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Fanfare Magazine: 39:2 (11-12/2015) 
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"... enjoyable all around and recommended to everyone"

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Reviewer: Jerry Dubins

It’s a continuing source of amusement, if not amazement, to me that Italian opera managed to survive as a serious art form in spite of these 18th-century stock farces. But it did, and Leonard Leo’s L’ambizione delusa (Frustrated Ambition), a commedia pastorale in three acts, meets most of the criteria for those operas I’m willing to review: (1) that they date from the late 18th to the early 19th century—check, this one was written in 1740; (2) that they be unfamiliar to audiences and new to record—check, this is the first modern staged performance of this opera since who knows when; and (3) that they be in a generally light, comic vein; check to that, if your sense of humor is honed to convoluted plots in which characters pose as everyone but themselves and become so confused in the process that they have a hard time sorting out who they are actually are. Unfortunately, a fourth criterion, that the operas be blessedly short, is not met by this particular pastoral comedy. As you can see from the above timing, Leo and his librettist take the better part of three hours to untangle the Gordian knots they tie.

When I hear the name Leonardo Leo (1694–1744), I automatically think cello concertos, his set of six such works being what he seems to be most remembered for today. But that isn’t what he was best known for in his own day. Like most Italian composers of the period, Leo wrote operas, and lots of them, probably in the neighborhood of 50. Of the 47 titles Wikipedia cites, L’ambizione delusa isn’t even on the list, which tells me that Leo composed more operas than are accounted for. L’ambizione is surely a late opus, but it’s not his last; according to the list he was still writing operas right up to his death in 1744, Vologeso and revisions to La finta Frascatana both dating from that year.

Leo was an important figure in Italy’s Neapolitan school of opera, along with Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Francesco Durante, and Alessandro Scarlatti, generally considered its founder. According to Leo’s biography, “His serious operas suffer from a coldness and severity of style, but in his comic operas he shows a keen sense of humor.” And—I love this next sentence—“his ensemble movements are spirited, but never worked up to a strong climax.” Admittedly, this is the first Leo opera I’ve heard, but if the man couldn’t achieve a strong climax in three hours, pity his listeners and his lovers.

The libretto to L’ambizione delusa—not included with the recording but available online at dynamic.it, should you wish to read it in full—is by Domenico Canicà, and it weaves a longwinded, tortuous plot, of which herewith is a synopsis. You’ve no doubt watched the British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs, about servants living downstairs and their masters living upstairs, right? Well, L’ambizione delusa is the story of a bunch of domestics, all of whom live so far downstairs they might as well be in the basement, but who put on airs and have delusions of life as masters of their domain. The comic element, as the booklet note puts it, “is in the contrast between what the characters really are (goatherds and peasants), what they pretend to be (barons and magistrates), and what they wish to become (Lords and Ladies).”

In act I, Lupino and his sister Cintia have come into a large inheritance from a late uncle and have used the money in ostentatious fashion to buy fancy new clothes and move into an upscale countryside estate outside of Naples. They insist on being called Lord and Lady and keep saying “Ho,” as they feel it’s a posh-sounding interjection. They have even bought a couple of bears and a panther, which they keep chained in the garden, as a mark of status.

Next, they hire a servant girl, Delfina, who is of no higher social station than they are, but she’s from the “city,” so she must know the ways of the elite and can teach Lupino and Cintia how to behave as proper aristocrats. Cintia also now feels that she’s too good for her old boyfriend, Silvio, and drops him to go after a more upmarket catch. Seemingly unfazed by his rejection, the jilted Silvio now offers to introduce Cintia to the nonexistent nobleman, Baron Griciaferro. Silvio’s plan is to teach Cintia a lesson, a plan for which he enlists the help of his sister Laurina and his friend Foresto. They will get the goatherd, Ciaccone, to pose as the Baron, introduce Laurina as his Baroness sister, and ask Lupino for Cintia’s hand in marriage. Foresto promises his cooperation in the scheme, even though it will postpone his own engagement to Laurina.

In a scene worthy of a modern-day zoo horror headline, pandemonium ensues when the panther breaks loose from its chain and terrorizes the assembled gathering. It’s not funny, though, when Silvio confronts the poor animal and kills it. Meanwhile, the pretend-Baron goatherd, Ciaccone, who was enlisted to woo Cintia, instead has eyes for Delfina, and Cintia’s brother, Lupino, finds himself attracted to the pretend-Baroness, Laurina.

