DONIZETTI Il borgomastro di Saardam (Brignoli)
Il borgomastro di Saardam – ‘The Mayor of Saardam’ – is a melodramma giocoso, first performed in Naples in August 1827 with a cast that included the Austrian contralto Karoline Unger as Marietta. This recording from Bergamo is based on the version seen at La Scala the following January; Donizetti’s revision evidently included rewriting the part of Marietta for a soprano. Successful in Naples, the opera failed in Milan.
The plot is an invention but the setting is a true one. Peter the Great really did travel to the West, studying shipbuilding (among other things, including dentistry). The action takes place in the shipyard of the Dutch port of what is now called Zaandam. It was a popular subject for playwrights and composers: readers familiar with Zar und Zimmermann will – at second glance, perhaps – recognise the oddly named Wambett as Van Bett, the pompous burgomaster of Lortzing’s komische Oper.
The story turns on the two Peters: the Tsar, under the name of Pietro Mikailoff, and Pietro Flimann, a Russian deserter. The Mayor has been ordered to arrest a shipyard worker called Pietro. Much confusion ensues, including an ‘I’m Spartacus’ moment when the two men and the chorus all claim to be called Pietro. Flimann is astonished to be hailed as Tsar. Wambett proposes to marry his ward Marietta, with whom Flimann is in love. In the end, the true Tsar is revealed: he forgives Flimann for deserting, appoints him admiral and blesses his union with Marietta.
There are echoes here of Il barbiere di Siviglia, and there is much Rossini in the score, notably the comic ‘ensemble of perplexity’ that concludes the first act. The opera fizzes along under Roberto Rizzi Brignoli, the general frivolity offset by tender music for the lovers. There is one serious aria, ‘Va e la nave’, where the Tsar first vows to punish the traitors at home, then decides to forgive them, before exulting at the thought of Russia emerging from barbarism under his rule. Giorgio Caoduro sings this magnificently, right down to the embellishments in the second stanza of the cabaletta.
That aria, as elsewhere, is complemented by video projections: in this case, battle scenes followed by plans and illustrations of neoclassical buildings representing Peter the Great’s vision of Western civilisation. There seems no particular reason for the Edwardian costumes, but Andrea Concetti’s appearance as the Mayor in frock coat and cocked hat – not to mention his extravagant whiskers – is as splendid as his patter-singing is expert. The CD version includes the libretto in Italian and English. Great fun.