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Antônio Carlos GOMES (1836-1896)
Lo Schiavo – Dramma lirico in four acts
Libretto by Rodolfo Paravicini from the draft by Alfredo d’Escragnolle Taunay
Ilàra – Svetla Vassileva (soprano)
Américo – Massimiliano Pisapia (tenor)
Iberè – Andrea Borghini (baritone)
La contessa di Boissy – Elisa Balbo (soprano)
Gianfèra – Daniele Terenzi (baritone)
Il conte Rodrigo/Goitacà – Dongho Kim (bass)
Guarûco – Marco Puggioni (tenor)
Tupinambà/Lion – Francesco Musinu (baritone)
Tapacoà – Michelangelo Romero (tenor)
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Lirico di Cagliari/John Neschling
Davide Garattini Raimondi (director), Tiziano Santi (set design), Domenico Franchi (costume design), Alessandro Verazzi (light design), Luigia Frattaroli (choreography)
Video directed by Tiziano Mancini
rec. live, 27 February-1 March 2019, Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy
Picture Format: 1080i - High Definition - 16.9 - All Regions
Sound formats: PCM Stereo/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
DYNAMIC Blu-ray 57845 [138 mins]

Antônio Carlos Gomes was a Brazilian composer of considerable talent who wrote many operas in a style similar to that of Verdi’s mid-period. Gomes was one of many children by Maestro Manuel José Gomes and Fabiana Maria Cardoso. His first teachers were his father and one of his older brothers, José Pedro de Sant'Ana Gomes, also a conductor. Antônio Carlos visited the court at the insistence of José Pedro and became a protégé of Emperor Dom Pedro II who was very interested in promoting the careers of Brazilian artists abroad and who enabled Antônio Carlos to study first at the Rio de Janeiro Musical Conservatoire and later in Milan, Italy. The city and the country turned into Gomes’s second home and he nearly became a permanent resident. Gomes was successful and revered both in Brazil and in Italy (where apparently Verdi declared him a genius). His first two operas A noite do castelo (1861) – based on the romantic poem by Portuguese poet António Feliciano de Castilho – and Joana de Flandres (1863) were a success. He subsequently composed various operas and operettas all in a thoroughly Italian style and using the Italian language, which won him acclaim as a worthy follower of Donizetti and Verdi. I must admit I find it a shame that he didn’t compose to libretti in Portuguese – a soft musical language – which, given the topics of the plots, would arguably be more suitable than Italian. Gomes’s greatest success, both in Italy and Brazil, was O Guarani, based on the beautiful novel of the same name by Brazilian author José de Alencar. This is by the way the only opera I knew from the pen of Antônio Carlos Gomes, before receiving the present recording of Lo Schiavo. I have never seen The Guarany on stage but have heard it several times in a rare, rather enjoyable recording of the Oper der Stadt Bonn, in 1994, on the Sony label, conducted by John Neschling (incidentally the same conductor of the performance in the present Blu-ray of Lo Schiavo), with Plácido Domingo, Verónica Villarroel and Carlos Alvarez in the leading roles, plus the Beethovenhalle Orchestra and the Bonn Opera Chorus.

Gomes’s music is sadly almost forgotten outside of Brazil where his operas still enjoy success and various stagings. Personally, I think it’s a real shame so when given the chance of watching the Blu-ray of a rarity, such as Lo Schiavo, which I had never seen or heard before, I simply jumped at the opportunity.

Lo Schiavo had a convoluted history before it came to exist. In 1880, when Gomes returned to Italy, the composer had a draft of a booklet that dealt with slavery in Brazil, written by his friend, the viscount of Taunay, the lead abolitionist in the country. However, the draft was not accepted by the Italian librettist and translator Rodolfo Paravicini. To satisfy the conventions of melodrama of the time, changes had to be made to what Taunay had written. Paravicini moved the date in which the work was set by more than two centuries, meaning from 1801 to 1567; then changed the main characters from blacks to Indians. So, the original black slaves Ricardo and Analia turned into the Indians Iberè and Ilàra, and the Portuguese noblewoman into a French countess. The librettist was also against the inclusion of a hymn to freedom. He and Gomes had to go to court to solve the problem but the Italian justice favoured the Italian man. The work should have been performed in Bologna in 1887 but was removed from the programme. Additionally, there were even greater delays caused by two competing publishers: Lucca , Gomes’s publisher, and the famous Ricordi; each wanting to be the publisher and see the work staged at La Scala. Tired of it, the composer took the opera to Rio de Janeiro where it was finally premiered in 1889. By that time slavery had already been abolished in Brazil and so the emotional and political impact of the work was diminished. Nevertheless, Lo Schiavo was a success in Gomes’s native country but not in Europe. Gomes died a few years later in September 1896.

After Paravicini’s changes, the plot is still vaguely connected with the abolition of slavery but not in the way Gomes and Taunay had originally intended. It focuses on the friendship between a young Portuguese nobleman, Américo, and a native, Iberè (the slave of the title). Américo is in love with an Indian girl, Ilàra, who also loves him. She is forced to marry Iberè (the slave) while a French Countess is attempting to seduce the young Portuguese man. The natives revolt and the slave Iberè, who is the son of a native King, becomes their natural leader. The ending isn’t totally tragic but is far from happy – Américo and Iberè reconcile and the latter releases Ilàra into Américo’s care. The lovers flee to a better life and Iberè commits suicide.

