Opera album review: an Italian comic opera or is it a German opera? You decide
By Ralph P. Locke
Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s delicious opéra-comique from 1906 via the first recording of the version heard during the creation of the work.
Christina Landshamer (soprano), Zoryana Kushpler (mezzo-soprano), Jürgen Linn (bass-baritone), Victor von Halem (bass), Susanne Bernhard (soprano), Nathalie Flessa (mezzo-soprano), Markus Francke (tenor), Peter Schöne (baritone), Christine Buffle (soprano), Uwe Eikötter (tenor), Friedemann Röhlig (bass).
Munich Radio Orchestra, dir. Ulf Schirmer.
DPC 555140-2 [2 CDs] 130 minutes.
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In the September / October 2018 issue of Guide to American Records, I saw a good new recording of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s delicious comic opera I quatro rusteghi (more or less: The Four Curmudgeons or maybe, The four stubborn dads), directed by Vasily Petrenko. The work received its first performance in 1906 in Munich in German translation (titled Die vier grobiane) and was only heard in the Italian original eight years later, in Milan. (To be more precise, the Italian words that the characters sing are mostly in Venetian dialect.)
This recording is the very first of the work in German and therefore its own kind of world premiere, arriving more than a century after the real world premiere, which as I said was in German! Better yet, the singers are almost all native German speakers, and the result once again demonstrates a point I made here at The fuse of the arts on the benefits of performing opera in a language singers have known all their lives. (See my observations on the colorful of Pietro Mascagni I Rantzau. August enna Cleopatra – a major Danish work from 1894 – and Naga by Scott Wheeler of Emerson College,)
Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1946) is a fascinating composer: he was born in Venice to a German father and an Italian mother, studied in both countries and later was active in both. Two other operas of his own, Il segreto di Susanna and Smart, were treated to beautiful recordings featuring major singers such as Renata Scotto and José Carreras.
The booklet of Rusteghi (Grobiane) is loosely based on a 1760 comedy by Carlo Goldoni. The plot is based on the insistence of four fathers that a young couple should marry only if, according to local tradition, the two individuals do not. not get to know each other before the wedding ceremony. Each of the roles is important, which makes it a bit like Mozart’s Così fan tutte, but with eleven characters instead of six.
The music is melodious, harmoniously harmonious and beautifully orchestrated, as record collectors know from a few orchestral extracts that have often been recorded – notably the intermezzo (i.e. the prelude) before Act 2 If you are wondering what Italian opera in Puccini’s day could be like without a mixture of intensity of verism, here is a good answer. The work is extremely attractive and calm, not least in its conscious evocation of stylistic elements from the operetta and opera of Mozart’s time. This time around, however, I couldn’t help but remember (because of the German words) Mahler’s sunnier moods, like at the start of Act 1, Scene 4.
Wolf-Ferrari’s skill in differentiating between characters and their changing moods is particularly delightful, from devious and suspicious to grandiose or elated. The main “father” character (Lunardo) tends to repeat a word or phrase over and over, as if he is comically spitting out in annoyance.
There is also a lot of unison chanting and fun chords for fathers or other character groups (act 1, scene 8). Passages suggest that Wolf-Ferrari was very familiar with the Falstaff and was perhaps also inspired by the work of Wagner Die Meistersinger, a job that was very successful in Italy in translation (see my review of a superb performance on Italian radio). The famous “Grossvater-Tanz” (used by Schumann and Tchaikovsky) is cited prominently at the end of Acts 2 and 3. (This is not mentioned in the written discussions of the opera that I have consulted.)
The orchestra also has a few chances to shine, as in the aforementioned Intermezzo, which is based on a traditional ballad sung by Marina in Act 1, Scene 5, which looks a bit like the tune from “Carnival of Venice” (aka “My Hat It Has Three coins”). The scene-changing music that precedes Marina’s ballad provides a refreshing and expansive moment in a work that otherwise speaks to us (quite amusing) almost without pause. And often, in the main stages of the opera, the orchestra – a bassoon, the brass section, etc. – comments on a character’s most recent statement.
