Not as unique as the World-Hero-worshiping Romantic musicologists had us believing, a generation ago. The revival, in Europe of course, in recent decades of operas by Salieri, Haydn, Paisiello, Hasse, François-André Danican Philidor, and other 18th C composers has demonstrated conclusively how much Mozart wrote in a widely current musical idiom, and how freely he borrowed from others of his milieu. Borrowing and imitating were scarcely unpardonable practices before the mid-19th C; think how much of every Rossini opera is recycled or plagiarized. But our Amadeus was, as we will see in a bit, something of a copy-cat even in his greatest works.
Vicente Martín y Soler (1754-1806) was probably more widely-known and certainly more popularly successful than Mozart (1758-1791) during their contemporaneous careers. The opera on this DVD, L'arbore di Diana, was an immediate and sustained 'hit', receiving at least forty full production all across Europe. Martín y Soler had traveled from Naples to Vienna in 1785, in expectation of composing an opera for the wedding Maria Theresa! L'arbore di Diana is based very loosely on the ill-defined Hellenic myth of Endymion, a beautiful shepherd lad who fell in love with the Moon Diana; in some accounts, Endymion was 'rewarded' by Zeus with eternal sleep, during which he would lose none of his beauty forever. That's not the conclusion of the libretto of L'arbore di Diana; with the meddling of Cupid, Diana is smitten with Love, Endymion gets his Goddess, and her chaste nymphs discover lascivious bliss with the shepherds Doristo and Silvio.
The librettist for all three operas Martín y Soler composed in Vienna was the sly Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838), whose knowledge of things lascivious was well cultivated. Da Ponte was born Jewish, became a Catholic priest in Venice, fathered a child with his mistress there, left the priesthood and operated a brothel until finding his niche in Vienna as a librettist. In all, he wrote 28 opera librettos for many of the greatest composers of the era, though L'arbore di Diana was one of only two that were not 'adaptations' of older works of literature. Da Ponte was a manic writer; he worked on three librettos simultaneously in 1787: L'arbore di Diana for Martín y Soler, Tarar for Salieri, and Don Giovanni for Mozart! Not bad for a mountebank! Da Ponte, by the way, regarded L'arbore di Diana as the finest of the completed operas. Mozart paid him the comic tribute of including his waltz from Una Cosa Rara in the banquet scene of Act 2 of Don Giovanni.
When Mozart and his later librettist Emanuel Schikaneder put together their Singspiel "Die Zauberflöte - The Magic Flute" in 1791, they had an obvious model - L'arbore di Diana - the success of which they plainly hoped to match. The 'borrowings' are astounding. The Goddess of the Moon is the prototype for the Queen of the Night, both in dramatic and in musical development. Three Nymphs find a confused male on stage at the beginning of L'arbore, just as the Three Ladies find and rescue Tamino in The Magic Flute. The shepherd Doristo prefigures Papageno, and Cupid, though a hugely comical figure, is as much the philosophical spokesman of L'arbore as Zarastro is of Magic Flute. In fact, there are so many borrowings from L'arbore di Diana in The Magic Flute that modern Hollywood would perhaps bill the latter as a 'remake' of the former.
So ... If you love The Magic Flute, I predict that you'll be thrilled by L'arbore di Diana. It's almost as zany, it's a good deal more coherent as a story, and it's extremely rich musically, with arias, duets, and Rossini-pointing ensembles that can stand up to a comparison with Mozart, and that are more artfully composed than anything I've heard so far from the operas of Salieri or Paisiello. I'd go so far as saying that L'arbore di Diana is a major re-discovery, one of the most entertaining comic operas of the classical era.
And this is an extremely able production, well acted and choreographed and marvelously sung. 'Amore' is a role made on Olympus for countertenor Michael Maniaci, with his absurd body and his divine voice. Laura Aiken is lustrous as the Moon; her three nymphs are gorgeous and sing gorgeously to boot. Baritone Marco Vinco performs the role of Doristo with rascally insouciance and powerful vocal technique. Perhaps the most outstanding voice is that of Steve Davislim as Endymion; that role has the most eloquent arias, and Davislim has the 'squillo' of the best Italian tenors of the bel canto.
Harry Bicket conducted the orchestra of the Gran teatre del Liceu in Barcelona in October, 2009, and I wish I'd been there.