Cher Public

Robber soul

C-Major continues their full frontal attack on the Verdi catalogue with this release of I Masnadieri which, I’m thrilled to report, does not hail from the Teatro di Regio in Parma like the previous aspirants. We’ve travelled south to Naples and the Teatro di San Carlo and we’re all the better for it as the orchestral and choral forces are larger and far superior. Production facilities are most assuredly more extensive as I’m certain Parma wouldn’t even have the budget to stage a mess this large.

I Masnadieri was first performed, under the composer’s baton, at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London in July 1847 in, (no less than) Her Majesty’s presence. Queen Victoria found the music “very inferior and commonplace” — but what would you expect from a Bellini fan?

Verdi had been given an extraordinarily gifted cast to work with including the great nasso Luigi LaBlache, the Italian tenor Italo Gardoni and the “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind for his soprano lead. He utilized these gifted singers to the fullest in a work that has the same muscularity and verve, if not the consistent melodic inspiration, as Ernani.

In our own era, it’s also been the recipient of two very good studio recordings: Bergonzi and Caballé on Philips under Gardelli and, in my opinion, the only good Verdi recording Dame Joan Sutherland ever made, on London at the birth of digital sound, with her husband Richard Bonynge on the podium conducting for once like it’s actually Verdi and not Bellini.

The music director of the San Carlo, Nicola Luisotti, finds his way to the podium and I’m already feeling a little giddy. The interior of the theater is breathtaking and you can barely see the blood on the walls of the singers who’ve been ripped to shreds by the angry mob after having given mediocre performances.  A singer can get away with a lot in Parma but in Naples you better bring your A-game because they’re second only in their fan ferocity to Palermo.

Luisotti leeds a tremendously strong and passionate performance and you can tell it’s all going to go well just from the short prelude which is lavished with nuance and blessed with a gorgeous solo from the, sadly uncredited, first cello. Funny too that the video director, Annalisa Butto, chooses to use a soft focus on the orchestra for this portion. If only she’d kept the vaseline on the lens for the rest of this garish debacle it might have made it easier to take in.

The stage director Gabriele Lavia is considered something of an expert on the Schiller play Die Rauber that Verdi’s librettist adapted. He’s also a veteran of a number of Dario Argento’s horror classics from the early 1980s which filled in a lot of blanks for me.

We’re given a unit set by designer Alessandro Camera which is ironically not terribly photogenic. Frankly it looks like the back alley of a New Jersey Harley Davidson dealership post hurricane Sandy.  There’s a shattered boardwalk downstage front and the stage is littered, literally, with I know not what. It’s just filthy and it made me fearful for the Baritone who had to go barefoot at one point.

There’s a raised ramp left over from the aqua alta that keeps getting shifted about and for the cemetery scene a cross soldered together from a rock concert lighting rig drops down from the flies. Occasionally a piece of furniture finds itself onstage and there’s a moment in the last act when the men in the chorus are holding electric candelabra for no good reason. Oh, and all the walls are completely covered with graffiti that resembles a lot of Hell’s Angels tattoo templates. Pretty!

Anyone hoping for the costumes of Andrea Viotti to enliven the proceedings would do so in vain. Black, full length, pleather coats for the men with scarves and pimp hats. Tutus and day glow, punk, hairstyles for the women. How she accessorizes all of this comes as a big surprise in Act II but I’ll hold back on that for now.

Venezuelan tenor Achiles Machado is Carlo our titular Robber with a cuore d’oro. His character has fallen in with this pack of bandits and he’s written his nobleman father begging forgiveness so that he may resume his old life at Downton Abbey. Mr. Machado has a good sized instrument that he tends to push as the evening wears on and, at times, he develops a prominent beat on the top that’s just this side of unattractive. He certainly knows how to sing the Verdi line and does his best to observe the composer’s gentler musical markings when called upon. Sadly, he’s a full head shorter than everyone onstage.

The Italian bass Giacomo Prestia as the Father and Count, Massimiliano, gets top billing on the slipcase which seems odd. It’s a very good voice with a solid technique but it’s lack of individual character leaves us with little doubt that we are still in the provinces. Sadly, the Raphaelite wig of white curls he’s given to wear makes him the spitting image of Scottish Comedian Billy Connolly, adding little to his gravitas.

