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Ermanno WOLF-FERRARI (1876-1948)
La vedova scaltra (The Shrewd Widow) - Commedia lirica in three Acts, libretto by Mario Ghisalberti, after the play by Carlo Goldoni (1931)
Rosaura - Anne-Lise Sollied (soprano); Milord Runebif - Maurizio Muraro (bass); M. Le Bleau - Emanuele D’Aguanno (tenor); Il Conte di Bosco Nero - Mark Milhofer (tenor); Don Alvaro di Castiglia - Riccardo Zanellato (bass); Marionette - Elena Rossi (soprano); Arlecchino - Alex Esposito (bass-baritone); Birif - Claudio Zancopè (bass); Folletto - Luca Favaron (tenor); Un servo di Don Alvaro - Antonio Casagrande (actor)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro La Fenice, Venice/Karl Martin
rec. live, Teatro La Fenice, Venice, Italy, 13, 15 February 2007
The Italian libretto is available at the Naxos website.
NAXOS 8.660225-26 [75:25 + 66:17]
Experience Classicsonline

The Venetian dramatist Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) seems always to have been somewhat underrated in the English-speaking world. For most English audiences notions of theatrical comedy have been so thoroughly formed by the experience of Shakespeare that there is a real difficulty in responding to comic drama which uses rather different idioms - hence the relative neglect of Molière, too (and Molière was an important model for Goldoni). The loss is considerable - Goldoni is a master craftsman of the theatre and his comedies are full of subtle details and a well-developed awareness of stage possibility. His work has repeatedly proved of interest to composers working within the tradition of opera buffa. Galuppi wrote some 13 operas in collaboration with Goldoni - the best-known of them nowadays being Il Filosofo di Campagna (Venice, 1764); four years earlier Rome saw the premiere of Piccinni’s La Cecchina, ossia La buona figliuola, Goldoni’s libretto for which was based on Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela. (and the opera was actually performed in London in 1766; Paisiello’s Il ciarlone of 1764 was based on Goldoni's La pupilla; Antonio Salieri’s La locanderia (1773) Giuseppe Sarti’s Fra i due litiganti il terzo gode (1782) set a version of Goldoni’s Le nozze. Such a list might be extended considerably, but enough works have been listed to make it entirely understandable that when a later composer such as Wolf-Ferrari wanted to attempt a kind of updating of opera buffa, the plays of Goldoni should have been a natural place to turn.

In fact Wolf-Ferrari turned to Goldoni on some five occasions - Le donne curiose (1903), I Quattro Rusteghi (1906), Gli amanti sposi (1916), La vedova scaltra (1931) and Il Campiello (1936). Goldoni’s original play, La vedova scaltra was written around 1748, when Goldoni had just begun work with the theatre company run by the actor-manager Gerolamo Medebach based at the Teatro Sant’ Angelo in Venice. He wrote several plays a year and one connecting thread was the way in which they gradually moved away from the traditions of the commedia dell’arte, especially in the use of masked character. Only one such character survives in La vedova scaltra - the waiter Arlecchino, who becomes increasingly important to the working out of the plot, in ways which, on the one hand, hark back to the clever servant of ancient Roman comedy and, on the other, offer some anticipations of a ‘factotum’ such as Rossini’s Figaro. The central plot of the opera involves a widow wooed by four suitors of different nationalities (Italian, French, Spanish and English) - not altogether unlike the first two acts of The Merchant of Venice. The widow, Rosaura, has - like Portia - a witty companion (in this case she is called Marionette). The plot, in other words, is thoroughly grounded in the traditions and archetypes of the European comic tradition and offers obvious opportunities for satire and sentiment alike.

Wolf-Ferrari responds to Ghisalberti’s libretto (firmly based on Goldoni’s play) with music equally well grounded in the relevant music tradition of comic opera. His music is essentially tonal and not without its echoes of Rossini, but neither is he frightened to make use of the occasional more strikingly ‘modern’ harmony. We get plenty of good ensemble writing - duets, trios and quartets - and there are relatively few substantial solo arias. Rosaura does get one nice set-piece (‘Nella notturna selva’) and Anne-Lise Sollied handles it very pleasantly and professionally; throughout Sollied characterises the widow with real conviction and she works very well in the several duets and conversations she shares with Marionette. As the maidservant (and like Arlecchino, the name is clearly a self-conscious theatrical reference) Elena Rossi is vocally very vivacious and she articulates very pleasantly the few ‘French’ touches in her music (Marionette, obviously enough, is herself French). There are some nicely Spanish touches for Don Alvaro di Castiglia. All the singers, indeed, acquit themselves pretty well (the one or two quibbles one might make, applying the highest standards don’t significantly spoil one’s pleasure in the work) and nobody lets the side down - in an opera which depends much more on teamwork than individual brilliance. One performer who stands out particularly is the bass Alex Esposito as Arlecchino - who has already had international success in such venues as Salzburg and London as well as at la Scala and in other productions at La Fenice (such as Die Zauberflöte). He has vocal weight and presence, considerable flexibility and a nice dramatic sense which impresses throughout.

Wolf-Ferrari’s orchestral writing is both learned, in the way it alludes to, without merely imitating, an older manner, and also occasionally surprising in its unexpected inventions.

The pleasure I have had from listening to the CD version of this production of La vedova scaltra makes me keen to see the companion DVD (Naxos 2.110234-35 - see review).

If you are already familiar with some of Wolf-Ferrari’s better-known comic operas, such as I quatro rustighi (1906) and Il campiello (1936), you will surely want to make the acquaintance of La vedova scaltra. If not, this engaging performance would be a good place to start an exploration of an enjoyable series of works. Just in case you were wondering, the widow chooses her Italian suitor - but perhaps you would have guessed that that was the outcome!

Glyn Pursglove 

see also review by Göran Forsling 


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