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ClassicsOnline Home » PAVESI, S.: Ser Marcantonio [Opera] (Romano, Castellano, D'Apolito, Bekbosunov, Beltrami, Smolentseva, Silvestri, Spadano)
Stefano Pavesi’s work was swept away by the Rossini operatic avalanche and he is now almost forgotten, but while his vibrantly entertaining (though not without a touch of melancholy) melodramma giocoso Ser Marcantonio has many Rossinian features the young Gioachino’s operatic career was yet to begin when it was first staged. The libretto sets up a typical late eighteenth-century opera buffa plot full of intrigue, buffoonery, disguises and cases of mistaken identity, which may be summarised as “about preventing an old fool from making an ill-advised marriage and stopping his heir from gaining his rightful inheritance”.
Stefano Pavesi (1779-1850)
Pantaloon takes a wife
Dramma giocoso in Two Acts • Libretto by Angelo Anelli
Revised, after the autograph, by Paolo Fabbri and Maria Chiara Bertieri
Ser Marcantonio – Marco Filippo Romano, Baritone
Bettina – Loriana Castellano, Contralto
Tobia – Matteo D’Apolito, Bass-baritone
Medoro – Timur Bekbosunov, Tenor
Dorina – Silvia Beltrami, Mezzo-soprano
Lisetta – Svetlana Smolentseva, Mezzo-soprano
Pasquino – Massimiliano Silvestri, Tenor
Stefano Pavesi scored a memorable hit with his opera Ser Marcantonio—its first run at La Scala, Milan, lasted a remarkable 54 nights. Between 1810 and 1831 it was revived almost fifty times, and it was the only one of Pavesi’s works that survived being swept away by the Rossini operatic avalanche.
The libretto was by Angelo Anelli (1761–1820), who was both a dramatist and an academic: in 1808 he was appointed professor of forensic oratory in Milan, by which time he already had a twenty-year career as a librettist behind him, having written texts for, among others, Paer, Piccinni, Guglielmi, Zingarelli, Mayr and Mosca (L’Italiana in Algeri, 1808). Pavesi himself was born in 1779 in a village near Crema in the Venetian Republic. His early musical studies were funded by members of the local aristocracy, in the best tradition of noble patronage, and it was also thanks to their generosity that he was able to move to Naples in 1795 and to continue his education at that city’s San Onofrio Conservatory.
In 1802, again with his patrons’ support, he moved back north to Venice to try his hand as an opera composer. Like Mayr before him, and then like Generali, Coccia and Rossini, Pavesi first made a name for himself in the comic genre of farsa (Un avvertimento ai gelosi, 1803). This success gave him access to the San Moisè theatre, which specialised in staging farse, and soon to La Scala and other prestigious opera houses across Italy, so that by the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century, he had well and truly established himself as a leading figure in the new generation of opera composers.
It was, therefore, no accident that he was engaged for the autumn season 1810 at the principal theatre in the capital of the recently formed (1805) Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy. It also meant that Pavesi had the benefit of an excellent company of singers to give the première of his new work, Ser Marcantonio. The title rôle went to Neapolitan Nicola Bassi (1767–1825), a specialist in the comic repertoire. Bettina was played by Milanese mezzo Elisabetta Gafforini (c.1772–after 1812), who was “prima donna in the service of His Majesty the King of Italy” and dubbed by Stendhal the greatest comic singer on the Italian stage between 1806 and 1812. The rôle of Tobia went to Luigi Zamboni (1767–1837) from Bologna, who had made his début two decades earlier and who a few years later was to create another, much more famous “factotum”—Rossini’s Figaro (1816).
The foolish old man in love had been a stock character for centuries, but Anelli may have been inspired by a relatively recent source, L’hypocondre, ou La femme qui ne parle point, a comedy by Jean-Baptiste Rousseau (1670–1741). Written in 1733, published in 1751 and first staged ten years later, the play itself was a pretty thorough reworking of Ben Jonson’s Epicoene, or The Silent Woman, which had first been performed in 1609.
