As of this year, the Whitsun chapter of the Salzburg Festival is all about eighteenth-century Naples. For three years running, the native Neapolitan Riccardo Muti is focusing on forgotten operas and oratorios by Golden Age composers of the Neapolitan school. The inaugural offerings, drawn from libraries where the unpublished manuscripts have lain untouched for centuries, were Domenico Cimarosa's opera buffa comedy Il Ritorno di Don Calandrino (1778) and Alessandro Scarlatti's Oratorio a Quattro Voci (1717).
Okay, Don Calandrino returns. Who is he, and where has he been? A well-born wastrel, he has spent years traveling abroad, supposedly in pursuit of learning. At the prospect of his homecoming, two marriageable young ladies get their hopes up. The mayor and a French fop are likewise in play. One-upmanship — intellectual, social, martial — fuels most of the humor. Untranslatable malapropisms abound. Screwball comedy? The five characters (there is no chorus) are too hazily defined for that. Sitcom is more like it, though the desultory plot-twists seldom fail to fizzle.
The musical fabric of Don Calandrino — the virtuoso fluency of the strings, the exquisite interjections of the winds — exemplifies Neapolitan practices the teenage Mozart drank at the source. In the pit, the unflagging Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra (Muti's creation) glowed and shone and sparkled.
The singers looked and pranced like living Meissen figurines. Yet theatrically the show scored at best a qualified success. There were constant distractions. Tumblers punctuated the arias with cartwheels. Clowns behind a plastic curtain messed about with a giant balloon, apparently representing the globe. The Neapolitan preoccupation with numbers presumably justified a blizzard of lottery tickets. Ruggero Cappuccio, the director, is a playwright of quality, with a scholar's knowledge of his city's culture, high and low. His learning came through in many graceful turns, but too often, the work cried out for footnotes.
The weak link in an otherwise appealing cast was the tenor Leonardo Caimi as Valerio, the mayor, the loser in the matrimonial sweepstakes. Of the lively ladies, Monica Tarone's modest Irene offered a more varied palette of colors than that of Laura Giordano's snooty Livietta. Juan Francisco Gatell made a strong showing in Don Calandrino's high-flying, florid arias, his tenor bright, with lots of ping. But it was the tall, lanky bass-baritone Marco Vinco, in whiteface and a powdered wig as the Frenchman Le Blonde, who stole the show. Eyebrows arched in surprise, toothy grins like Bugs Bunny's, pointed toes, grasshopper legs and a peacock walk all added up to a good-natured comic portrait perhaps only Molière could quite have done justice to. His rich, handsome sound, elegant phrasing and pointed line-readings (sometimes in foreign accents) were winning, too.
Scarlatti's subject in the oratorio is Christ's passion as experienced (mostly at a distance) by the Virgin Mary. The style is austere yet edged in flame. To hear the Cherubini players navigate intensities so different from the agitations in the genial Don Calandrino was to appreciate anew the finesse and depth of Muti's instruction. The trumpeter Luca Piazzi, to name just one of the thrilling players, rose to the challenge of his brilliant solos with the panache of three musketeers in one. As Mary, mezzo Anna Bonitatibus led the quartet with tender delicacy. In the soprano part of the excitable John the Baptist, who bears much bad news, countertenor Franco Fagioli came through like Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France. Mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova sang the believer Nicodemus in mellow tones and unforced, expressive phrases. As the Pharisaical Onias, tenor Matthew Polenzani etched his lines with edge and bite.