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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
I Masnadieri - Tragic melodrama in four acts (1847)
Massimiliano, reigning Count of Moor - Giacomo Prestia (bass); Carlo, his elder son - Aquiles Machado - (tenor); Francesco, his younger son - Artur Rucinski (baritone); Amalia, an orphan, the Count’s niece - Lucrecia Garcia (soprano); Armino, steward to the Count’s family - Walter Omaggio (tenor); Moser, a priest - Dario Russo (bass); Rollo, a companion of Carlo - Massimiliano Chiarolla (tenor)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples/Nicola Luisotti
Directed by Gabriele Lavia
Set Designer: Alessandro Camera
Costume Designer: Andrea Viotti
Video Director: Annalisa Butto
rec. Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, March 2012
Sound Format: DTS-HD MA 5.1; PCM Stereo
Filmed in HD 1080i. Aspect ratio: 16:9
Booklet languages: English, German, French
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese
Also available on DVD
C MAJOR 722304 [124:00 + 11:00]

When it was announced that C Major, in association with Unitel Classics, were to record performances of all twenty-six of Verdi’s operas my heart leapt in anticipation. I understood that these recordings were to be in association with the Teatro Regio in Parma and its annual Verdi Festival. In my mind this meant staged performances, as has been the case with the first tranche of eight issues in this largely sequential Tutto Verdi series, all now reviewed on this site. The delayed issue of Verdi’s rarely done eighth opera, Alzira, brought a significant disappointment in that it was only a semi-staged concert performance! The present performance of I Masnadieri, is, like Alzira, claimed as a world premiere video recording. It also brings another change of venue, theTeatro San Carlo atNaples,the first time the work had been performed in that theatre since 1849.
 
Five days after the premiere of Attila on 17 March 1846 Verdi was expected to travel to London to write an opera for the impresario Benjamin Lumley. This was to be produced at Her Majesty’s Theatre. None of Rossini, Bellini or Donizetti had composed an opera for London. However, instead of travelling to England Verdi returned to Milan in a state of collapse. His doctors forbade travel and ordered six months complete rest with no thought of composing or future commitments. Although physically strong, Verdi’s psyche was unable to sustain the demands made on composers by the Italian theatres in the way his illustrious predecessors had.
 
For the first few months of his enforced rest Verdi did as instructed by his doctors whilst being cared for by his pupil and amanuensis Emmanuele Muzio. Whilst taking the waters at Recoaro in July, his friend Andrea Maffei was a visitor. A man of letters and translator of Shakespeare and Schiller, Maffei set Verdi’s mind on Byron’s play The Corsair, which the composer had earlier discussed with Lucca as the subject for his London opera. However, Verdi’s mind was divided between an opera based on Schiller’s Die Raüber, which became I Masnadieri, and Macbeth after on his beloved Shakespeare. Verdi, knowing he would have the baritone Varesi available in Florence whom he considered ideal in temperament and appearance for the title role of the latter, decided on Macbeth forFlorence.
 
Whilst in Milan composing Macbeth, Verdi was visited by Lumley. They agreed that the London opera would be I Masnadieri with the libretto by his friend Andrea Maffei. Verdi travelled to London via Paris with the vocal score already finished. He sent Muzio ahead to London while he stayed briefly in Paris seeing his friend Giuseppina Strepponi who lived and taught there. He arrived in London on 7 June 1847. Verdi found the fog and rain of the English capital a trial. He worked hard on the orchestration, even declining an invitation to meet Queen Victoria. It was by her command, however, that the opera had its premiere on 22 July as Parliament went on vacation. In a house comprising royalty and aristocracy the opera was received with enthusiasm. The critics were less kind to the first Italian composer of the 19th century to write a work for London.
 
Lumley had gathered together a fine cast including Jenny Lind, known as the Swedish Nightingale. For the first time in her life she was to create a role specially written for her. Verdi was impressed by her personality but less so by her singing with her inclination to show off her technique in fioritura and trills. Significantly, Verdi left the cadenzas to her invention. She expected to derive her own and they remained her property. Mindful of Jenny Lind’s vocal qualities and limitations, Verdi’s writing of the role of Amalia keeps to the middle and upper soprano reaches, much as does Gilda in Rigoletto. There are obvious situations in the story when a voice with a lower middle register could have given more dramatic bite if the music composed specifically for Lind had allowed it. Verdi conducted the premiere and second performance. Michael Balfe, friend of Rossini and composer of The Bohemian Girl and Maid of Artois, took over as Verdi left for Paris.

