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Matthew Rose, Arcangelo and Jonathan Cohen throw themselves into the riotous world of Francesco Benucci, the larger-than-life opera star for whom Mozart created the role of Figaro.
The company’s principal buffo Francesco Benucci began his career in his native Livorno in about 1768; no record of his birth or baptism has yet been identified, but he seems to have been about twenty-three years old when he first sang in revivals of old operas by Galuppi and Gassmann. From 1777 he started singing regularly in leading operatic centres across Italy, including Bologna (operas by Anfossi and Paisiello), Genoa, Turin, Florence, Rome (where he first collaborated with Cimarosa), and Venice, where his role as Frasconio in Giuseppe Sarti’s I contrattempi (Teatro San Samuele, 1778) was one of the first parts to be specifically composed for him. In an endearing accompanied recitative and aria (‘Oime! che innanzi agli occhi’ — ‘Penso, che per morire’, tracks 11 & 12), Frasconio exaggerates his predicament into a comparison with the difficulty the defiant Cato had in committing suicide.
In 1782 Benucci was performing in Milan, where the librettist Giovanni Battista Casti reported enthusiastically on his ‘rich vocal timbre’, and claimed that the ‘most excellent singer’ was ‘the most graceful buffo known to me, without vulgarity and poor taste, but with elegance and intelligence’. At Easter 1783 Benucci was hired by the Viennese court theatre (Burgtheater), where he became a mainstay for the next twelve years. His essential value to the fledgling buffa troupe is clear from Joseph II’s memorandum to the court theatre director Count Franz Orsini Rosenberg on 2 June 1783 instructing him to renew Benucci’s contract only five weeks after the company’s inaugural performance:
Since it appears to me that the singer Benucci finds favour with the public, I would like you to try to convince him to stay until Easter and then for one year further; if he agrees to this in a new contract … then you can keep the best from among the rest of the troupe; if Benucci … [does] not stay, then the others need not be kept on.
Benucci was evidently fundamental to the viability and success of Italian opera buffa in Vienna during the 1780s. He sang the role of the inn-keeper Taddeo in Giovanni Paisiello’s Il re Teodoro in Venezia (first performed on 23 August 1784). Its libretto by the political satirist Giovanni Battista Casti was based on an episode from Voltaire’s Candide, and the music was commissioned from Paisiello as he passed through Vienna on his way from St Petersburg to Naples; its spectacular overture (track 1) must have been one of the reasons this enormously successful opera had been performed nearly sixty times in Vienna by 1791. Casti also provided the libretto for Antonio Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio (12 October 1785), in which Benucci performed the title role. The sorcerer Trofonio amuses himself by conjuring up dark spirits and putting spells on innocent neighbours who live near his magical grotto. His first appearance, as he stands outside his cave and calls forth demons, is the entertainingly sinister ‘ombra’ scene ‘Spirti invisibili’ (track 2), which Salieri annotated in his autograph manuscript:
The aria ‘Spirti invisibili’, with chorus at the end, is purely magic; and it seems to me that the music has the right character. But for it to have effect the voice that sings it must be of great power, and dark.