As the evil brother Francesco keeping his sibling and father separated by his Machiavelian mail tampering,we have Polish baritone Artur Rucinski. He gets the juiciest bits in the staging for certain. He’s limping about with a completely stiff leg all evening long whilst causing his father’s stroke and near death, forcing his unwanted advances on his brother’s fiancé (who’s also their cousin. Ick!), and begs absolution in the last scene from the local priest whose answer is”No.” Rucinski has a solid baritone and straightforward technical skills but not the malevolent smolder that Verdi wants from his baritone villains.

The Priest mentioned above is played by Dario Russo and although it’s a small part his potent bass makes so excellent an impression you wish his role were longer. The house servant who’s in collusion with the evil Francesco is called Arminio and he’s played by Walter Omaggio with a voice that is a pain to the ear. He doesn’t even seem particularly old, that is, until he hits anything remotely close to the top of the staff and reveals a wobble so wide you could use it as a unit of measurement. His comprimario certification needs to be revoked.

Which leaves us with our evening’s Amalia, soprano Lucrecia Garcia, who hails from Venezuela as well and was also a product of the marvelous El Sistema music program. She displays a very full and rich sound that’s ethnic origin seem more African than South American to my ear. The basic instrument is simply gorgeous with a goose-flesh inducing lower register that is exciting when she utilizes it.

I’m sorry to report she seems beset by a few technical problems that really should be straightened out. She has no trill, not even a “fake shake,” and in a role written for a coloratura with a showpiece like “Tu del mio Carlo” that seems a smidge ludicrous. She also ends the cabaletta “down” on the middle C which means that rather than exploding in vocal triumph it skids to a stop. Her arpeggios are rarely even and the top of any cadenza tends to straight tone. She is distinctive in the ensembles and the opening Act III duet between she and the tenor is the glory of Verdi’s score and the best part of this performance too.

Ms. Garcia is also a large woman who’s not unattractive but she’s given absolutely no assistance in this regard by costume, hair, or makeup which I think is a sin. I also hate to mention that she’s sweaty to the point of distraction only a few moments after her every entrance. But what’s more important, it’s a very beautiful voice and she’s still the best Verdi soprano I’ve seen, so far, in this series.

Verdi wrote for young ladies of mostly spirited character and Amalia is no exception. My favorite moment in this staging comes in the Act II duet with the villainous Francesco when she’s trying to stave off his stiffest leg and grabs from him, not the dagger of the libretto, but a Glock .45 for her defence. If only she’d fire a warning shot in time to the music so we knew she wasn’t playing. Later everyone gets a semi-automatic rifle as a fashion accessory which, frankly, I find  a real romance killer.

The chorus of the San Carlo, most especially the men because they get the majority of the work in this opera, make a marvelous impression in a score that is rhythmically tricky and requires a great deal of dynamic variety. I’m also happy to report that the orchestra and chorus easily outnumber our friends over in Parma so it’s a much fuller and more exciting sound.

There’s real music making here in spite of an ugly and silly staging which offers it’s own inadvertent inditement in the ‘Introduction to…” accessed from the DVD main menu.  After the starch-collared Brit announcer guides us through the history of the work he then proceeds to narrate the plot juxtaposed with clips from the production. The unintentionally hilarious dichotomy of the 19th century story told with this uber-trash staging playing over it is so funny it’s almost worth the price alone.

Picture and DTS 5.1 sound are excellent and I’m calling this one a good value since, despite a provincial production which didn’t steal my heart., the performances are generally characterful, we have incisive leadership in the pit, and when are we ever going to get a Masnadieri of any accomplishment again?  Enjoy!

  • itrinkkeinwein

    “A singer can get away with a lot in Parma but in Naples you better bring your A-game because they’re second only in their fan ferocity to Palermo.”

    This is utter nonsense.

    When did Patrick Mack last attend performances in Parma, Naples or Palermo?

    A so-so performance in any of these cities — writing from direct experience, repeated visits — is more likely than not to elicit so-so applause. That’s all. There is no drama here, no geographic story.

    And mean standards in all three cities are much closer than the DVD reviewer apparently knows.

