Mozart was not the only one writing Italian opera for the Viennese in the late eighteenth century, or even their favorite. His contemporaries much preferred Vicente Martín y Soler, of Valencia, whose comedy Il Burbero di Buon Cuore (The Good-Hearted Curmudgeon) opened in 1786, the same year as Le Nozze di Figaro.
In a remarkable coincidence, both operas were revived in Vienna three years later — each with two new arias for new divas. Mozart wrote the replacement arias for Figaro himself, but Martín y Soler had moved on to the court of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg, so Mozart filled in for his rival, as well. When Cecilia Bartoli sang the new arias for Adriana Ferrarese del Bene's Susanna ("Un moto di gioia" and "Al desio di chi t'adora") over the dead body of Jonathan Miller in selected performances of his new Met production of Figaro in 1998, some thought it an interesting experiment, since in old Vienna the revised Figaro was the hit the premiere had failed to be. But the consensus remains that Susanna's original arias, written for Nancy Storace, are far superior, and Ferrarese del Bene's alternates show no sign of catching on.
In 2007, in what appears to have been the first modern revival of Il Burbero di Buon Cuore, at Madrid's Teatro Real, the shoe was definitely on the other foot. As the clotheshorse Lucilla, whose extravagance is ruining her husband, Véronique Gens offered ravishing accounts of Mozart's arias for Louise Villeneuve ("Chi sa, chi sa qual sia" and "Vado, ma dove, o dei?," occasionally heard in recital), and the heart leapt up. In Mozart's impulsive melodies and gorgeously blended orchestration, the paper character suddenly became someone to cherish. Who knows what Martín y Soler's arias for Lucilla are like? Does anyone care? (Footnote: in 1790, Ferrarese del Bene and Villeneuve appeared together as the original Fiordiligi and Dorabella in Così Fan Tutte.)
Apart from the interpolations, Il Burbero di Buon Cuore skips along in an agreeable, well-wrought sub-Mozartean style, with few if any real surprises. The wafer-thin libretto, after a French comedy by Carlo Goldoni, is by Lorenzo da Ponte, who somewhat unaccountably called it a dramma giocoso (just like Don Giovanni). The eponymous curmudgeon is Ferramondo, uncle to young Angelica and Giocondo, Lucilla's husband. The rich young gentleman Valerio wants Angelica, even without the dowry Giocondo has squandered. Ferramondo means to marry her to his old crony, the overjoyed Dorval. But when Dorval hears Angelica's confession, he magnanimously stands down. Just then, the door flies open on the May–December pair in an apparently compromising position. "Giusti Dei! Madre Natura!" Ferramondo exults as he enters, blowing off their mortified excuses: "Good heavens! Mother Nature!" Would that all moral watchdogs were so understanding. Yet all ends well.
Irina Brook's bright production situates the action in the present, in the lobby of Ferramondo's run-down hotel, furnished in a jumble of antiques and IKEA. Valerio and Angelina wear denim; Giocondo and Lucilla dress up. The scenes play crisply, but the slender premise — a whole little world revolves around the whims of one old crank — seems flatly incredible in the contemporary setting.
As Angelina, the fresh-faced Elena de la Merced neither simpers with the text nor plays against it but is content simply to sing winningly. As the anguished Giocondo, the tenor Saimir Pirgu respects the classical niceties yet hints at Puccini, in telling contrast to Juan Francisco Gatell's sunny, ebullient Valerio, who at one point nosedives out a window. Tall, relaxed, bespectacled and too young by decades, Luca Pisaroni makes a Dorval Angelina is mad to turn down. There's a fine turn from Cecilia Díaz, a plummy mezzo, as Marina, the housekeeper. Carlos Chausson's Ferramondo blusters unapologetically, as he must, but makes the most of his scant chances to embrace his better nature. Under Christophe Rousset's direction, the Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid plays vibrantly and with feeling. Accompanying the recitatives on the fortepiano, the maestro's hand turns a mite showy and fussy.
De la Merced, Gens, Díaz; Chausson, Pirgu, Gatell, Pisaroni; Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid, Rousset. Production: I. Brook. Dynamic 33580, 140 mins., subtitled