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Ermanno WOLF-FERRARI (1876-1948)
Sly (1927)
Sly – Hans-Dieter Bader (tenor)
Dolly – Deborah Polaski (soprano)
Der Graf – Klaus-Michael Reeh (baritone)
Mohr – Dantes Diwiak (tenor)
Indianer – William Forney (tenor)
Alter Diener – Sanders Schier
Chinese – Gilbert Dubuc (baritone)
Artz/Ein Freund des Grafen – Barr Peterson (bass)
Musiker – Hans Sojer (tenor)
John Plake – Siegfried Haertel (bass baritone)
Snare/Ein Freund des Grafen – Wolfram Bach
Die Wirtin – Gertraud Wagner (mezzo soprano)
Ein Freund des Grafen – Leonard Delany
Rosalina – Monika Frimmer (soprano)
Choir and Orchestra of the Niedersächsischen State Opera, Hannover/Robert Maxym
Recorded at the Niedersächsischen State Theatre, Hannover, November 1982
ARTS 47549-2 [63.30 + 46.24]
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There’s no real reason why Sly shouldn’t work well on stage. It embodies aspects of buffa and of verismo with elements of Puccinian and to a lesser extent Wagnerian scoring; there are boisterous tavern scenes, love interest, subtle orchestral writing and idiomatic scoring for the voice. The deepening tragedy – unusual in Wolf-Ferrari’s work and unguessable from the opening crowd scenes – could well be successfully and convincingly explored. But problems of dramaturgy apart there are certainly weaknesses – of plot structure, psychological depth, and consistency of musical inspiration.

Christopher Sly – the Sly of the title – a convivial and boisterous pub drunk (the scene is a London alehouse as we start) is tricked by his aristocratic superiors into believing himself to be the Earl and the Earl and his entourage to be Sly’s servants. A woman sent to deceive him, pretending to be his wife, falls in love with him – in time honoured accelerated-time operatic way – and Sly, bewildered, humiliated and betrayed slashes his wrists with a bottle, a suitably histrionic way for an alcoholic to sever his ties. The woman, Dolly, curses the aristocrats and the opera ends in bitterness and death.

Written in 1927 the influence of Puccini is palpable; one can hear it in the opening crowd scenes where the hints of verismo first appear. There are also folk tunes woven into the tapestry and all the trappings of the aristocratic heavies in the fanfare arrival of the Earl and his bored, sadistic entourage. Sly’s entrance is cunningly delayed, rousing expectation and heightening theatrical tension. There’s certainly force to the Italianate and deeply lyric scene Bear Scene and the drunken scene are carried in this recording with conviction and verisimilitude - Hans-Dieter Bader proving a magnetic presence as Sly . The implacable slumming of the Earl (the Graf in this production) is equally well delineated and the scored is highlit with little memorable moments – the intimate string writing of Oh wie sie duftet and the "sleep" music.

There’s a touch of Wagner at the start of the Second Act and much ceremonial dancing music tinged with parody and a rapturous love duet (faked by Dolly). It’s true that a lot of this is stagy in the extreme; the hammy music for the Earl in the second scene of the second Act for instance (Oh Sly, wo steckst du) but against that there are moments when Wolf-Ferrari thins his forces to merest whispers and cushions the action with intermezzi of quartet-like intimacy. The central focus of the second part of the opera is the Boris-like death of Sly, anguished and truly verismo, with the tune of All Thro the Night running beneath the vocal line.

Performances are more than polished and fully engaged. Bader and Polaski bear most of the vocal burden and they do so with considerable power. There’s a rival on Koch, with Carreras, Isabelle Kabatu and Sherrill Milnes, recorded in Barcelona under David Giménez which I’ve not heard but which seems to have been slightly cut if one can judge by the timings. Against that this Arts production is sung in German. This Arts recording has a good booklet with a German-only libretto. Brittle and brutal though it may ultimately be it’s certainly worth your occasional acquaintance.

Jonathan Woolf


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