    Why put out baseless ideas, attempting to characterize audiences and traditions in a facile way? To sexy-up the review?

    An education about the Italian houses, Parma especially, is in order.

    • oedipe

      Why put out baseless ideas, attempting to characterize audiences and traditions in a facile way?

      I too have noticed Mr.Mack’s penchant for stereotyping traditions and singers (their appearance included). He has repeatedly used superficial generalizations to paint Italian and French traditions as…superficial; the well of intelligence and professionalism is to be found in the (Aryan) North, it seems.

  • La Valkyrietta

  • itrinkkeinwein

    … also for Patrick Mack’s attention:

    * Andrea Viotti is a man.
    * the Schiller play is “Die Räuber.”
    * New Jersey has nothing to do with “I masnadieri,” and at least 31 people in the state were killed during Hurricane Sandy.
    * the reference to Villazón last May as a “furry, uni-browed Mexican” remains an uncorrected racial slur.

    • armerjacquino

      Seriously? A missed umlaut?

  • itrinkkeinwein

    … and more for Mack the bigot:

    * being short is not sad.
    * “a … sound that’s ethnic origin seem[s] more African than South American to my ear” — would refer to the fact that Lucrecia Garcia is black? Just guessing.

    • Patrick Mack

      Dear itrinkkeinwein,

      Last time I was there the Italians weren’t sitting in the opera house knitting. Have you ever heard of a riot in the United States when an opera singer cancelled? My apologies if I’m guilty of writing to entertain, and true I only know what I’ve read about Palermo since my opera going has been mostly in the north, but the stories are legion.

      The set design could honestly be described as post-deluge. My reference was innocent.

      As a person of Italian descent who is furry and always in danger of becoming uni-browed without my clippers (and I would personally send a pair to Mr. Villazon if he promised to use them because his brow is obscene) I can attest that being 5’7″ in life is sometimes sad. Never more so than when you’re standing onstage next to someone who is 6’3″. When you’ve been placed between two people who are 6’3″ while singing it is nearly a tragedy. I have video to prove this point.

      As well, I celebrate the ethnic diversity in opera but also find it fascinating that often times you can guess a singers nationality simply from the sound they make. Traditions in singing techniques are also, most assuredly, nationalistic as well. Ms. Garcia does not have a traditional Latin or Latin American sound.

      I’ll be more vigilant with my pronouns in the future and was frankly too tired at the time to find the code for the umlaut. “Who would notice?”, I thought to myself.

      I appreciate all your comments even if I feel you’re purposely misinterpreting just so you can enjoy the exhilaration of a state of high dudgeon.

      • Camille

        “Who would notice?”

        Oh, Patrick! You are no review virgin so surely you should know the effete knives—especially with a band of robbers like this one—would be just around the bend!!
        Abusing the reviewer is a favoured sport around these parts.

        Don’t worry, you’re a lot of fun, and that’s what this parterrian loves best.

        I would have Rolandino work on that halo of hair, as well as the unibrow.

        Best wishes and thank you for your hard work.

      • oedipe

        It’s true that the reviewers’ job is not an easy one: they have to stick their necks out and be assertive and entertaining, but at the same time they need to watch their every step in order to avoid the pitfalls. But then, just think of all the abuse thrown at a few singers who are black-listed on this site: they are sitting ducks for gratuitous aggressiveness and nasty remarks, not only about their singing, but also about their personality, looks, dress style, private lives, and every word they ever uttered.

      • aulus agerius

        I find joined eyebrows very sexy. I used to fruitlessly prevail on my second husband to leave off with the razor to stimulate my passion.

  • Donna Carlo

    Surely that should be “naso Luigi LaBlache.” Gogol wrote a short story about him. It was translated into Italian by Manou.

    • Camille

      Very, very funny, DC. I was wondering if someone would pick up on that naso.