Rousseau himself summed up the story in a letter of 1 March 1734: “it’s about preventing an old fool from making an ill-advised marriage and stopping his heir gaining his rightful inheritance”. The old man in question is Baron Morose, a hypochondriac who hates any kind of noise because of a childhood trauma (or pure misanthropy). He entrusts the task of finding him a bride to the barber and jack-of-all-trades Cigale, to whom Leandre introduces a young and virtually mute widow who has just completed her period of mourning in a convent, and who rejoices in the name Androgine. Leandre is Morose’s only nephew: if the latter were to have a son, he would no longer inherit his fortune and would be unable to marry his beloved Lucinde. Morose is enthusiastic about the idea of a modest and taciturn bride. Barely is the ink dry on the marriage contract, however, when Androgine reveals herself to be a flirtatious chatterbox. When, on top of this, she starts threatening to fritter away his money, Morose is ready to do anything to get rid of her. Leandre steps in to help, as does another young man, Eutrapel. In exchange, the former will get his uncle’s permission to marry Lucinde, while the latter will be able to arrange the marriage of his sister Clarice with the young man of her dreams—none other than Androgine, who has disguised himself as a woman on Leandre’s advice with the aim of dissuading Morose once and for all from any thought of matrimony.
Librettist Giuseppe Maria Foppa had already adapted the play for his one-act Dritto e rovescio, which was set by Francesco Gardi and staged at the San Benedetto in Venice in spring 1801, and Giovanni Ruffini would return to it in 1843 for Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Anelli, meanwhile, made his own changes to the Rousseau original, for example conflating Cigale, Eutrapel and Leandre into a single character (Tobia) who becomes the driving force behind the events that unfold. He also did away with the erotic ambiguity of the cross-dressing rôle typical of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which Rousseau had inherited directly from his source material. Anelli’s libretto sets up a typical late eighteenth-century opera buffa plot, full of intrigue, buffoonery, disguises and cases of mistaken identity (Tobia dresses up as a notary, Marcantonio’s servant passes himself off as a judge). The cruel nature of the mockery, and the spiteful allusions in Act I (scenes 1, 4, 6 and 7) to Marcantonio’s age and failing wits are also rooted in the literary and theatrical world of the last years of the eighteenth century. From this point of view, Ser Marcantonio was the perfect embodiment of the kind of middle-ground melodramma giocoso that was halfway between the excessive clowning of more lighthearted plots and the sentimental, even serious storylines that had for a while been injecting a touch of melancholy into a genre originally designed purely to entertain.
Appearing as she does in ten of the opera’s twenty “numbers”, three of them solo performances of increasing significance, Bettina is the undisputed protagonist. She makes her entrance with a Cavatina (No 4 / CD 1, ), which begins in declamatory parlando style and then expands into more melodic, cantabile music on the words “Bettina, io spasimo” (Bettina, I burn with love) as she mimics and mocks her infatuated suitors. The real Bettina suddenly appears reflected in the violins’ playful staccato triplets—she is “tutta foco” (full of fire), although it is by no means easy to spark her flames. The Allegretto that follows (a cabaletta, technically speaking) features an agile little motif over an accompaniment of leaping strings, adding to this portrait of a bright and spirited young woman. In the “mirror scene” of Act II (No 12 / CD 2, ), between the customary cantabile and cabaletta sections Bettina throws in a few lines in various different languages which provide appropriate accompaniment while she parades up and down: first a languid Venetian barcarolle (picking up on the late eighteenth-century trend for “boat songs”), then a stately French courante, these alternating with a lively ritornello as she models each different outfit. In her big solo aria (No 19 / CD 2, ), just before the finale, she is full of self-pity and wounded pride, emotions worthy of a more serious rôle (this extended scene is introduced by the chorus; Bettina’s opening lines are marked colla parte before we revert to a tempo for the rest of the number, an additional and unusual return to cantabile pathos where one might have expected a cabaletta). It is all an act, however, and the real Bettina again reveals herself in the final section—confident, virtuosic and imperious.
The character of Tobia appears in nine numbers, two of which are solos, and essentially both directs the story’s machinations and plays the lead rôle in them too. His Recitative and Aria in Act Two (No 16 / CD 2, ) are suitably demanding: this is a complex number in which even the opening cantabile comprises more than one section (a forceful Allegro, followed by an Andante with a legato melodic line), and in which the ensuing cabaletta (with repeat) is introduced by a lively crescendo which uses the fanfare first heard in the overture, and followed by a generous coda. Yet what at first glance may appear to be a scene straight from opera seria is in fact a parody—a tale within a tale invented on the fly as Tobia and Medoro simulate a duel, all part of the plan to pull the wool over Marcantonio’s eyes.