Two successful operas first performed in 1786 both had librettos by Lorenzo Da Ponte: Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (1 May) and Vicente Martín y Soler’s Una cosa rara (17 November). Figaro was adapted from Beaumarchais’ play La folle journée (1784, Paris), a sequel to the author’s Le Barbier de Séville, which had inspired an operatic setting by Paisiello. Benucci sang Bartolo in the 1783 Viennese production of Paisiello’s opera (it had been first performed a year earlier in St Petersburg), but in Mozart’s sequel he was promoted to the title role. Count Almaviva, striving to be an enlightened lord, has abolished his droit de Seigneur, the feudal right to deflower his dependant brides in advance of their wedding. Susanna warns her husband-to-be Figaro that she suspects the Count is reluctant to abandon the old ways and is trying to seduce her. In the cavatina ‘Se vuol ballare, signor contino’ (track 15), Figaro vows that if the Count wants to dance, then Figaro will dictate the tune (Mozart’s music reinforces this message, by moving from a sarcastic minuet into a quick contredanse). However, the intrigues of this ‘day of madness’ swiftly become more complicated when it transpires that the hypocritical Count is jealous of the attention his lonely wife Rosina is paying to the ardent young page Cherubino, whom he discovers hiding in his wife’s room. The Count irritably banishes Cherubino to his regiment with an officer’s commission. Figaro pretends to send the boy off to war, telling him that carefree flirting will be replaced with death and glory (‘Non più andrai’, track 19). Tailor-made for Benucci’s vocal assets and comic acting, the company’s tenor Michael Kelly (who sang Don Basilio) later reminisced:
I remember at the first rehearsal of the full band, Mozart was on stage with his crimson pelisse and gold-laced cocked hat, giving the time of the music to the orchestra. Figaro’s song, ‘Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso’, Benucci gave, with the greatest animation and power of voice. I was standing close to Mozart, who, sotto voce, was repeating, Bravo! Bravo! Benucci; and when Benucci came to the fine passage, ‘Cherubino, alla vittoria! Alla gloria militar!’, which he gave out with Stentorian lungs, the effect was electricity itself, for the whole of the performers on stage, and those in the orchestra, as if actuated by one feeling of delight, vociferated Bravo! Bravo! Maestro. Viva, viva, grande Mozart. Those in the orchestra I thought would never have ceased applauding, by beating the bows of their violins against the music desks. The little man acknowledged, by repeated obeisances, his thanks for the distinguished marks of enthusiastic applause bestowed upon him.
By Act 4, Figaro’s plight has become more desperate. Heartbroken that Susanna appears to be unfaithful, his monologue ‘Aprite un po’ quegli occhi’ (track 17) uses disconnected phrases to convey his worries, and at its close he is mocked by a virile horn fanfare. Performed nine times during 1786, Le nozze di Figaro was reasonably successful, but six months later Martín y Soler’s light-hearted comedy Una cosa rara threw Vienna’s fashionable society into a frenzy. Alternatively titled Bellezza ed onestà—the full title thus implies it is a rare thing to find beauty and honesty together—within five years the opera had also been produced in Dresden, Prague, Milan, Venice, St Petersburg, London, Madrid, Barcelona and Paris. The mountain villagers Tita (Benucci) and his wife Ghita are devoted but hot-headed; he is trying to force his sister Lilla (the village beauty) to marry the local major against her will, rather than allow her to wed the mountaineer Lubino. Ghita emotionally pleads with Tita to relent; he responds by claiming that even if he had been as furious as a lion, the tears of the fairer sex reduce him to a lamb or a rabbit, but he also grumbles that women use their wiles to always get what they want (‘In quegli anni’, track 6). Later on, when Tita accuses his wife of infidelity, she angrily slaps him, and he splutters indignantly in a mixture of Spanish and Italian in ‘Ah mal aya, a quella mano!’ (track 3); he sings breathless repetitive short phrases, and concludes with an envoi addressed to all abused husbands in the audience. This aria was so popular in Vienna that it was printed as a soprano song.
Another sign of the popularity of Una cosa rara is Mozart’s affectionate quotation of an extract from it in the supper scene in Don Giovanni, first performed almost a year later at the National Theatre in Prague on 29 October 1787. On this occasion, the role of the anti-hero’s beleaguered but perversely loyal servant Leporello was sung by Felice Ponziani, but when the opera was revived in Vienna (7 May 1788) the part was taken by Benucci. Leporello’s witty but sly ‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo’ (track 9) is a perfect example of the kind of buffo catalogue aria at which Benucci excelled: he is known to have impressed audiences with his performances of catalogue arias in other operas, such as Titta’s list of his employment history as an assassin, dancer and male soprano, made up in order to impress a girl in Sarti’s Fra i due litiganti il terzo gode (Vienna, 1783), and Mozart also created for him an innuendo-loaded list in Così fan tutte (see below). Leporello’s catalogue aria conveys a juxtaposition of comic charm and cruelly salacious undertones: Donna Elvira, having been used and discarded by Don Giovanni, almost catches up with her betrayer, but he escapes and instructs his servant to explain the truth of things to the scorned woman; Leporello gleefully shows her the catalogue of Giovanni’s sexual conquests, pointing out the statistics of 640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, and, in Spain alone, a gigantic 1003. Mozart switches the music to a sardonic minuet for Leporello’s sordid observation that Giovanni particularly enjoys young virgins.