  • phoenix

    Mack, I haven’t heard this peformance so I can’t offer anymore persecutions to this list. But as always I enjoyed your writings. You always get me going about something and today is no different.
    -- What a joy to discover that I am at odds with that old bag Queen Victoria (may she indeed rest in peace)! I dislike her favorite Bellini -- as much as I like Verdi -- particularly Masnadieri.
    -- Not having heard this peformance I can’t really pick any nits about what you say. I have heard Lucrecia Garcia on a few occasions. Yes, I was somewhat surprised by her individual & very unique bel canto technique -- I’ve never heard anything quite like it before -- but she dribbles her basketball in perfect time, i.e. she does not lag behind the beat with droopy tone like another singer you mentioned in your review did. Mack, I admire people like you who are so audially senstive they can actually hear an ‘African’ sound in a singer’s voice -- I am not able to do so. However, I sometimes can hear Church choir training in singers from the U.S. & Caribbean -- a technique acquired in early training from local church choirs -- I find it noticeable in many singers (Leontyne Price & Willard White, for example).
    -- Mack, even more audially astute, you can actually hear ‘South American’ tones in Garcia’s voice? And that you can discriminate between each of the two sounds 1) African and 2) South American from each other is truly amazing. No wonder you are one of my favorite internet critics! In regards to both Garcia and Machado, I am only able to identify (my favorite) idiomatic sound -> Latin American. Even though he is one of my favorite crooners, in opera performance Machado can be a pretty hard hitter -- but still I like him in opera, too, because his energy and enthusiasm set him apart from the romantic pretty boys -> those presently popular but insipid tenors. Machado, on the other hand, is like a flashback to the old days of the heroic Verdi tenor).
    -- In Mexico there is no official government category for ‘race’ -- nowhere, not even in the official population census. In Venezuela it has been estimated that 29% of the population are mulattos, also there is an unmeasured population of zambos (mixed African & indiginous Amerindian).
    -- I don’t hear any African sound that I can identify in Lucrecia Garcia’s voice, but she has the most lovely, idiomatically genuine Latin American beauty in her tones -> certainly more authentic than that dull, placid I-found-that-one-sound-that-pleases-them-all Martina Arroyo.

    • Camille

      Phoenix—I always thought that old bag la Reine et Impératrice VICTORIA had as her favourite composer one Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. I was scratching my head about the above reference. She did like Sonnamba, though, probably à cause de Jenny Lind. Maybe someone could clarify.

  • phoenix

    -> Mack justified:
    “From the diary of Queen Victoria, London, July 22, 1847: “We have been at the Opera, where we saw the performance of Verdi’s I Masnadieri, in four acts. The subject is the same as Mercadante’s I Briganti. In this new Verdi Opera, inspired by Schiller’s Die Räuber, the music is very shoddy and banal. Lablache played the part of Maximilian Moor, in which he performed well, although he is too fat for the role of the bloodless old man. Gardoni was a wonderfully dressed Carl Moor. Miss Lind sang and interpreted marvelously Amalia’s role, appearing very elegant and attractive in her various costumes. She was immensely applauded. (From William Weaver, Verdi, [Florence: 1980], retranslated from Italian.)”
    -- Schiller Institute: Giuseppe Verdi: Composer,Republican and Dramatist by Claudio Celani
    -> Mack justified again:
    “… the couple [Victoria and her husband] so came to love Bellini’s work that they would revisit their three favorite Bellini operas (Norma, I Puritani and La Sonnambula) twenty times during the course of twenty-five years. …”
    -- Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion -- By Helen Rappaport

    ->Camille justified
    (phoenix (who also admires Mendelssohn) repentant finds Victoria & Albert on common ground:
    From Victoria Diaries:
    Queen Victoria wrote on the 1st of May 1847 of what would be Mendelssohn’s last visit to Buckingham Palace: “We had the great treat of hearing Mendelssohn play, & he stayed an hour with us, playing some new compositions, with that indescribably beautiful touch of his. I also sang 3 of his songs, which seemed to please him. He is so amiable & clever. For some time he has been engaged in composing an Opera [‘Lorelei’] & an Oratorio [‘Christus’], but has lost courage about them. The subject for his Opera is a Rhine Legend, & that for the Oratorio, a very beautiful one, depicting Earth, Hell & Heaven, & he played one of the Choruses out of this to us, which was very fine.”

    Afterwards, the Queen said to Mendelssohn: “You have given me so much pleasure; now what can I do to give you pleasure?” He replied that he would love to see the royal children playing in their nursery. As a father himself, he was very pleased to accompany the Queen, as she later reported, “all the while comparing notes with him on the homely subjects that had a special attraction for them both.”