The singers here are quite as professional and even sometimes as eloquent as those on previous recordings (in Italian language), and, since most of them are native German speakers, they have no problem matching, in their own way, the lyrics and theatrical vigilance of the all-Italian cast on Alfredo Simonetto’s wonderful old (mono) recording from 1951 with Fernando Corena. The eleven heard here deserve to be named, as well as their roles in the opera’s plot: Jürgen Linn, Zoryana Kushpler and Christine Landshamer as a couple of parents and their daughter; Susanne Bernhard, Peter Schöne and Markus Francke as another couple of parents and their son (the two young people eventually realize that they love each other and get married); and, like other passers-by, Christine Buffle, Nathalie Flessa, Uwe Eikötter, Victor von Halem (a bass veteran whom I saw almost fifty years ago as a superb Osmin in Mozart’s work Die Entführung aus dem Serail) and Friedemann Röhlig.
I have to express special appreciation for Landshamer and Francke, compact and eloquent like the two young lovers and Linn and von Halem, both of whom have voices that ripen down instead of going gritty. Such basses and baritones are currently rare in the opera world (as Conrad L. Osborne rightly points out in his recent book Opera like opera (see my opinion in The Boston Musical Intelligencer). Von Halem was 74 when the recording was made, but sounds as firm and clear as all the others. Very impressive! During his long career, has he taken care not to take on roles that are too heavy and not to sing in rooms that are too large?
The recording comes from performances in 2014, when Ulf Schirmer, the first-rate conductor, was artistic director of the Munich Radio Orchestra (superbly responsive here). The performances took place in the acoustically beautiful Prinzregenten theater and, according to the auditory evidence, were not staged: the singers all sound as if they are standing next to each other without to move. As a result, rapid exchanges are always clearly audible. The microphones pick up a few moments of silent laughter from the well-behaved audience. Applause only at the end of the acts (as has long been the general practice in German operas).
I quatro rusteghi (not quattro – the spelling is Venetian) has had several recordings, several of which have sometimes been available on CD. The aforementioned recent recording of Petrenko has many strengths: excellent vocal mastery from all the singers, a beautiful orchestra and a rich and clear recorded sound. Yet the strongly international cast gives the impression of having been well trained in a delicate and fast Italian / Venetian text which is however not quite native to most of them.
The new recording, despite the strangeness of being sung in German, is perhaps the most practical way to experience, in modern and refined sound, this beautifully crafted and rarely staged comic opera. More usefully, the libretto is printed in German and good English, while the Petrenko recording provided the Italian / Venetian libretto but, in English, only prose summaries of each scene.
The booklet includes (in addition to the booklet) a nice essay and a synopsis. These are translated a bit more rigidly than the libretto, but you’ll understand.
To get an idea of the vitality of this work when sung by Italians, I urge opera lovers to listen to its aforementioned first recording (1951), conducted by Alfredo Simonetto. It’s currently on YouTube but deserves a CD release, with a printed and translated booklet. For current needs, you could even buy the new recording for its great merits. and also use his translated booklet to help you follow Simonetto’s recording. (Those who subscribe to the Naxos Music Library can download the booklet for free.)
Nonetheless, I am delighted that I got to know this amazing light opera now in a second language (German) and would love to hear it in a third: English. Edward J. Dent’s “wonderfully witty translation” under the title The fathers school, was a “smash hit” in London in 1946 (according to OxfordMusicOnline). I think the work, with its many roles, none of which are extremely demanding, would be natural for a high-level conservatory or university music school.
Ralph P. Locke is Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. Six of his articles won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Excellence in Writing to Music. His last two books are Musical exoticism: images and reflections and Music and the exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in pocket size; the second, also in the form of an electronic book. Ralph Locke also contributes to Guide to American Records and online art magazines New York arts, Opera today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have been published in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary) and in the programs of major opera houses, for example, Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). This review first appeared in Guide to American Records and appears here courtesy.