I Masnadieri has never enjoyed the popularity of Attila although the structure is very similar being one of scenes with double arias, cabalettas and ensembles along with significant chorus involvement. As an opera it was too complex for a fill-in work for an Italian theatre during a season and didn’t have the Risorgimento feel to make it popular there. Given the sparseness of stage performances, I have only ever managed to see it once, over forty years ago by the Welsh National Opera in a near empty theatre. According to the introductory bonus it comes eighteenth out of twenty-six in terms of performances of Verdi’s operas. It is surprising the work has had two studio audio recordings. Recorded in London in 1974 the Philips (422 423) issue has an outstanding trio of male principals in Carlo Bergonzi, Pierro Cappuccilli and Ruggero Raimondi with Montserrat Caballé in the Jenny Lind role of Amalia. Although Caballé had recorded the lyrico spinto role of Aida a month before in London, with Muti on the rostrum, she had the capacity to fine down her voice for the lighter role of Amalia. Caballé was also the queen of the sotto voce pianissimo and coloratura floated on a wisp of breath. What Caballé didn’t have, but Sutherland did, was a trill to die for. Whether because of that skill, or the London connection, Decca recorded the role with their diva. Her supporting cast of Franco Bonisolli, Mateo Manuguerra and Sam Ramey are no rival to their Philips counterparts. Nor is Bonynge as natural a Verdian as Gardelli (Decca 433 854). Sonically both recordings are of a high quality with the Decca being DDD.
 
Although Queen Victoria’s appreciation of I Masnadieri was limited, impresario Lumley was sufficiently impressed to invite Verdi to become Musical Director of Her Majesty’s Theatre. This would involve him in writing one opera each year and conducting the others in the season. The proposed contract was to be for ten years. Like the London climate this proposal did not appeal to Verdi who suggested a three-year deal at ninety thousand francs per season. Although Lumley suggested discussing things further when he visited Italy, the matter did not proceed.
 
The story tells of the Count of Moor, Massimiliano, having become estranged from his elder son, Carlo, and yearns for his return to the fold. Both his sons love the same woman and the younger, Francesco, plots to stop the return of his brother and thus claim the woman concerned. He also covets his father’s title and having convinced his father of the death of Carlo, at which the father faints, he quickly has him buried as dead. Meanwhile Carlo despairing of not being welcomed back into the familial fold agrees to lead a gang of robbers. He is particularly ashamed of this role and when the inevitable dénouement comes about he takes drastic action.
 
The set is representational rather than realistic. Trees are long vertical poles. As to the floor I could not quite make it out, nor the line or banks of lights set mid-stage and pointing to the audience. There were times when I suspected projections on the back wall but the video director was intent on mid-range centre-stage activity.
 
The costumes in this performance at the San Carlo in Naples are updated to around the 1950s. It is hardly surprising then that the robbers are Mafiosi with the wearing of a trilby hat, or some form of bowler hat, and shades, seemingde rigueur. The long coats do have the advantage of disguising the lack of physical stature of Aquiles Machado as Carlo. What the costume cannot disguise is the lack of suitability of his essentially lyric tenor for a role that verges on spinto. The casting of the beefy tenor tones of an older Bergonzi, and the can-belto Bonisolli in the CD versions is no mistake. Machado just does not have the vocal heft for the top notes and the voice exhibits a distinctly unpleasant beat at forte. This is evident in Carlo’s first cabaletta (CH. 5) and subsequently (CH.43). At other times he softens his efforts at a stronger tone and his singing is well phrased. With discreet microphones attached I would have thought his forcing of his voice beyond its natural and comfortable limits could have been avoided. As his younger brother, the bitter and twisted Francesco, is given a body with its twisted spine and crippled leg that would better fit the eponymous Rigoletto (CH.6). In the role Artur Rucinski sings strongly, but without much variation of tone or colour, seriously limiting his characterisation (CHs.6-9). As the old Count Moor Giacomo Prestia acts well, and if not in the premier league of basses is more than adequate. This is more than can be said of the comprimario tenore role of Armino, who spills the beans to Amalia about Massimiliano and Carlo being alive. The brief basso comprimario role of pastor Moser is sung with promise by Dario Russo (CHs.41-42). 
 
What strengths the performance has come from the playing of the orchestra under Nicola Luisotti and the singing and acted portrayal of Amalia by Lucrecia Garcia. She is no Gilda, having a full warm-toned, but flexible, voice. She acts well and her tonal variety, legato and vocal characterisation are particularly welcome. This is not least in her opening cavatina with its memories of Ernani involami from the opening act of Verdi’sfifth opera (CHs10-11).
 
Musically the work is very patchy and does not attain the inventiveness or quality of its two predecessors, Attila and Macbeth. As I have already indicated I Masnadieri has never enjoyed their popularity or even that of Ernani, the latter also a story about outlaws. Although the musical structure is very similar to Attila with double arias, cabalettas and ensembles, there are also moments of greater creative maturity from Verdi such as in the quartet (CH.15) and elsewhere. In reality the work deserves its dismal place in the composer’s oeuvre and the paucity of productions. That being said, Verdi can at times move musical souls with a melody or a stirring chorus. In performance terms the chorus of the San Carlo is beaten hands down by their compatriots at Parma as the robbers here sing about pillage, rape and wave their pistols (CH.32).
 
Robert J Farr 




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