225. Emma d’Antiochia (Mercadante)

  • Tragedia lirica in three acts
  • Composer: Saverio Mercadante
  • Libretto: Felice Romani
  • First performed: Teatro la Fenice, Venice, 8th March 1834
CORRADO DI MONFERRATO, Count of TyreBaritoneOrazio Cartagenova
RUGGIERO, his nephewTenorDomenico Donzelli
EMMA, Princess of AntiochSopranoGiuditta Pasta
ADELIA, the daughter of Corrado, betrothed to RuggieroSopranoEugenia Tadolini
ALADINO, a young Muslim slave belonging to EmmaTenorGiacomo Roppa
ODETTA, lady-in-waiting of Adelia Giuditta Saglio
Knights, Crusaders, Ladies and Maidens, Troubadours, Soldiers, Pages, Squires and Minstrels  

SETTING: Tyre, Syria, 12th century.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Emma d’Antiochia is the tragedy of two lovers married to the wrong people. Emma and Ruggiero were separated (why?); she has married Corrado, Ruggiero’s uncle (again, why, or did she not know? and if not, why not?), while, when the opera starts, Ruggiero is about to marry Corrado’s daughter Adelia. Tragedy ensues when the former lovers – now stepmother and son-in-law, aunt and nephew – meet again.

“Thus, with two good suicides, an adulterous love, a betrayed etc. etc., the libretto ends, and that is how the theatre nowadays castigat mores!” commented the Gazzetta privilegiata di Venezia.

The suicides in question are those of Emma and her devoted Muslim slave, both dying decorously offstage after the prima donna’s aria. In this instance, however, the prima donna does not have the stage to herself; the last major number is a duet with the second soprano.

The prima donna was Giuditta Pasta, the greatest singing-actress in Italy, but Pasta was unwell the first two nights, and her illness nearly stifled Emma d’Antiochia at birth. On the opening night, she could not sing her final aria, and further cuts were made on the next night, Pasta only taking part in ensembles. Other numbers were met with silence, the Gazzetta reported; the performance “ended as coldly as it had begun: so that a curtain never fell in the midst of a greater hush”. Only on the third night, when Pasta had recovered, and she could sing her entire role, was the work successful.

Emma was produced 26 times throughout Italy over the next three decades, until its last performance in Malta in 1861. It was not heard again until Opera Rara resurrected it in 2003.

According to Della Couling, Mercadante’s style began to change with I normanni a Parigi (1832), produced two years before. Mercadante had returned from four years in Spain and Portugal (1827–1831) to find that Donizetti dominated Italian opera. Jeremy Commons (Opera Rara) notes that Mercadante, compared to his earlier operas, had “a stronger and more individual personality … for the most part stemming from greater attention to unusual instrumentation and harmony, from cultivation of flowing, sonorous, and expressive melody, and from the use of this melody on broadly proportioned, surging ensembles”; and that he strove to bring unexpectedly springy rhythms and arresting melodies to cabalettas. Alexander Weatherson (Donizetti Society), however, complains they are “a rag-bag of empty gestures, predictable routines, pretty tunes in triple-time and cringe-making bande – a penchant for the most obvious dramatic-clichés imaginable flanked by stage-business which simply did not come-off. Few big moments, dreary plots, vulgarity triumphant with knee-jerk music heavily dependent upon great prime donne.”

Mercadante’s score, his 35th opera, characteristically well-constructed, is the work of a composer who knew his job; it responds intelligently to the drama and emotions, the formulas of Italian opera (choruses, finales, mad scenes, banda) are handled appropriately, and the music is often attractive. It is, in a word, competent. That could be said of all his operas, before the late 1830s; it is only when he set out to reform Italian opera, following the example of the French grands opéras of Meyerbeer and Halévy, that he became inspired. (See Il Giuramento, 1837, and Elena da Feltre, 1839.) He was, in fact, the closest Italian opera came to an academic composer. He was a consummate musician, regarded by German composers as the most scientific and the most conscientious of the Italians; Liszt considered his later works “the most carefully thought out of the contemporary repertory”. But, in the view of Fétis, he lacked originality and the gift of invention.

That view has rather dogged Emma. The Gazzetta, Jeremy Commons notes, acknowledged that the score contained well-crafted items, but was disappointed there was not more imagination or inspiration. The critic blamed “the influence of the illness which, at a time when the composer had already begun to write, exposed his life to grave peril”. But more recent critics have made similar remarks. John Steane (The Gramophone) wrote: “Mercadante was such a good workman – so expert in his writing for voices, with increasing interest in orchestration, and, perhaps above all, an ability to work within the conventions while adapting them to suit a dramatic purpose – that perhaps the reason for his failure to survive as a repertoire-composer is an apparent inability to come up with ‘the big tune’.” More hostile, Andrew Clements (The Guardian) thought it “grindingly mechanical and almost devoid of real emotions”.

Thus, in Emma, Mercadante often avoided conventional forms (Commons notes that numbers end unexpectedly, “with final pages and cadences which are designed, not to bring the music to a halt, but to carry us onwards into the action that follows”); he experimented with novel instruments, like the glicibarifono, an ancestor of the bass clarinet [YouTube]; and orchestration conveys mood (notably harps to depict the East, or melancholy). It is a well thought out score, but it contains little that is outstanding.

The Act I introduzione maintains a high level of excitement: an allegro duet, massive choruses, and, of course, the banda. The andante of Emma and Ruggiero’s duet, “Amai quell’alma ingenua”, is sympathetic and melancholy, and the act ends with a grandiose finale. Act II (only half an hour) has a lively allegro chorus, “Addio! Le stelle ascondono”, sung by the court to the bridal couple, while the stretta of the finale is lovely. In Act III, Emma and Ruggiero’s duet of parting, “Il cor che svegliani”, has a notable andante section, although the stretta falls back into convention. The andante mosso of the prima donna finale, “In quest’ora fatale e temuta”, is sweet and affecting; the cabaletta, “Parta, parta”, is also effective. The final duet, “Mi lasciate! … Empia donna!” (YouTube), is also skilfully written. Elsewhere, though, Mercadante slips: the chorus that opens Act III is too sprightly.


Listen to: Nelly Miricioiu (Emma), Roberto Servile (Corrado di Monferrato), Bruce Ford (Ruggiero), Adelia (Maria Costanza Nocentini), Colin Lee (Aladino), and Rebecca von Lipinski (Odetta), with the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir and London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Parry, London, 2003, Opera Rara: ORC 26.

Works consulted

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