composer, as Elena Biggi Parodi suggests, had assimilated the Gluckian aesthetic, and applied the principles of reform opera to Italian opera seria; he focused the musical interest on the dramatic situation, tried to abolish the gap between aria and recitative, and gave recitatives greater autonomy.
The result is a work that feels less like Baroque or even Classical opera seria than proto-bel canto. Something similar to early ottocento opera seria existed 35 years before Tancredi.
It feels more modern than Mozart’s better-known opera seria. There are few exit or da capo arias, and a greater variety of musical forms; more use of the chorus (almost non-existent n traditional opera seria); and more dramatic continuity and speed. Mozart, even as late as La clemenza di Tito, filled forms familiar to Metastasio with Classical music; Salieri, three years before Idomeneo, looks forward to Rossini.
The mythical Europa, princess of Tyre, was abducted by Zeus in the form of a white bull; by her, the god fathered Minos of Crete. Salieri’s opera stays firmly in the mortal realm; Europa’s kidnapper is Asterio, king of Crete (and, incidentally, the name of another famous half-man, half-bull: the Minotaur). Before the opera begins, she has married Asterio – partly to protect her honour, but also from love – and the pair have a child. Believing her dead, Europa’s late father, Agenor, gave the throne to her cousin Semele; whoever married her, he decreed, must kill the first foreigner to land on the Phoenician shore, and so avenge Europa. The ambitious prince Egisto has designs on Semele and the throne; she, though, loves Isséo, once betrothed to Europa, and still mourning her loss. Europa returns with her husband and son to claim the throne of Phoenicia – not in state, but shipwrecked. Semele refuses to yield the throne to a woman she fears both as political threat and as rival; and Asterio is condemned to death.
Europa may be one of the first great prima donna soprano roles; this mother and wife who thinks son and husband murdered looks forward to the bel canto tragic heroines. Her musical and dramatic antagonist is another soprano (even though the tenor is the villain), while both castrati are in love with her. The work’s propulsive energy sweeps one up; there are battles, attempted infanticide, and (rare at this time) an on-stage death.
Europa riconosciuta was received enthusiastically at its 1778 premiere. It featured five excellent singers: two soprani (Maria Balducci as Europa; Francesca Danzi as Semele); two castrati (the famous Gaspare Pacchiarotti as Asterio; Giovanni Rubinelli as Isséo); and one tenor (Antonio Prati as Egisto). The work, though, was never performed again – perhaps because of the difficulty of the roles. (Some arias were popular in concert, though.)
Two and a quarter centuries later, Riccardo Muti conducted the opera for the opening of the refurbished theatre in 2004, with Diana Damrau in the title role. It’s available on DVD: a vigorous, compelling production – but would be better with countertenors rather than mezzi singing the castrato roles, and a HIP orchestra. The score was lost, but reconstructed for the revival.
The overture is part of the action; it depicts a storm wrecking the Cretan ships – shown in a pantomime. Ships are caught up and tossed in a fierce tempest with lightning, thunder, rain, winds, and rough waves; “the scene opens as the symphony begins,” the libretto reads, “which imitates the catastrophe, slows down in proportion as the tempest fades, and calm returns – heralded by the sweet sound of an oboe, which takes the place of the andante of the opening, and serves as an accompaniment to Asterio’s cavatina”. It’s not as powerful as the mighty opening of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, premièred a year later (could the pupil have anticipated his master here?) – but musicologists argue the overture (reused in Cesare in Faracusa, 1800) clearly influenced the storm in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. (Beethoven, of course, was Salieri’s pupil.)
After Asterio’s cavatina, a scene mixing chorus, aria, duet, and trio (simply marked ‘II’) depicts the capture of Europa and Asterio, and the threatened murder of their child; Salieri’s ability to advance the action and convey emotion through a flexible form shows how well he had absorbed Gluck’s aesthetics. The first act also contains a duet; an aria (with chorus); a rondo duet (the lovely “Ah ne gli affetti miei”); another chorus (“O Temide immortale”, which ranks with The Magic Flute choruses in its warmth and serenity); and a swift, vigorous, buffa-esque finale that seems the model for Rossini’s.
The second act has six arias, some with choruses, or with duet sections. Europa’s grand aria “Ah, lo sento” is a great showstopper; when Damrau sang it, the theatre erupted into cries of ‘Brava!’ An offstage double chorus of warring armies leads to the agitated “Qual orrore in me si desta”, anticipating Donizetti’s mad or anguished soprano scenes. Equally fine is Semele’s “Quando più irato freme”. The opera ends with a wonderful chorus and quartet.
Diana Damrau (Europa), Desiree Rancatore (Semele), Genia Kühmeier (Asterio), Daniela Barcellona (Isséo), and Giuseppe Sabatini (Egisto), with Riccardo Muti conducting La Scala Orchestra, Milan, 2004. Erato, DVD 2017.
- “L’Europa riconosciuta”, Wikipedia (German), https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%E2%80%99Europa_riconosciuta
- Elena Biggi Parodi, “Preliminary observations on the Ballo primo of Europa riconosciuta by Antonio Salieri: Milan, La Scala Theatre, 1778”, Recercare XVI 2004.
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