Il Maestro Di Cappella, Il Matrimonio Segreto
Philippe Huttenlocher, baritone
Orchestre De Chambre De Lausanne, Armin Jordan
Since I've written about the joys and sorrows of Cimarosa's career a couple of times recently, I beg to be excused from mining that not-very-productive vein again. I shall stop only long enough to remind you that he was one of the most admired and honored opera composers of his day and that, like most artists, he had no notion at all of political reality, which lack was his ultimate undoing. On to the music!
For all his success in his lifetime, Cimarosa-the-opera-man survives today only in Il Matrimonio segreto, which is occasionally still performed, and which has enjoyed two excellent complete recordings (on Angel and DGG). Cimarosa had spent a couple of years working for Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg in the late 1780' s. Catherine, an observer said. disliked both music and drama, but she loved Italian composers (among others). Cimarosa, for his part, detested Russian winters. so they parted friends. and he went to Vienna, where the Emperor displaced the Machiavellian Salieri and made Cimarosa his Kapellmeister. In 1792 the Burgtheater produced this opera, which was to become his Greatest Hit and one of the international comic staples of the age. The libretto was by Giovanni Bertati, one of whose earlier efforts Lorenzo da Ponte had assiduously mined for Don Giovanni, 2nd was derived from a successful English comedy, The Clandestine Marriage, by George Colman and Dr. Johnson's actor, protege David Garrick. At the time the play was written. secret (I nigh said "undercover"!) marriages were a serious affair in England, for reasons that escape me. When the singer-composer Joseph Vernon was wed, some silly technicality was overlooked, the marriage was declared "clandestine," and the poor parson and his assitant were convicted and transported to the colonies for life1 But there's nothing of this sort of thing in Cimarosa's little mating-ritual--a compact six-character affair involving an elderly father, an old-maid aunt, two daughters, a clandestine husband, and a wealthy wooer who sets his sights on the wrong daughter. The charming overture is well known, the comic arias of old Geronimo are, underservedly not. As for the other opera, whose overture is included here, I can tell you only that it was a fairly early work, first presented in Naples in 1777.
This brings us to IIl Maestro di cappella. This might be translated as Der Kapellmeister or Le Maitre de chapelle or El Maestro de capelle: the English exact equivalent is not so easy to come by. A cappella is a chapel, and in the Renaissance every potentate had a private chapel, in which a choir functioned: the man in charge was the master of the chapel and "chapel" came to be synonymous with choir--but he was not really a "choirmaster" in the modern sense. Later, instruments were added. gradually assumed parity with the voices. and finally. in Germany particularly, the Kapelle became the orchestra. Even today you' II find the Dresden orchestra listed as the Staatskapelle. Obviously the Kapellmeister was one in charge of such orchestras--but he was not necessarily the conductor. That job often went to the Konzertmeister. one of the players (frequently but not always the first violinist), who played and directed simultaneously. With Cimarosa's piece, it is clear that the protagonist is indeed a conductor (or a rehearsal conductor. with overtones of the pedantry the German Kapellmeister now evokes). but he is also a performer. since he is rehearsing the orchestra in pieces he is to sing. The orchestra. as will be obvious from the music. has its own notions about how things should go. with comic results. The piece is generally listed as an intermezzo, a short comic opera to be played between the acts of a serious opera (just imagine!). Contemporary musicologists, however, are inclined to describe it as a comic cantata with no dramatic intent. This view is apparently not going to stop the people at the Bregenz Festival, who are staging it this summer.
On records Il Maestro has been a favorite vehicle for basses and baritones with comic aspirations. and Fernando Corena has recorded it no less than three times. Philippe Huttenlocher, you may recall, first appeared as one of the Boys in the Band (so to speak) with Michel Corboz and his Lads from Lausanne. More recently he has assumed major operatic roles (Faust, Casi fan tutte) to rather lukewarm notices. The Gramophone man, reviewing this very record, was therefore surprised to hear Huttenlocher giving one of the best performances on record. I wasn't: I think he has been greatly underrated.