The latter, despite having no solo numbers of his own, is the third of the lead characters who make up the triangle around which the entire plot essentially revolves, and upon which the ensemble numbers are constructed. Within this structure, divided into numbers that call for standard vocal groupings (for example, the Quartet of No 8 / CD 1,  and the Quintet of No 17 / CD 2, ), Pavesi’s use of recurring elements results in greater inner cohesion, avoiding the distracting nature of a wider range of different musical solutions. He also maintains the tension of the piece by injecting a level of urgency into his writing, often foregoing lengthy, extended sections and sustained dialogue between stage and orchestra in favour of shorter, sharper episodes.
The inner sections of the concluding Allegretto of No 12’s Cavatina / CD 2,  the Duet No 14 / CD 2,  and the second movement of the Quintet No 17 / CD 2,  succeed one another almost without a break. Although the almost compulsive repetition in the Duet limits the materials and gives them a somewhat mechanical quality, there are plenty of cases elsewhere in the opera in which Pavesi employs the devices of ostinato and moto perpetuo to overwhelming effect, especially in the closing sections of certain numbers (the Quartet, first-act finale and Quintet). Tight-knit exchanges among the strings in Bettina’s Cavatina (No 4 / CD 1, ) herald the repeat of the cabaletta, but halve the phrasal rhythm, producing an effect of compression and acceleration which appears again, if fleetingly, in the conclusion of the Trio (No 7 / CD 1, ). The restatement of a mechanical “aside”, at the heart of No 3’s Duet (a simple harmonic pendulum with walking bass), is combined with a layered crescendo which culminates in the reappearance of the melody. A similar gradual accumulation of layers of sound prepares the way for the cabaletta and its repeat in Tobia’s Aria (No 16 / CD 2, ).
These are all features one might be tempted to define as Rossinian, were it not for the fact that when Ser Marcantonio was first staged at La Scala, the young Gioachino’s operatic career had yet to begin…
English version by Susannah Howe
 In his old-fashioned salon Ser Marcantonio has gathered together his friends, his servants Lisetta and Pasquino and his niece Dorina and nephew Medoro. He informs them that he wishes to make a will and to get married. The friends warn the old man about taking this step but Marcantonio remains obdurate.
 The servants flatter the old man insincerely on his youthfulness. The two siblings are in despair: they fear for their inheritance and reckon with the breaking off of their engagements to the brother and sister pair of Tobia and Bettina.
 Tobia hopes for a speedy marriage to Dorina; to that end he pursues his business interests for her night and day, in order to make his fortune soon.
 The two siblings do not have the courage to declare themselves to Tobia. First Lisetta tells him that Marcantonio wants to marry a staid young woman. Tobia spots an opportunity for a ruse and pretends to procure the desired woman for the old man.
 Medoro is appalled by his friend’s betrayal of himself and Dorina but this leaves him with the belief to act against their interests, so that he may teach them a lesson over their despair.
 In her fashion boutique Bettina pokes fun at her many admirers for their protestations of love for her: she won’t let herself be so easily inflamed and remains faithful to her true love.
 She asks her assistants to deliver her latest creations to her clients. Tobia comes into his sister’s shop and tells her about his plan: he wants her to pretend to marry the old man.
 She goes along with it as long as her love for Medoro should not suffer because of it. Tobia tells her how she should conduct herself: she should play the part of the shy and naive woman whom Marcantonio pictures to himself.
 Meanwhile Dorina has also heard about Tobia’s supposed betrayal. Lisetta warns Medoro that Bettina too could be supporting his plans.
 Medoro regards that as impossible—he knows his beloved’s faithfulness too well.
 Tobia is about to present his sister to Marcantonio, but warns him about her shyness and her reserve. The old man can scarcely wait to see her.
 Bettina finally dares to emerge and behaves exactly as Marcantonio imagined she would.
