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Hidden treasures - Carlo Soliva - La testa di bronzo (1816) - Selected highlights

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Published on Jul 7, 2009

Soliva (already familiar to us from "Guilia e Sesto Pompeo") studied music under the direction of Bonifazio Asioli and Vincenzo Federici at one of Milan's many conservatories, obtaining in 1815, upon receiving his diploma, first prize in composition. His hard work was not forgotten, and he was chosen to write a work for the 1816 season at La Scala. The designated poet was the young Felice Romani, himself a winner of a competition organized by La Scala to find a librettist for the new opera. The resulting work was a perfect success, receiving 47 performances in its initial run. However, none of the composer's subsequent works managed to generate any kind of popularity, and by 1818 Soliva had already devoted himself to instrumental music and teaching.

The libretto is drawn from a play by the prolific French dramatist Jean-Baptiste-Auguste Hapde, "La tete de bronze ou le deserteur" (1808). The plot is as follows: Adolfo (bass), Prince of Presburg, desires to marry Countess Floresca (soprano) who is secretly married to Captain Federico (tenor). The young man does not know his parents, being an illegitimate son of the Prince, and Ermanno (bass), Adolfo's adviser, wants to bring this fact to the latter's attention. Upon hearing of the preparations for Adolfo's wedding, Federico, however, leaves his garrison and is named a deserter. Ermanno hides him in the castle's basement the entrance of which is hidden behind a bronze bust. Ermanno leaves the door open, and Federico is discovered by the servant Tollo (bass) who is promptly locked up in the cellar in Federico's place. Tollo is discovered during the ceremony, arousing suspicions from Adolfo who orders his soldiers to pursue the deserter. Federico takes refuge in the hut where he was brought up. Floresca, in military attire, manages to find him, but before the lovers can escape they are confronted by Adolfo who sentences Federico to death. Ermanno finally reveals the truth to the Prince; Adolfo repents, but, after shots are heard off stage, it seems doubtful that Federico is still alive. But, as a friend of Ermanno, Ricciardo (tenor), had removed the bullets from the soldier's rifles, all may rejoice, as the new-found father blesses the lovers' union.

Despite the obvious renown the work received during the first half of the nineteenth century, I find myself questioning its true merits. To be fair, the libretto, a completely illogical series of events, dominated by rather weak gimmicks (the "bronze head" of the title appears only in Act I), mediocre plot devices (Tollo and Ricciardo are limited to being deus ex machinas, though the former is tentatively given as a comic relief character) and underdeveloped central characters, is not exactly the worst of its kind, if not among the best operatic texts (Romani unable to provide us (or the composer) with anything but rhyming phrases of little beauty). Thus, our attention should be centered completely on the composer's efforts. But the music, in spite of some short passages of variable quality, is (a great pity) consistently pale (similar to "Guilia e Sesto"). The idiom balances somewhere between those of Mozart and Rossini, but Soliva has neither the dramatic style of the former, nor the wit of the latter. There is actually nothing to be ashamed of in the score, Soliva certainly worthy of his prize for composition: indeed, the harmonies are rich, the interplay between the voices (and there are actually three fairly large bass roles) - mostly well-judged, the structures - sometimes unusually innovative (in particular, the Act I finale incorporates two concentratos). But the music seriously lacks the much needed dramatic fire that could enliven the thin plot and, even more importantly, melodic richness which cannot be replaced by professionalism. Moreover, the composer and the librettist seem to lack dramatic sensibility: even more tellingly, the climatic confrontation between Adolfo and the lovers and the subsequent revelation could have been treated by one large-scale piece, instead we are presented with three full numbers which lack dramatic drive. Of course, the opera does house some hidden treasures - the well-crafted double concentrato of the finale to Act I, a nicely urgent aria for the tenor, the stretta to the penultimate quintet of Act II - but they cannot outbalance the plainness of the other music.

The lack of musical interest is only highlighted by the fact that the 1993 recording which I'm using in this instance is actually quite good, boasting reasonable conducting by Angelo Camponi and a well-balanced cast of young singers:

Adolfo - Bruno Balmelli,
Floresca - Alessandra Ruffini,
Federico - Enrico Cossutta,
Ermanno - Thierry Felix,
Ricciardo - Vincenzo Manno,
Tollo - Roberto Coviello,
Anna (soprano), Federico's foster mother and Tollo's aunt - Cettina Cadelo.

Hope you'll enjoy :).

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