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Ermanno WOLF-FERRARI (1876-1948)

José Carreras (ten), Isabelle Kabatu (sop) & Sherrill Milnes (bar)/Barcelona Liceu Choir & Orchestra/David Giménez.
KOCH-SCHWANN 364492 [114 mins]
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New to me, but not to the CD catalogues, this opera is another variant upon those many stories that depend upon elaborate practical jokes, the audience sharing the fun of knowing what is happening to the victim, in complicity with the perpetrators. The best known is Falstaff, his story of easy gullibility set most famously by Verdi, with any unease finally assuaged by Falstaff's own willingness at the end to see the joke and lead the fugal finale, and also by Salieri.

Another example of the genre is Cosi fan Tutte, which ends in an equivocal, disturbing vein capable of numerous interpretations. See and

Wolf-Ferrari's Sly is quite other. The emphasis is on savage, cruel fun, taking advantage of a hapless drunk anti-hero, which we may share at first with misgivings and initial doubts, before it turns to a tragic denouement in which our feelings are fully engaged with José Carreras, as his humiliation leads to tragedy and a typical operatic death, expiring in the hands of his lover, who had been an unwilling pawn in the control of the practical jokers.

To get the bizarre and off putting title out of the way, there is a card sharper in the first scene, but Carreras's character is Christopher Sly, who has nothing whatsoever sly about him. It is equally peculiar that another main player, in this story of common folk taken advantage of by aristocrats seeking amusement in a London tavern, is called Plake, an unlikely surname.

Sly is the life and soul of the pub crowd, always good for a laugh and a song, a poet who always ends up as a butt for fun, inebriated and incapable, and liable to be apprehended as a debtor. There is a class collision with the arrival of the Earl of Westmoreland (Sherrill Milnes) and his entourage. His bored mistress (Isabelle Kabatu) is drawn to this very different, free spirited man, but persuaded to take part in the plot to take him off in drunken sleep and have him awakened, fitted up in finery in the Earl's castle, ostensibly its owner, with all roles reversed and the aristocrats purporting to be his servants.

Through the second act he is confused and disorientated, eventually brought to his senses and the truth of what has been done to him. Unable to credit the sincerity of his assigned temptress (Kabatu) he finally learns and accepts the whole truth too late, after he has fatally slashed his wrists using 'the only companion that has always helped me to oblivion and joy', i.e. a bottle, broken this time, to become a weapon to injure himself.

In this performance, I found myself fully engaged, and in the final scene deeply moved by the situation, and vastly impressed by it's musical setting. Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948) was behind the times when he wrote Sly in a conservative, Puccini-like verismo idiom in 1927, but he was unrepentant to that criticism. However, he became discouraged because of the rise of Nazism and the continual demand for 'something new', and eventually declined into straitened circumstances, dying in 1948 in Venice.

This is a gutsy, live recording from Barcelona (2000) of a Zurich Opera House production, the large cast and chorus and orchestra under the reliable baton of David Giménez, with a palpable theatre ambience. The production is excellent, with full texts and parallel translations. The casting is strong, Sherrill Milnes implacable as the cruel, practical joking Earl, Isabelle Kabatu sympathetic as the conscience torn heroine, and José Carreras sings out his heart as Sly, totally inside the confused, sensitive skin of one for whom his public persona is but a mask for insecurity. His last act monologue, Eppure…era commossa' (and yet…she was moved) [track 13] is a tour de force amongst self revelatory solo scenes in opera and sampling it will help you to decide whether to acquire this old-fashioned but durable opera, which balances to perfection story and music, and which has been one of my brightest discoveries this year.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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