 He is entranced by her reserve and by her aversion to lavish expenditure on luxuries and wants to call the notary immediately.
 While Marcantonio goes into raptures, the enraged Medoro comes in and learns from his beloved that she wants to become his uncle’s wife.
 Pasquino and Lisetta laugh at Dorina for her gullibility.
 Dorina is not at all amused and laments the inconstancy of men.
 It is only when Tobia starts to dress up as the notary that she sees the funny side.
 She helps him with his disguise, while Bettina explains to Medoro what is happening. The supposed notary reads out the marriage contract to the witnesses, which comprises a financial penalty if the betrothed should fail to enter into the promised marriage that same day. Convinced that he has made the right choice, Marcantonio signs the contract. Uninvited guests burst in to celebrate but Marcantonio wants to have them thrown out straightaway. But the shy Bettina suddenly turns out to be keen to party and bids the guests welcome. Marcantonio realizes that he has been duped.
 Craftsmen and suppliers have gathered in Ser Marcantonio’s house and await instructions from the lady who has summoned them.
 For the time being Pasquino and Lisetta make them wait in an adjoining room. They want to let the arriving Marcontonio know that, as in the arranged contract, Bettina will want to celebrate her wedding today.
 In order to please her husband she puts on a fashion show and presents to him ever more tantalising clothes, in the latest fashions from Venice and Paris, which she has ordered from the most expensive boutiques.
 When Marcantonio protests Bettina summons the milliners and craftsmen to give him even stronger proof of her love.
 They emerge from the adjoining room to be at Bettina’s service.
 Bettina makes her purchases, places her orders and indicates that Marcantonio is to make the payments for them. He is outraged, but Bettina demands from him further proof of his love.
 In view of the wedding he must dress up as a young dandy. Marcantonio feels humiliated and that he has been held up to ridicule.
 Lisetta announces that the comedy—very much at the expense of Marcantonio—will soon be over.
 Medoro can hardly wait to become Bettina’s husband.
 Tobia challenges him to a sham duel, since he has violated his sister’s honour. Only if he could prove that Bettina had a secret lover would Marcantonio be able to annul the marriage and incur no penalty.
 While Tobia hurls threats at Medoro he is pleased to see that the old man goes white with fear.
 Marcantonio is caught between a rock and a hard place. Then his servant Pasquino informs him that Bettina has arranged a rendezvous with a lover in the garden. He advises his master to lock the couple in the summer house and to call for witnesses to see what has happened. Marcantonio is delighted to have the opportunity to be rid of his betrothed and to avoid a financial penalty.
 In Marcantonio’s garden at nightfall. Both pairs of siblings stroll around, unrecognised by the lurking Marcantonio. Bettina pretends to flirt with her lover and to go with him back into the summer house. In fact she conceals herself with Tobia, while Dorina and Medoro take their place in the summer house. Marcantonio locks the supposed lovers in.
 In the house Lisetta has been waiting for the fun to begin. She has already let in on the plot the friends whom Marcantonio will call as witnesses.
 She pours scorn on all old lovers and declares that she will give herself to no one over the age of thirty.
 The friends summoned by Marcantonio, together with the district judge, have gathered in the garden. He brings his charge while Tobia defends the honour of his sister. Pasquino, dressed as the judge, asks for evidence, but when the triumphant Marcantonio opens the door to the summer house, it is only his niece and nephew who emerge.
 Now Marcantonio stands before them as a slanderer who cannot avoid paying the penalty—the more so as Bettina comes in and is not inclined to forgive him.
 Tobia can dictate his own terms: the abandoning of the marriage at a cost of 80,000 francs in compensation; the retrieval of his family’s honour through his marriage to Dorina who, of course, will be provided with a substantial dowry; and finally Medoro, in order to atone for his insults, is to take Bettina as his wife.
 Medoro pretends to comply, out of obedience to his uncle, while Bettina is not ready to marry a poor devil; so Marcantonio must also agree to leave all his worldly goods to his nephew. The old man signs everything, both pairs of brothers and sisters and all the servants rejoice at the success of the prank and Marcantonio hears his friends gleefully remind him of their warning.
English translation by David Stevens
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PAVESI, S.: Ser Marcantonio [Opera] (Romano, Caste...