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Antônio Carlos GOMES (1836 – 1896)
Lo schiavo (1889)
Ilàra – Svetla Vassileva (soprano)
Américo – Massimiliano Pisapia (tenor)
Iberè – Andrea Borghini (baritone)
La contessa di Boissy – Elisa Balbo (soprano)
Gianferà – Daniele Terenzi (baritone)
Il conte Rodrigo / Goitacà – Dongho Kim (bass)
Guarûco – Marco Puggioni (tenor)
Tupinambà / Lion – Francesco Mudinu (baritone)
Tapacoà – Michelangelo Romero (tenor)
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Lirico di Cagliari/John Neschling
rec. 2019, Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, Italy
Italian libretto with English translation enclosed
DYNAMIC CDS7845.02 [63:27 + 68:50]

Antonio Carlos Gomes was born in Campinas in the state of São Paolo in Brazil. He studied for his father and in his early 20s he went to the Conservatory of Rio de Janeiro. He wrote his first two operas in Portuguese in 1861 and 1863 and the following year he won a scholarship to study in Milan in Italy. There he was quite successful and had his first opera to an Italian libretto staged at La Scala in 1870. It was titled Il Guarany and was met with great acclaim. This triggered him to write a number of further operas in Italian, though none could measure up with Il Guarany. When he returned to Brazil in 1880, to live part-time in his native country but still with a foot in Italy, he was hailed as the greatest living Brazilian composer. He nurtured a wish to write an opera about the slavery which was still legal in Brazil, and this wish was fulfilled in Lo schiavo (1889). The opera’s way to a worthy premiere was however thorny. European theatres were not interested and when at last it was accepted in Bologna in 1887 there were some disagreements between the composer and the librettist and the premiere was cancelled. It ended up with a premiere in Rio de Janeiro in September 1889, and then it turned out that slavery had been abolished in Brazil the previous year, so the political dynamite Gomes had hoped the opera to be, was reduced. It is still counted as one of the best of his operas, but it is Il Guarany that has remained his masterpiece. It was recorded by Sony some 25 years ago with Plácido Domingo and Verónica Villaroel in the leading roles and it was conducted by John Neschling, who all these years later returns to Gomes and conducts the first Italian performance of Lo schiavo, more than 130 years after the intended debut in Bologna. Teatro Lirico di Cagliari in Sardinia have not been afraid of staging works off the beaten track, and this is certainly a brave adventure.

Musically there is little that reveals Gomes’s Brazilian heritage, but since he spent his formative years in Italy that is no wonder. Verdi seems to have been an important influence, and Verdi himself expressed his admiration for Il Guarany, saying his work was an expression of "true musical genius", while Liszt said that “it displays dense technical maturity, full of harmonic and orchestral maturity.” Since neither of them had an opportunity to see and hear Lo schiavo, we can’t know how they would have reacted, but Liszt’s comment about “orchestral maturity” is certainly displayed in several places in this score, most obviously in the prelude to scene 4 of Act IV (CD 2 tr. 15), which is an almost impressionistic tonal painting of the Brazilian night and the approaching dawn. We hear distant sounds of trumpets, flocks of birds, a cuckoo repeats his two-note call and sundry other sounds until a mighty crescendo leads to a glorious sunrise. But there are many examples of inventive orchestration. The opening prelude (CD 1 tr. 1) is a pastoral idyll with a beautiful oboe solo, it grows to a fanfare like tutti, only to turn back to the pastoral atmosphere. The choral writing is also very effective with intensely dramatic mass scenes.

The action takes place in 1567, near Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. The land-owner Count Rodrigo’s cruel manager Gianfèra forces the slaves to work harder, especially the rebellious Iberè. The manager and the Count are preparing to arrange a wedding for Iberè and the slave-girl Ilàra to give them away to his brother. The Count’s son Américo, who is an army officer, arrives and feels compassion with Iberè and promises to help him. Américo is in love with Ilàra but his father sends him away to fight the rebellious natives. He speaks again to his beloved but has to leave and shortly after the two slaves are forced to marry.

The French Countess di Boissy has become fond of Américo but he is uninterested and only thinks of Ilàra. The Countess has decided to free all the slaves, including Ilàra and Iberè. When Américo learns about their wedding he is furious and feels he has been betrayed by the slave he had trusted. Count Rodrigo lets the two slaves leave and they flee into a great forest. Iberè wants to be closer with Ilàra but he doesn’t dare to. The natives’ uprising reaches the forest and Iberè, who is of royal blood, accepts to lead the uprising against the Portuguese. Ilàra fears that Américo might die if the natives attack Rodrigo’s estate.

The Portuguese fleet, just off the coast, is ready for war. The natives are suspicious of their leader Iberè, suspecting he will betray them, for Ilàra’s sake. Some of the rebels arrive with a prisoner. It is Américo. He had gone into the enemy camp to confront Iberè. In a heated dispute Iberè explains that he has done everything to protect Ilàra, he has not touched her, in respect to Américo, who had been his saviour. Now he lets Ilàra and Américo flee. He then stabs himself.

There are lots of strong feelings involved here, and they are expressed in both duets and ensembles and, not least, in expressive solos. The best known of the arias is, without doubt, Américo’s aria in Act II: Quando nascesti tu, preceded by the expressive recitative All’istante partir di qui vorrei (CD 1 tr. 18-19). It was memorably recorded by at least three famous tenors in the first half of the 20th century: Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. They are rather different. Caruso dark-toned and rather muscular, Gigli softer and more lyrical but with enough heft, Lauri-Volpi in the romanza caresses the melody a mezza voce so lovingly that it almost comes to a standstill. When I saw the name Massimiliano Pisapia in the cast list I had high expectations, having admired him enormously in a couple of reviews a dozen years ago. Alas, 12 years is a long time in a tenor’s life and here, recorded in the beginning of 2019, his voice has developed a beat that is close to a wobble and the tone is harder. He still, happily, retains his ability soften the tone and find nuances, and here in the romanza he is at his best. I only wish he had recorded the role five years earlier. The two sopranos are also willing to scale down their voices and sing softly. Svetla Vassileva as Ilàra has many good moments and at the opening of Act III she sings the aria O ciel di Parahyba (CD 2 tr. 2) beautifully. Her romanza Come serenamente (CD 2 tr. 17) is also excellently vocalised. But in many other places her vibrato becomes disturbingly wide and distorts the musical line. Elisa Balbo as the Countess has a bright high coloratura soprano that sometimes tends to be acidulous but she handles it with elegance, and in the duet with Américo (CD 1 tr. 17) where she laughs scornfully at him, the orchestra joins and laughs too.

Quite the best singing Andrea Borghini as Iberè accounts for. His is a classy baritone with power and expressivity but he can also muster great warmth, which he amply demonstrates in the third act’s duet scene with Ilàra and the following monologue (CD 2 tr. 4-5). He is also superb in the terzetto with Ilàra and Américo that ends the opera (CD 2 tr. 21-23). The bass Dongho Kim, who doubles as Count Rodrigo and Goitacà, is also a splendid singer. That John Neschling has the right feeling for this opera goes without saying. The quality of the sound is fully satisfactory and stage noise and applause are two factors we have to live with these days, when almost every opera recording is made at live performances. A truly valuable asset is Danilo Prefumo’s liner notes which, as usual with him, provide important historical background.

Everything in this recording may not be pure gold but there is enough of other precious metals – and some not so precious – to make this a worthwhile acquisition for readers with an inquisitive mind. And you can’t probably count on an alternative recording appearing in the foreseeable future.

Göran Forsling

Previous review (Blu-ray): Margarida Mota-Bull

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