Il burbero di buon cuore
Opera in 2 acts, music by Vicente Martín y Soler
libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte

Il burbero di buon cuore (Dynamic)Cast: Elena de la Merced, Carlos Chausson, Véronique Gens, Saimir Pirgu, Cecilia Díaz, Juan Francisco Gatell, Luca Pisaroni, Josep Miquel Ramón. Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid, Christophe Rousset (fortepiano and c.). Irina Brook (d.)

Video director: Matteo Ricchetti
[Rec. Teatro Real Madrid, 14-16 November 2007]

Dynamic 2-DVD 33580 (140 mins)

Can an opera libretto be too good? The bourgeois farce may be taken from a neat Goldoni comedy, but life has been breathed into it by Lorenzo da Ponte’s individuation of character, his perception that what people feel may be disjunct from what they say, his use of moments of introspection to bring relief from clockwork plotting. The problem is that a text of the quality of Il burbero di buon cuore (“the goodhearted grouch”) needs a Mozart to step up to the plate and match it.

Soler’s score works OK. But it does it by reinstating the clockwork, a gambit matched by this relentlessly busy though well-prepared revival: is anyone bar second-tier opera directors amused by characters ironing whilst they sing? The arias, ensembles and finales are fresh, varied and tastefully scored, but with a couple of exceptions mechanical and shallow, adding nothing to the text. The exceptions are the two arias for Lucilla, a spendthrift wife faced with the reality of what she’s done to her husband’s bank balance and good name. Beautifully turned by Véronique Gens, these numbers with their serene melodic lines and subtle woodwind commentaries provide what the rest of the score lacks, a depth charge which just for a moment moves us.

Veronique Gens sings ... MozartAlas for Soler. I’d been listening blind, but the booklet revealed that these arias were substitutes written at a singer’s behest for a revival following the 1786 Vienna premiere. And their composer is Mozart, whose own da Ponte trilogy emerged in tandem with the three Soler wrote in the city with this superb librettist. Rarely has the gulf between efficiency and excellence been so audible.

What else to say? The cast, led by Carlos Chausson’s grumpy patriarch, is excellent. Besides Gens, Luca Pisaroni’s Dorval (think Don Alfonso light) takes his opportunities specially well. Cecilia Díaz’s mature maid gets honourable mention for dashing away with that steaming iron, and for her tenor-bell mezzo. Roussets tempi are just right, the playing is witty and clean. The luxury of one DVD per act means very high-quality video. The audio is if anything too good to be true for a live performance. It’s so perfectly balanced that dubbing must be suspected, and I doubt Soler’s opera will ever be more perfectly sung. Matteo Ricchetti’s direction of Irina Brook’s staging conveys its geniality without enhancing its business, which is cause for gratitude. No extras, but no worries. Il burbero di buon cuore passes pleasantly and is mildly recommended, especially for Mozart completists. Because da Ponte aside, I’m afraid he’s the star yet again.

© Christopher Webber 2010

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2 February 2010