    Mendelssohn saw Albert for the last time on the 5th of May (1847) at a ‘Concert of Ancient Music’ organised by the Prince at the Hanover Square Rooms. … In response to the Prince’s gift of his inscribed ‘Elijah,’ programme notes, Mendelssohn made a special piano duet arrangement of his ‘Lieder ohne Worte’ in B flat major, Op. 85 No. 6, especially for Victoria and Albert to play, sent with a note of appreciation on the 8th of May 1847, the day of his departure from London.
    … Mendelssohn died on the 4th of November 1847 of a series of strokes, aged just 38…. Queen Victoria recorded her personal grief in her diary on learning the news of his death: “November 10, 1847…We were horrified, astounded and distressed to read in the papers of the death of Mendelssohn, the greatest musical genius since Mozart, & the most amiable man. He was quite worshipped by those who knew him intimately, & we have so much appreciated & admired his wonderfully beautiful compositions. We liked & esteemed the excellent man, & looked up to & revered, the wonderful genius, & the great mind, which I fear were too much for the frail delicate body. With it all he was so modest and simple…”
    -- Mendelssohn: Part 2 – An Extraordinary Friendship with Queen Victoria -- October 6th, 2012 by Reuben Vincent

    • papopera

      Queen Victoria was not all wrong about The Robbers.

    • Camille

      Thank you so much indeed for going to the trouble of digging up all that information on old Queen Vic. Her friendship with Mendelssohn is very moving to read of and I recall a letter in which he, in turn, commented upon her singing, that it was quite fine and in tune for an amateur. Regarding Bellini: I am thrilled to know I am in the company of Victoria R. so far as my love for Vincenzo Bellini is concerned. Heretofore I had not fully known how high her regard for him was. As I wear the parfum created for her by the House of Creed, Fleurs de Bulgarie, now I have the honour of similarly sharing this love of the immortal Bellini as well. That is a lot to reflect upon and to consider. Perhaps I should shape up some of my bad behavior.

      Thanks, my man. Mendelssohn’s end always moves me to tears.

  • Courtesy of the House of Bobolink, I have a live broadcast of I Masnadieri with a nearly identical cast but with a different tenor and with the stupdendous Maria Agresta. Totally enjoyable perf and Agresta is terrific.

    • If I remember correctly, I also have somewhere a broadcast from London with the estimable Paula Delligatti.

    • Camille

      As she is highly recommended by our long lost Cavaliere Ercole Farmese, I am going to bet on this one!

      • I was correct. There is a terrific live broadcast, which I got through the House of Bobolink, of I Masnadieri from Covent Garden, starring Paula Delligatti, Rene Pape, Dimi Hvorotovsky, and Franco Farina.
        Everyone is terrific.

  • luvtennis

    Hey Patrick:

    I think Joanie’s first Gilda is perfection. PERFECTION. May you burn in everlasting hell for failing to note that this is MY favorite recording of Rigoletto.

    Other than that, great review.

    • danpatter

      luvtennis, I agree. Also, Sutherland’s first recording of Traviata is seraphically beautifully. I’m also fond of her second recording of Rigoletto, though not of the second Traviata. These young whippersnappers who did not hear Sutherland in her prime have no idea what they missed.

      • Camille

        Me three, re the Sutherland Gilda

        The other night as I listened to Damrau clobber that big fat trill at the end of Caro Nome, I was recalling Surherland’s. Did anyone EVER do it better. Also loved Bigac as Rigoletto. Oh right, I saw him do it at the Met and it was, well, it was what it was, as I don’t remember anymore.

        • Camille

          Big Mac as Rigoletto, as in Cornell. Sorry.

          • Patrick Mack

            luvtennis & Camille, Mea Culpa. You are absolutely correct about Dame Joan’s first Gilda and my shame is great because I was listening to it just the other night after seeing ‘Quintet’. Forgive me. Thank you both for you kind words.

        • luvtennis

          Short answer: No.

          Jonie makes me believe that she would sacrifice her life in a way Maria never could….

  • Frankly, you’re all crazy. Everyone knows that the greatest Gilda and Violetta was Moffo. Unless you’re Marshiemark in which case is was Cherry Strudel.