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!