The first opera composed by Verdi for a foreign theatre, I Masnadieri was a success at its 1847 London premiere, but the revivals on the continent were poorly received and even today, the work remains rarely performed. Inspired by Friedrich Schiller’s Die Räuber (1781), the narrative includes among its themes fratricide and parricide, treachery and betrayal, accompanied by a doomed love interest. Despite this promising material, the librettist Andrea Maffei (1798-1885), an eminent German specialist and translator, but not a playwright, was unable to exploit the dramatic situations to its fullest.
Most frustrating for contemporary audiences is the fact that the cast is so overwhelmingly masculine; the six male roles and the chorus of bandits overshadow the sole female role of Amalia. Moreover, the libretto remains mired in a formulaic apportionment of arias and the grimness of the subject narrows the range of emotions the characters can explore, Amalia’s cabaletta, “Carlo vive », being the only hopeful aria in the entire opera.
Despite the weaknesses of the libretto, there is plenty to be admired in Verdi’s score, including the innovative orchestration of the interludes, and the gorgeous ensemble numbers, notably in the final scene. For this reason, I Masnadieri is an enticing prospect for a concert performance, but a daunting challenge for a staged production; a challenge enthusiastically embraced by Opéra de Monte-Carlo to close their 2017-2018 season.
In his program notes, stage director Leo Muscato writes that this opera is about the inability to find happiness, the battle between emotions and reason and the hopelessness that results from rejecting an honest life. His production, originally staged at the Teatro Regio in Parma, emphasizes the work’s gloom and the violence and irrationality of the characters. The lighting (Alessandro Verazzi), costumes (Silvia Aymonino), and sets (Federica Parolini) contributed to the broodingly romantic atmosphere.
Tenor Ramón Vargas gave an earnest portrayal of Carlo, with an infallibly solid rhythmic sense contributing to an electrically charged cabaletta “Nell’argilla maladetta” in Act I. His vocal tone was less satisfying, and one often wished he would vary his vibrato and widen his dynamic range to match others in the cast. Roberta Mantegna’s throaty soprano added an appropriately dark colour to the role of Amalia. She was impeccable in her highly-ornamented lines, originally written for the “Swedish nightingale” Jenny Lind (1820-1887).
Judging from their deafening applause, the audience agreed that baritone Nicola Alaimo stole the show. His gripping portrayal of the villain Francesco was the result of brilliant singing and powerful acting, perfectly encapsulated in his wickedly jubilant “Morto?. . . Signor son io!” at the end of Act I. His confrontation with Amalia in Act II demonstrated sensitive attention to ensemble singing and his chillingly dramatic final aria “Pareami che sorto da lauto convito” set the stage for his suicide, one of director’s Leo Muscato’s interpretive surprises (since the libretto simply indicates that Francesco flees).
The dramatic weight in any performance of I Masnadieri depends on the character of the Count Massimiliano, originally sung by the Neapolitan bass Luigi Lablache (1794-1858). Lablache was one of the most admired singers of the first half of the nineteenth century: he was soloist in the performances of Mozart’s Requiem given at the funerals of Haydn (1809; as a boy alto), Beethoven (1827), and Chopin (1849); Schubert composed several Lieder for him. It is therefore not surprising that Verdi reserved some of the most exquisite lines for Massimiliano. Bass Alexeï Tikhomirov was superb in this role, particularly when he expresses repentance and anger in the Act I quartet “Sul capo mio colpevole.” In the Act III aria “Un ignoto, tre lune or saranno,” Tikhomirov created a gripping narrative essential to the racconto style of early Verdi.
The slow tempo of the Prelude announced the sombre interpretation of conductor Daniele Callegari, who led the expressive musicians of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. Most memorable was the delicate woodwind playing in Act I and the sumptuously rich sound of the lower strings throughout the performance. Their interpretation was successful on so many levels that it was frustrating that it should be marred by an insidious high-pitched sound, perhaps emanating from one of the stage lights. The chorus of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo, directed by Stefano Visconti, made for a joyful band of outlaws. They sang Verdi’s demanding music with clear diction, even if their enthusiasm sometimes resulted in a tendency to rush the tempo.
Under the direction of Jean-Louis Grinda, the Opéra de Monte-Carlo has of late become something of a Verdi company. Last season they offered Nabucco, Simon Boccanegra and Il Trovatore and for the recently announced 2018-2019 season, three of the six operas are by Verdi (Luisa Miller, Falstaff and Otello). This somewhat lopsided approach to programming is saved by riveting performances given by carefully selected casts, as was the case for this memorable I Masnadieri.
I Masnadieri, Opera in four acts
Music by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Libretto by Andrea Maffei, after Friedrich von Schiller’s Die Raüber
Performance of 22 April 2018 at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo
Direction musicale : Daniele Callegari
Mise en scène : Leo Muscato
Décors : Federica Parolini
Costumes : Silvia Aymonino
Lumières : Alessandro Verazzi
Chef de chœur : Stefano Visconti
Massimiliano, comte Moor : Alexeï Tikhomirov
Carlo, fils ainé de Massimiliano : Ramón Vargas
Francesco, fils cadet de Massimiliano : Nicola Alaimo
Amalia, orpheline, nièce de Massimiliano : Roberta Mantegna
Arminio, serviteur de Massimiliano : Reinaldo Macias
Rolla, brigand âgé : Christophe Berry
Moser, un prêtre : Mikhaïl Timochenko
Chœur de l’opéra de Monte-Carlo
Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo