The new McVicar Norma returns tomorrow night prompting “Trove Thursday” to present Virginia by Saviero Mercadante starring the Met’s next errant Druid priestess Angela Meade, who has become one of today’s more controversial—even divisive—sopranos. 

This season the Met turns to Meade not only for Norma but also for Semiramide, another towering bel canto work. It was as Rossini’s Babylonian queen that I first heard her the year before this Virginia at the Caramoor Festival, scene of some of her best performances including Hélène in Les Vêpres Siciliennes and the title role in Lucrezia Borgia.

Meade can be a particularly erratic performer; when she’s not on form as in a recent Parisina d’Este (apparently Opera Orchestra of New York’s final project) she can be uneven and disengaged. However, her Giselda in I Lombardi with that same organization several years earlier soared eclipsing the self-absorbed Oronte of Michael Fabiano.

I had an exchange several years ago with someone who dissed Meade and at some point I asked if he had ever heard her live. He had not and I do think it’s a voice that sometimes doesn’t take well to the microphone which can exaggerate her vibrato which has never been particularly bothersome to me in person. This discrepancy hit me first when I listened to a broadcast of the Caramoor Vêpres which sounded far less impressive on the radio than it had in the flesh.

My plan had been to visit my sister in DC earlier this month and hear Meade in Handel’s Alcina with the Washington National Opera. But she had to be out of the country during the opera’s entire run. The entire enterprise was received with nearly unanimous antipathy so it proved to be a reason to be grateful—for a change—to the US government!

Meade has frequently been cast as Second-Run Sally at the Met following Anna Netrebko in Anna Bolena or Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma. But her effervescent Alice Ford in the new Robert Carsen Falstaff several years ago suggested just how good she can be with attentive stage direction and a longer time to prepare.

With the upcoming Norma she once again succeeds others in her role, plus with a conductor also new to the production and likely without a great deal of rehearsal. I’ll have more to say about Meade and her partner in vow-breaking, the superlative Jamie Barton, after tomorrow evening’s premiere.

Mercadante was a contemporary of Donizetti and Bellini but he was born before either and outlived them both. His works have had many proponents over the past few decades but despite a number of well-intentioned revivals none have really caught on. “Trove Thursday” previously offered up Mercadante’s best-known work Il Giuramento (1837) with José Carreras, Annabelle Bernard and Agnes Baltsa.

Virginia was written more than a decade after Giuramento’s premiere but its first performance was delayed for more than fifteen years due to censorship concerns by the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. Around the time the composer was working on it Lohengrin had just appeared but the delayed first performance finally occurred in 1866, the year after the first Tristan—a different world!

As far as I know Virginia has yet to be performed in the US—OONY scheduled its premiere in 1980 but prima donna Montserrat Caballé canceled at the last minute and the whole enterprise was dropped never to be rescheduled. Recent performances have featured Anglophone sopranos with 70s and 80s Opera Rara diva Janet Price performing the role in Belfast in 1976 while American Susan Patterson recorded it commercially with Opera Rara about ten years ago.

In February Toronto’s Opera-in-Concert revives Mercadante’s comedy I Due Figaro, a comic opera performed recently by Riccardo Muti in Salzburg and Ferrara as well as by the petite Amore Opera in New York.

And finally a shout-out to Gianluca Buratto who was so impressive in the Monteverdi operas that toured to Chicago and New York last month and who appears in Virginia in the small role of Marco.

Mercadante: Virgina

Wexford Festival
16 October 2010

Virginia: Angela Meade
Icilio: Bruno Ribeiro
Appio: Ivan Magri
Virginio: Hugh Russell
Marco: Gianluca Buratto

Conductor: Carlos Izcaray

Virginia can be downloaded by clicking on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward on the posting’s audio player and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.

Two recent “Trove Thursday” podcasts featuring the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky—Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride co-starring Anna Netrebko and Olga Borodina and Rubinstein’s The Demon remain available for listening or download.