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Ermanno WOLF-FERRARI (1876–1948)
Die vier Grobiane (The Four Ruffians) – musical comedy in three acts (1906)
Lucieta: Christina Landshamer (soprano); Marina: Susanne Bernhard (soprano); Felice: Christina Buffle (soprano): Margarita: Zoryana Kushpler (mezzo); Filipeto: Markus Francke (tenor); Maurizio: Victor von Halem (bass); Lunardo: Jürgen Linn (bass baritone); Cancian: Freidemann Rohlig (bass); Simon: Peter Schöne (baritone); Conte Riccardo: Uwe Eikötter (tenor); eine junge Magd: Nathalie Flessa (mezzo)
Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Ulf Schirmer
rec. live, 26 October 2014, Münchnen Prinzregententheater, Germany
Sung in German
Booklet includes notes and libretto in German with English translations
CPO 555 140-2 [58:10 + 71:54]

The only time I have encountered this opera was back in the 1980’s when I happened to hear a radio transmission of a production from the Munich National Theater of the original German version of the score featuring a young Cheryl Studer in the cast list. The Italian version, Il Quattro Rusteghi, waited until 1911 for its premiere. There has been one previous recording of that from the Rubicon label featuring The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Vassily Petrenko which I have yet to audition. This recording also stems from a live concert in Munich, so it obviously remains on the radar of the musical establishment there.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari described this work as a “Muikalisches Lustspiel” which translates to “musical comedy” but make no mistake, this is most definitely a full-sized opera. As a work of the theatre, it has a great deal in common with Verdi’s Falstaff. This is evident in the story, about a group of men plotting against their womenfolk and vice-versa regarding an arranged marriage.  It also has a Falstaff-like strong contribution from the orchestra as it bubbles zanily away under the action, making a constant commentary on what is happening onstage. However, where Falstaff has shadows and gravitas found in the ruined dignity of the ageing knight, here there is nothing but frothy fun and banter.

Wolf-Ferrari composed a score which is akin to a musical chocolate box as one delight after another is presented to us. It is tuneful but the melodies are often very fleeting - yet another similarity with Falstaff. At one point I could swear the composer makes a musical allusion to Mascagni’s Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana. His writing is brilliantly joyful where the orchestra is concerned; there are some delightful parts for the woodwind section, particularly the bassoons, which provide a wry commentary on the action.

The cast is uniformly excellent and they pay plenty of attention to characterization. Their personalities simply leap out of the speakers with an apparent spontaneity which is for me, the great pleasure of this recording. The microphones have been placed very close to them, which provides the benefit of allowing every nuance and inflection in their performances to register to the listener. At times I could wish the microphones were just a little more distant from the singers, as the one disadvantage is that occasionally the women come across as being shrill when they are singing in ensemble. Happily, this doesn’t occur in their solo passages.

Christina Landshamer is a vivacious Lucieta. Her big scene at the opening of Act Two is the closest thing to a full aria and she delivers it with wonderful spontaneity. Bass Jürgen Linn is a really dark sounding Lunardo who mines all of the comic riches that he can out of the score. Just the way he inflects the single word “Ja” is filled with comic brilliance. His scene with Bass Victor von Halem as Maurizio is one of the real highlights of the set. Markus Francke as Filipeto sings his brief romantic scene very sweetly. Susanne Bernhard is a luscious sounding Marina.

Ulf Schirmer directs his performers and the Munich radio orchestra in a performance that radiates his obvious love for this score. He underlines all of the comic touches perfectly. His handling of the chaotic ensemble of Act Two is truly accomplished. This is immediately followed by an even better over-the-top ensemble for the men [CD 2: track 4]. His work on this is his best performance on the commercial recordings I’ve heard from him thus far. The sound engineers have given a wonderfully clean sound from the live concert. The close positioning of the microphones has been given some prominent added reverberation to aid balancing the sound but this is not disturbing enough to get in the way of any real enjoyment. Audience applause at the end of the Acts is only bothersome in the sense that I felt they were sitting on their hands rather too much, as this wonderful cast deserved a far more enthusiastic response. This CPO release is going straight to the top of my list of recordings of the year.

Mike Parr

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