Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A Rare Thing: Vicente Martin y Soler's Una Cosa Rara


Who was the most popular opera composer in Mozart's Vienna? It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that it wasn't Mozart (see "The Chastity Tree"). By the measure of the number of performances per opera the most popular composer by far in Vienna during Mozart's time there was Vicente Martín y Soler. Two of the three operas Martín wrote for the Burgtheater were smash hits, between them racking up 120 performances over six seasons (1786-1792). By contrast, Mozart's two most successful operas over those same six seasons, Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786) and Don Giovanni (Don Juan, 1787), were performed a total of 53 times. [1]



The opera that made Martín's reputation was Una cosa rara, ossia Bellezza ed onestà (A rare thing, or Beauty and faithfulness, 1786). The libretto was adapted by Lorenzo Da Ponte from Luis Vélez de Guevara's play La Luna de la Sierra. Da Ponte was a busy man: he also wrote the libretti for Figaro and Don Giovanni as well as for Martín's other hit, L'arbore di Diana (The Tree of Diana, 1787), among many others. In his memoirs Da Ponte describes the impact of the first performance of Cosa rara on 17 November 1786:
The evening of the première arrived. The theatre was full, most of the audience being composed of enemies ready to hiss. However, right from the beginning of the performance they found such grace, sweetness and melody in the music, and such novelty and interest in the words, that they seemed be overcome by an ecstasy of pleasure. A silence, a degree of attention never before accorded to an Italian opera, was followed by a storm of applause and exclamations of delight and pleasure. . .In particular one of the duets seemed to electrify the audience and fill them with a kind of heavenly fire. [2]
"One of the duets" probably refers to the Act II reconciliation duet between the faithful village girl Lilla (sung by Nancy Storace, who had sung Susanna in Mozart's Figaro a few months earlier) and her jealous beau, the shepherd Lubino (sung by Stefano Mandini, who had been Count Almaviva in Figaro). Da Ponte reports that the Emperor Joseph himself led the calls for the duet to be encored, despite his own decree forbidding encores of ensembles. [3]

Da Ponte's memoirs are not always testimony of the highest reliability, but in this case his account of how rapturously the duet was received is corroborated by the diary of Count Karl von Zinzendorf, a court official. After the second performance of Cosa rara on 20 November he wrote that "The duo between Mandini and Lilla in the second act is charming." On 1 December, possibly referring to the third performance on 24 November, he wrote, "The pretty duo between Mandini and Storace was repeated; it is very voluptuous. I left disturbed." In early January he wrote, "I find the duo between Mandini and Storace so tender and so expressive that it poses a danger to the young members of the audience. One needs to have had some experience in order to see it with a cool head." [4]

Here is the duet, sung by Montserrat Figueras (Lilla) and Iñaki Fresán (Lubino), from the live recording with Le Concert des Nations conducted by Jordi Savall:


LILLA. Pace caro mio sposo.
LUBINO. Pace mio dolce amore.
LILLA. Non sarai più geloso?
LUBINO. No, non sarò, mio core.

LILLA. Mi vorrai sempre?
LUBINO. Bene.
LILLA. Mi sarai sempre?
LUBINO. Amante.
LILLA. Son la tua sola?
LUBINO. Speme.
LILLA. Ti serberai?
LUBINO. Costante.

LILLA e LUBINO. Vieni, tra i bracci miei,
stringi, o mio caro ben,
l'anima mia tu sei,
ti vo' morir nel sen.

LUBINO. Dammi quella manina.
LILLA. Sì, sì, mio bel diletto.
LUBINO. Toccami il cor, carina.
LILLA. Come ti balza in petto.

LUBINO. Mi vorrai sempre?
LILLA. Bene.
LUBINO. Mi sarai sempre?
LILLA. Amante.
LUBINO. Son la tua sola?
LILLA. Speme.
LUBINO. Ti serberai?
LILLA. Costante.

LILLA e LUBINO. Vieni, tra i bracci miei,
stringi, o mio caro ben,
l'anima mia tu sei,
ti vo' morir nel sen.
LILLA. Peace, my beloved husband.
LUBINO. Peace, my sweet love.
LILLA. You won't be jealous anymore?
LUBINO. No, never, my love.

LILLA. You'll always love me...?
LUBINO. With all my heart.
LILLA. You'll always be my...?
LUBINO. Lover.
LILLA. Am I your only...?
LUBINO. Hope.
LILLA. Will you remain...?
LUBINO. Faithful.

LILLA and LUBINO. Come to my arms,
Embrace me, my dear one,
You are my soul,
I want to die in your arms.

LUBINO. Give me your little hand.
LILLA. Yes, yes, my beautiful beloved.
LUBINO. Touch my heart, dearest.
LILLA. How it throbs in your chest.

LUBINO. You'll always love me...?
LILLA. With all my heart.
LUBINO. You'll always be my...?
LILLA. Lover.
LUBINO. Am I your only...?
LILLA. Hope.
LUBINO. Will you remain...?
LILLA. Faithful.

LILLA and LUBINO. Come to my arms,
Embrace me, my dear one,
You are my soul,
I want to die in your arms.

