Back in the Spotlight: Martin y Soler's 'The Kind-Hearted Grouch'

WOO-1230-Burbero-300Back in the 1780s, Vicente Martin y Soler may well have been the most popular opera composer in Vienna -- but these days, you're most likely to hear his music while listening to an opera by Mozart.

In Mozart's 1787 opera Don Giovanni, the composer had some fun with his Vienna audiences at the beginning of the final scene. As the nefarious title character settles down for his fateful dinner, an onstage band provides some entertainment, playing tunes from popular operas of the time. The one they start with is from Martin y Soler's Una Cosa Rara. It's a moment that says a lot about Martin y Soler's status at the time, as Mozart clearly knew that his listeners would recognize the tune immediately.

As it happens, there are other, more significant operatic connections between Mozart and Martin y Soler. In 1786, for example, Mozart wrote the first of a trio of operas using texts by the great librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. And so did Martin y Soler.

Mozart's three Da Ponte operas are among the greatest musical dramas ever composed: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosí fan tutte. It would have been hard for any composer to match that achievement, and the Vienna operas Martin y Soler wrote with Da Ponte are surely less illustrious. But they are among his best. They include Una Cosa Rara and The Tree of Diana -- along with the opera featured here, Il Burbero di Buono Cuore (The Kind-Hearted Grouch).

As far as we can tell, Mozart never quoted Il Burbero in any of his own works. But he did do Martin y Soler's opera an even greater favor. Not long after it premiered, in 1786, Mozart was asked to write a couple of "replacement arias" for the score, both for the character Lucilla. He obliged. Not surprisingly, the numbers have stayed with the opera ever since.

By now, performances of Martin y Soler's operas are few and far between. But Il Burbero di Buon Cuore recently returned to the stage in a new production appearing at two great theaters in the composer's homeland, including the Teatro Real in Madrid.

On World of Opera host Lisa Simeone presents the opera in a performance from the historic Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. The stars are baritone Carlos Chausson in the title role, with soprano Elena de la Merced and tenor Paolo Fanale as young lovers desperate to find the softer side of their grumpy old uncle. The production is led by conductor Jordi Savall.