231. La fiera di Venezia (Salieri)

  • Dramma giocoso per musica in 3 acts
  • Composer: Antonio Salieri
  • Libretto: Giovanni Gastone Boccherini
  • First performed: Burgtheater, Vienna, 29th January 1772

FALSIRENA, daughter ofSoprano
GRIFAGNO, foolish, self-interested old manBass
CALLOANDRA, marchioness from Vicenza, engaged to be married toSoprano
OSTROGOTO, rich and extravagant dukeTenor
CRISTALLINA, mercer and market traderSoprano
RASOJO, innkeeper at the “Black Ox”Tenor
BELFUSTO, in love with and loved by Falsirena, whose cousin he is pretending to beBass
CECCHINO, a cook’s sonTenor

SETTING: Venice


Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This early Salieri comedy, written when he was 21, was one of his biggest successes, and was performed throughout Europe until the 1820s.

Set against Venice’s Festa della Sensa (Ascension Day Mass, when the Doge weds the sea), it concerns a two-timing aristocrat, Ostrogoto, whose mistress, the clever Falsirena, and fiancée, the marchioness Calloandra, stay at the same inn, and the complications that ensue.

Leopold Mozart dismissed the music as banal and commonplace, “antiquated, forced, and rather lacking in harmony”, but his son composed six keyboard variations (YouTube) on an Act II duet. More recently, Volkmar Braunbehrens described La Fiera as “relatively unimportant”, and containing scarcely anything worthy of the composer of Armida (1771); he attributed its success to the “effective atmosphere of street scenes and masques” rather than to Salieri’s score, “of little musical substance”.

Of little substance? Rather harsh; while it is less substantial than (to name two of Salieri’s comedies) La scuola de’ gelosi (1778) or La grotta di Trofonio (1785), La fiera is the most enjoyable opera I have reviewed for this blog in months.

Salieri’s music is brisk and sprightly, usually allegro in tempo, and full of rapid vocal lines; his setting of the text is clear and dramatically apposite. “His music,” Professor Dr. Silke Leopold writes, “emphasized the entertainment value of the work, illustrating the comic situations that rise out of the plot and revelling in beautiful melodies without overtaxing the audience with undue complexities in terms of compositional technique.” Thayer notes that La Fiera, “for its excellence and for its firm hold upon the favours of the public, was the talk of old people in Vienna more than 50 years later – during which half-century Mozart, Beethoven, Cherubini and Rossini had risen upon the stage”.

The opera is, as Braunbehrens points out, “a portrait of society in which three couples come together, each from a different social level – the nobility, the bourgeoisie, and the common people”. The aristocrats, Ostrogoto and Calloandra, sing in a high-flown, opera seria style, while the traders and innkeepers sing in a demotic style that is direct, lively, and outspoken – Don Ottavio and Donna Anna in contrast to Masetto and Zerlina (Don Giovanni, 1787).

The star of the opera is the soubrette Falsirena, one of opera buffa’s typically feisty and flirtatious young women; she can speak six languages, and has a penchant for disguise. In Act I, she disguises herself as a singer – an opportunity for both an opera seria-style duet with Calloandra, “Aci, ben mio, tu sai”, and a buffa scenetta: a lady, waiting for her handsome lord, becomes jealous when he doesn’t appear (cue frenzy). In Act II, she poses as a French trader (and sings a chanson, “L’Amour est un dieu chanteleux”, caricaturing the archaic high strings of tragédie lyrique) and a German baroness. In the act’s finale, set at a masked ball, she and her boyfriend dress up as gondoliers, while her rival, the marchioness, disguises herself as Falsirena!

The nobles have some of the most attractive arias in the opera. Ostrogoto’s “Il pargoletto amabile” (Act I), in which he tries to send Falsirena away while reassuring her that he loves her, is elegant, but its formality is too poised to be sincere, and Falsirena is not convinced. In the same act, Calloandra has a tragic, ornate entrance aria, “Col zeffiro, e col rio”, and a rage aria, “Troppo l’offesa è grande”. In Act II, Ostrogoto has a Metastasian aria di paragone (metaphor aria), “Se ridendo mi guardi, o mie viscere”: he compares Falsirena’s smile to a bright sky after a storm, and himself to a helmsman navigating the sea. (Salieri’s setting, however, does not follow the da capo ABA structure.) Act III contains perhaps the best-known aria from the opera: Calloandra’s “Vi sono sposa, e amante”, a strikingly pre-Mozartean piece, with its woodwind accompaniment (flute and oboe) and rapid coloratura. Cecilia Bartoli sang this on her Salieri Album.

The overture (YouTube), incidentally, was used in a Monty Python sketch, “The Golden Age of Ballooning”.

La Fiera was recorded at the Schwetzingen Festspiele in 2018.


Recordings

Listen to: Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli (Falsirena), Krystian Adam (Ostrogoto), Dilyara Idrisova (Calloandra), Furio Zanasi (Grifagno), Giorgio Caoduro (Belfusto), Natalia Rubis (Cristallina), and Emanuele D’Aguanno (Rasojo), with L’Arte del Mondo conducted by Werner Ehrhardt, Schwetzingen 2018; Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 19075964562, 2019.


Works consulted

  • Volkmar Braunbehrens, Maligned master: The real story of Antonio Salieri, New York: Fromm International Publishing Corporation, 1992
  • Prof. Dr. Silke Leopold, “Venice for Musical Tourists: Antonio Salieri’s La Fiera di Venezia”, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, 2019
  • Alexander Wheelock Thayer, Salieri: Rival of Mozart, ed. Theodore Albrecht, The Philharmonia of Greater Kansas City, 1989

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