The Vienna version of Don Giovanni necessitated some judicious rewriting of various scenes. Mozart’s Viennese alternatives include a new duet in Act 2 for Leporello and Zerlina (‘Per queste tue manine’, track 22). The servant, disguised as his master, has briefly escaped from the clutches of a host of offended people seeking to punish the libertine. In the Vienna version, Zerlina drags Leporello back by the hair, ties him to a chair fastened to a window, and threatens him with torture; he pleads his innocence and asks to be released, but Zerlina refuses and goes in search of help (Leporello tugs the window-frame from its hinges, and escapes still attached to both the chair and the window-frame).
Another opera to fuse serious and comic elements together was Antonio Salieri’s Axur, re d’Ormus (8 January 1788). The opera had initially been planned as a revision of Salieri’s recent Paris opera Tarare (1787) but Da Ponte found it difficult to adapt Beaumarchais’ French libretto into a suitable Italian text, so the opera was substantially rewritten and renamed. Packed with visual spectacle, French-influenced tragedy and musical kinship to opera seria, its creators distinguished it from the usual ‘opere buffe’ by calling it a ‘dramma tragicomo’. Benucci sang the title-role, a far more serious character than his usual parts (the tyrant eventually commits suicide on-stage). His arias, including ‘Idol vano d’un popol codardo’ (track 10), were designed on a concise scale, and are intriguing examples of his participation in a more solemn dramatic genre. Salieri’s annotations to the autograph score describe Axur as: a ferocious man, without scruples. He will be dressed alla turca, if desired. The costume must be splendid, but with a combination of colours that serves as much as possible to characterize a tyrant.
Performed a hundred times in Vienna between 1788 and 1805, Salieri’s Axur was reputedly Joseph II’s favourite opera, but by the end of 1788 the emperor—his health worsening and in the midst of an expensive war with Turkey—announced plans to dissolve the opera buffa company. He recommended Benucci to the service of his brother (and successor) Leopold in Florence, writing to him on 18 December that: ‘In all fairness to him I have to avow that during his six years here his conduct has been entirely above reproach.’
In the event, Joseph II changed his mind and retained the Italian opera company, but in the meantime Benucci had agreed to sing with Nancy Storace in a series of performances in London (1789). Benucci obtained a leave of absence, and made his King’s Theatre debut in a revival of Giuseppe Gazzinga’s La vendemmia, an opera he had already sung in 1778 at Genoa, but which on this occasion included a duet interpolated from Le nozze di Figaro (Count Almaviva and Susanna’s ‘Crudel! perchè finora’). The occasion was reported in the Morning Post:
Benucci, the new buffo, possesses a tolerable person, a very good voice, and considerable judgment. His voice is, however, not so good as [Giovanni] Morelli’s, nor has he so much humour as that performer, but Benucci is more of a gentleman, and is a better musician. It is, however, not proper to decide upon the merits of Benucci at first, particularly as his fame in Italy is very great.