The setting is a small village, where as the opera begins Queen Isabella and her entourage have arrived after a day's perilous hunting. Suddenly Lilla runs in and throws herself at the Queen's feet, begging her protection: she and Lubino are in love, but her brother Tita is trying to force her to marry the village governor (Podestà). The Queen's son Prince Giovanni is immediately struck by Lilla's beauty and determines to seduce her. The Queen appoints the elderly courtier Corrado as Lilla's guardian, but Corrado is himself smitten with her. Beset by importunate suitors on all sides, Lilla thinks of her absent Lubino and the idyllic days of their love in "Dolce mi parve un di" (Love once seemed sweet to me):


Echoing Figaro, the Prince unsuccessfully attempts to bribe Lilla for her sexual favors. There are disguises and mistaken identities in the night, Lubino's unjust suspicions of Lilla's unfaithfulness, and a scene where Lilla hides in a closet and emerges to the surprise of the other characters. Cosa rara, though, lacks Figaro's subversive political bite. It is the Queen who sets everything to rights (though Corrado unfairly takes the fall for the Prince's behavior), and Lubino is generally subservient—at least to the Prince, if not to the Podestà. But perhaps it was that validation of beneficent nobility, along with Martín's gift for "grace, sweetness and melody in the music," that helped ensure the popularity of the opera. Da Ponte reported that ". . .The ladies in particular. . .wanted to see only Cosa rara and to dress only in the fashion of Cosa rara." [5]

Mozart himself acknowledged the opera's popularity. In the banquet scene in the last act of Don Giovanni, an onstage band plays excerpts from well-known operas of the day, starting with the first act finale of Cosa rara. In that finale Lilla's faithfulness is proved after her emergence from the closet, and the Queen (Maria Angeles Peters) unites the village couples—Lubino with Lilla, and Lilla's brother Tita (Fernando Belaza-Leoz) with his sweetheart Ghita (Gloria Fabuel)—to general rejoicing:


And here is Mozart's quotation of this music in Don Giovanni's banquet scene. Don Giovanni, who has spent much of the opera trying to seduce the village girl Zerlina, asks his servant Leporello, "What do you think of this fine concert?" Leporello replies, "It's worthy of you." Mozart and Da Ponte are here relying on their audience's recognition of the parallels between Don Giovanni and the character of Prince Giovanni in Cosa rara:


https://youtu.be/DZTYRBs1RII?t=2h40m46s (quotation ends at 2:42:15)

Don Giovanni is sung by Rodney Gilfry and Leporello by László Polgár, with the Orchestra of the Opernhaus Zurich conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Cosa rara held the stage for nearly four decades. But by the mid-1820s it had fallen out of the repertory and was no longer performed. Meanwhile, Mozart's operas (especially Don Giovanni) had been recognized as masterpieces and were becoming ever more firmly established. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries Cosa rara was known only by Mozart's musical quote, and Leporello's comment referring to the Prince must have been mystifying to most operagoers. Martín was considered a minor footnote to the story of Mozart.

But as the Savall recording shows, Cosa rara is full of excellent music. In fact Martín does some surprising things. After the overture the music flows directly into the first scene without pausing, driving the drama forward; Mozart would later adopt the same technique in Don Giovanni. Another surprise is how many ensembles Martín employs throughout the opera (not just in the act finales), a development Mozart would take even further in Cosi fan tutte (That's the way they all are, 1790). The conventional narrative of Don Giovanni's banquet scene was Mozart's genius condescending to Martín's mere talent; Savall's recording complicates that story by revealing that Mozart borrowed significant compositional ideas from Martín.



The live Savall recording of Cosa rara with the period-instrument Concert des Nations is highly enjoyable. There is occasionally some stage noise, audience applause marks the end of the acts (and occurs after at least one aria), and as the Queen, Maria Angeles Peters sings consistently flat. But these minor flaws don't detract significantly from the pleasure the performance affords. There is another live recording from 1999 featuring Giancarlo Andretta conducting the modern-instrument Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice (available for streaming for free through Opera Today), but the Queen on that recording is not much of an improvement over Peters, and overall I prefer Savall's singers and well-judged tempi. (Andretta's speeds seem alternately rushed and sluggish by comparison.) Good as Savall's version is, though, it was issued in 1991, more than 25 years ago; it's surprising that no other early-music specialist has recorded this opera since. Perhaps it's time for new recordings and new stagings of the all-too-rare Cosa rara.


  1. John Platoff, "Mozart and his Rivals: Opera in Vienna," Current Musicology, Vol. 51, No. 1, 1993, p. 105-111.
  2. Lorenzo Da Ponte, Memoirs, quoted in Sheila Hodges, Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Life and Times of Mozart's Librettist, University of Wisconsin Press, 2002, pp. 76-77.
  3. The ban was instituted not "a few days earlier" as Da Ponte has it but on 9 May 1786, in response to the enthusiastic reception of Figaro, already a lengthy opera even without encores.
  4. John Platoff, "A New History for Martín's 'Una cosa rara,'" The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1994, pp. 85-115. Curiously, except for the first one Zinzendorf's comments do not correspond to the performance dates of Cosa rara as compiled by Otto Michtner in Das Alte Burgtheater als Opernbühne (Böhlhaus, 1970), pp. 488-489. Zinzendorf's remark of 7 January 1787 comes more than a month after the most recent performance of the opera on 4 December 1786. (It was performed again on 12 January.) The duet must have been "disturbing" indeed for him to remember it so vividly five weeks later. Zinzendorf was not so impressed by Figaro; after the first performance on 1 May 1786 he wrote "The opera bored me" (quoted in Michael Rose, The Birth of an Opera, Norton 2013, p. 100).
  5. Da Ponte, quoted in Hodges, p. 77.

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