If act I was the exposition, act II is the development. The plot simply thickens with all the characters becoming more deeply invested in their pretend-selves until another upsetting event has a sobering effect on the charade of assumed identities. In act I, it was the panther on the loose. Now, at the end of act II, in a game of archery, Ciaconne, the goatherd pretending to be the Baron, who was supposed to woo Cintia but is now wooing Delfina, must think he’s Cupid, for he shoots her with an arrow.

Fortunately, if only to insure that there’s an act III, she’s just grazed, but librettist and composer have saved the most incendiary scene—literally—for last. The reason is not explained—low wages, poor working conditions, perhaps?—but back at the upscale country manor, Lupino and Cintia’s riled-up servants set Tara ablaze. Everyone runs to put out the fire and Silvio, once again, displays his bravery by sending the arsonists packing.

You have to admit that this opera has more than the usual stage spectacle: a panther on the prowl, a woman wounded by an arrow, and a mansion engulfed in flames. But as all such operatic comedies end, the denouement sees disguises dropped and all reconciled to who and what they are in real life and; and in a final twist of cynical irony, Delfina, the sole supposed sophisticate among the group, finds herself marrying a man of her true station, the goatherd.

You can take away from the story whatever moral conclusions you like. Mine are: (1) don’t capture and chain wild predatory animals in your backyard; (2) aim your arrows carefully; (3) be kind and generous to your help; and of course, (4) don’t pretend to be someone and something you’re not. This last lesson—the Shakespearian “to thine own self be true”—along with the message that love trumps all and triumphs in the end, is the important one.

L’ambizione delusa is a comment on the vanity of those who believe that a fancy house, a new wardrobe, and putting on airs are all it takes to turn commoners into persons of peerage. The characters in this opera are basically good people; they’re just simple and naïve, but once they drop their pretense and posturing, they realize that in spite of lacking title or position in the social hierarchy they really do love each other for who they are.

Musically, L’ambizione delusa is everything you would expect of an Italian opera of this period. Lengthy passages of monologue and dialogue set to recitativo secco are interrupted by formal arias. The arias are of two types: (1) rapid, energetic, coloratura-like vocalizing accompanied by the type of bracing, propulsive string ritornellos familiar from Italian Baroque concertos, for example, Lupino’s act I aria “Digli che io,” or Silvio’s act II aria “Dolente dubbioso;” and (2) the slow, self-pitying, lugubrious lays, accompanied by generally falling, sighing phrases in the orchestra, for example, Laurina’s act III aria, “Mie belle lacrime.” Leo, apparently being a natural-born comedian, most of the arias are of the first type, which makes the many high-spirited numbers not only fun to listen to but keeps the action going and this lengthy work from dragging and seeming longer than it is. The length is somewhat extended by enthusiastic applause from the live audience at the conclusion of many of the arias; the more vocally challenging the number, the louder and longer the ovation.

In an attempt to preserve some semblance of historical performance authenticity, the male roles of Foresto and Silvio are sung by females, contralto Candida Guida and mezzo-soprano Federica Carnevale, respectively. Given that castrati were not available for hire, the casting choice was certainly preferable to employing male altos, which would have been a true perversion of Italian period practice.

The orchestra sounds slightly recessed in the recording, so I can’t be absolutely sure on this point, but to my ear, it doesn’t sound like the players are playing period instruments. If they are, then the Orchestra ICO of the Magna Grecia di Taranto is the closest sounding thing to a modern instrument period instrument ensemble I’ve heard, which, in my book, is a good thing.

Overall, I really enjoyed this opera. Despite its silly plot—aren’t they all from this period and genre?—Leo has invested the libretto with a great deal of invigorating music, given his characters strong musical profiles and, to the extent possible, made them believable. As a revival and first modern performance of a long-forgotten opera, there are a few less than perfect spots here and there in entrances and evenness of vocal production, but the singers are well matched, sing with good tone and pitch, and have a good sense of comedic timing. The production is expertly led and held together by conductor Antonio Greco.

This one is not just for 18th-century Italian opera specialists; it’s enjoyable all around and recommended to everyone.



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