In Vienna praise of Benucci’s qualities was more effusive. An anonymous pamphlet printed in 1790 extolled his dignified stage manner, praising that ‘only Benucci … knows how to elevate the plot with his acting and singing’. Exploiting Benucci’s capabilities was evidently on Mozart’s mind when composing the role of Guglielmo in Così fan tutte (26 January 1790). Da Ponte’s tale of two men who accept a wager to dress up as Albanians in order to test the fidelity of each other’s girlfriends (only to end up disillusioned by their varying rates of success) was intended initially for Salieri, who abandoned work on setting it to music. There is some evidence Mozart took considerable trouble over creating the large-scale aria ‘Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo’ (K584, track 4) for Guglielmo’s comic catalogue of the Albanians’ attractive merits: his boasts include references to mythical and historical figures including Narcissus, Cyclops, Croesus and Mark Antony, in a long list that alludes to Aesop’s fables and Boiardo’s fifteenth-century epic Orlando innamorato. Moreover, Guglielmo boasts of their skills in dancing and singing, and that he and his Albanian compatriot are without equal from Canada to Vienna; he insinuates that they also possess impressive physical attributes, which sends the sisters scurrying away in embarrassment. Notwithstanding the efforts Mozart went to in tailoring this showpiece including oboes, bassoons, trumpets and timpani for Benucci’s talents, it seems he evaluated that the lengthy catalogue aria was unsuitable for the dramatic context of the scene. The big aria was removed during the compositional process and replaced with the more concise and functional ‘Non siate ritrosi’, in which Guglielmo’s innuendo about the size of the Albanians’ moustaches quickly breaks down into the laughing trio for the disguised men and their cynical mentor Don Alfonso. Later on in the opera, Guglielmo seduces Dorabella during a walk around the garden, and replaces her portrait of Ferrando with his own gift of a pendant heart. In their duet ‘Il core vi dono’ (track 20), Guglielmo can hardly believe his own success as he responds smoothly to Dorabella’s flirtatiousness. However, when he later reports to Ferrando of Dorabella’s fickleness, he provides cold comfort to his furious friend by opining paradoxically that he loves women, and will always defend their honour, but he is also revolted by their habit of deceiving men (‘Donne mie, la fate a tanti’, track 5).
Just under a month after the premiere of Così fan tutte, Joseph II died on 20 February 1790. He was succeeded by his brother Leopold II, who radically transformed the Vienna court opera by dismissing Da Ponte and reintroducing opera seria and ballet. In the event, Leopold only reigned for two years, and was succeeded by Francis II. Notwithstanding these drastic transitions in Viennese court life and operatic patronage, Benucci continued to flourish. By 1793–4 he was the opera buffa company’s highest-paid performer, and in 1793 the Berlinische musikaliche Zeitung praised his vocal and dramatic abilities:
Benucci … combines unaffected, excellent acting with an exceptionally round, beautiful, and full bass voice. He is as much a complete singer as a choice actor. He has a rare habit that few Italian singers share: he never exaggerates. Even when he brings his acting to the highest extremes, he maintains propriety and secure limits, which hold him back from absurd, vulgar comedy. I liked him particularly in the opera Il matrimonio segreto. He acts and sings the role of the Count in a masterly fashion. I wouldn’t have believed that, in spite of being a comedian, he nonetheless still manages to portray Axur by Salieri in a rather serious manner.
Benucci’s celebrated role of Count Robinson in Cimarosa’s popular masterpiece Il matrimonio segreto (1792) marked the climax of his Viennese successes. By autumn 1795 he was back in Italy; his last public opera performances at major theatres were at La Scala in Milan (1795) and Rome (1796). Thereafter, he returned to Livorno, where he gave his last known performance in 1800; he died in Florence on 5 April 1824.
This album presents a variety of scenes performed by Benucci, almost all of them from operas produced in Vienna, and mostly roles written specifically for him. The Viennese company staged seventy-five opere buffe between 1783 and 1792; only Mozart’s famous trilogy of comedies on librettos by Da Ponte have become established as popular core repertoire in the intervening centuries, but Matthew Rose and Arcangelo enable us to hear celebrated extracts from these masterpieces in the context of less familiar music for Vienna by Salieri, Paisiello and Martín y Soler. This broader view of ‘the first Figaro’ enables us to appreciate Mozart’s genius afresh, enjoy the different merits of his most talented contemporaries, and to consider the career and qualities of the most renowned buffo singer of his generation.
David Vickers © 2015