The present Blu-ray is a live recording of Lo Schiavo, which has finally been premiered in Italy, a mere one hundred and thirty two years later than originally planned, alas not in Bologna but in Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia. The version staged in Cagliari and presented on this disc is nearly unabridged though the ballet was apparently cut, as Cagliari’s Teatro Lirico does not have a corps de ballet. The production is a period staging with the Europeans in the fashion of the 16th Century and the Indians with elaborate head-dressings made of leaves and other elements from the world around them, as well as face painting. Gomes’s music contains some insubstantial folk elements of his native Brazil but in a stylised version arguably meant to appeal to the 19th Century idea of the “noble savage”. As to the music being Brazilian, it really is not. It is instead excellent Italian opera with Brazilian plots and, as Amanda Holden states in The New Penguin Opera Guide (2001 edition) about Il Guarany: ‘As there are no quotations from authentic Indian sources, local atmosphere is achieved entirely artificially; the opera is only as Brazilian as Verdi’s Aida is Egyptian.’ To my mind this could also be said of Lo Schiavo though to a less extent, as the opera contains a rather good imitation of natural sounds in the prelude to Act IV for example. In Il Guarany as in Lo Schiavo, the social insights of the operas are I think more important than their musical content. Having said that, I do believe Gomes’s operas are musically extremely well-crafted and he was a talented composer whose work does not deserve to be forgotten in Europe. The music of Lo Schiavo is arguably the very best he ever wrote and his masterpiece. I’ve heard and seen it for the first time with this Blu-ray and, from a musical perspective, I found it superior to Il Guarany. It contains many memorable moments, especially Américo’s aria in Act II and Ilàra’s at the beginning of Act III, to name just two pieces. Both operas are to my mind a bit let down by the libretti. Il Guarany because it’s nearly impossible to adapt a novel such as José de Alencar wrote into text for opera, especially into Italian, as the lyrical beauty of Alencar’s language is completely lost. In Lo Schiavo the language is less important, however, the changing of the original story probably didn’t work out in favour of the final work. I guess we’ll never know.

The cast in the present Blu-ray of Lo Schiavo is completely unknown to me. The ones who impressed me most were bass Dongho Kim as Count Rodrigo (Américo’s father) – with his powerful, sonorous bass and majestic stage presence – and baritone Andrea Borghini who sings Iberè, the slave of the title. His tone is irresistibly warm and melodic. His voice has a good baritone range and he seems at ease in both the up and low registers, as well as in the middle range where his sound is particularly touching. He projects exceptionally well and is a good actor, creating a believable noble character, moving and with integrity. The two female leads – Svetla Vassileva as Ilàra, the Indian girl and Américo’s love interest; and Elisa Balbo as the French countess – are both exceptionally good, with solid, secure high notes and an assured middle range even though, on a couple of rare occasions, both tended to be a little shrill in one or two of the highest notes. Nevertheless, they both deliver satisfying performances. Tenor Massimiliano Pisapia sings the role of Américo, a part that was apparently loved and extremely well sung by none less than Enrico Caruso. He probably isn’t at Caruso’s level (though I’ve never heard Caruso sing, as he lived long before I was born), still Pisapia has a solid middle range and an impressive tessitura, projects well and delivers some notable, if not memorable, high Cs. As an actor I found him less convincing than as a singer and I didn’t think him believable as the young Américo in love with Ilàra and even less that she is in love with him. Having said that, Américo is not an easy part and Pisapia does it in an agreeable, positive manner. The rest of the cast in the other smaller roles are all skilful singers and deliver accomplished performances. The orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari are outstanding throughout and deliver a work, which they are not familiar with, admirably. In fact, for me personally the chorus and the orchestra were what I most enjoyed in this recording. As mentioned earlier, John Neschling (a Brazilian conductor of Austrian origin) conducts. He has outstanding knowledge of Gomes’s works and leads orchestra, chorus and soloists in an excellent performance where he effectively underlines the themes of the music and supports the singers.

As for the production, there is much to enjoy. Tiziano Santi’s attractive settings recreate efficaciously on stage the forests and colonial homes of the Brazil of the time and are well supported by Alessandro Verazzi’s excellent lighting design that gives us some lovely dawns and sunsets, as well as effectively creating the slightly dark green light of the forests. Domenico Franchi’s handsome costumes are in period thus contributing for the historical atmosphere of the production. David Garattini Raimondi’s direction is traditional but effective and appropriate for a period piece. The overall impression is rather favourable and pleasant. The filming of this co-production with the Festival Amazonas de Ópera de Manaus of Lo Schiavo is well directed by Tiziano Mancini, making for an agreeable two hours and a bit of opera on TV.

Whether the recording of this production of a largely forgotten work by Gomes will contribute to a revival of his operas is debatable. Personally, I think the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari was brave and should be commended for bringing to the public a nearly unknown opera from a composer relatively obscure in Europe. I enjoyed this Blu-ray immensely and will return to it a few times. If nothing else this recording is bringing to our attention a rarely performed work in Europe, staged in a little known theatre outside of Italy, written by a composer many of us have never heard of and this, to my mind, is always laudable. Gomes deserves to be better known and his works performed more often. Opera lovers will be thrilled with this recording of Lo Schiavo and I for one hope that it will prompt many to discover other worthy pieces that Gomes composed.

Margarida Mota-Bull
Margarida writes more than just reviews, check it online at http://www.flowingprose.com/



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