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Glyn Pursglove
MusicWeb International, June 2009

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).

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.

James L. Zychowicz
Opera Today, April 2009

Wolf-Ferrari: Vedova scaltra (La) (La Fenice, 2007) (NTSC)

Wolf-Ferrari: Vedova Scaltra (La) (La Fenice, 2007)

One of the five operas Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876–1948) based on plays by Carlo Goldoni, La vedova scaltra (1748) is a comedy about a widow’s decision to use deception to choose among her suitors.

With the men representing four countries of Western Europe, England, France, Spain, and Italy, the situation lends itself well to manipulating national elements within this Italian opera which uses, at times, Venetian dialect, that is, the idiom in which the composer was raised. The national element is also a foil for the libretto, which plays upon some cultural jibes in its cynical view of romantic love. Among Wolf-Ferrari’s thirteen operas, La vedova scaltra is not known as well as Il segreto Susanna (1909) or I gioielli della Madonna (1911); rather, it dates from 1931 and is the work he wrote immediately after his Shakespeare-based opera Sly (1927). With its conversational style, La vedova scaltra is not immediately as accessible as some of the composer’s earlier works, but the motives and themes gradually build as the drama itself takes shape and leads to its conclusion. The details contribute to the satisfying—and appropriate—ending of the opera, and this recording makes it possible to appreciate the work in this regard.

This production of the opera, filmed at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, on 13 and 15 February 2007 under the direction of Davide Mancini, makes use of eighteenth-century costumes and accoutrements to reflect the setting from Goldoni’s play. This gives a familiar sense to Wolf-Ferrari’s work, and this supports the score, which is anchored in conventional tonality, albeit with the kinds of dissonance found in his other operas. More than that, the self-conscious use of operatic convention contributes some post-modern aspects to the work, as does the inclusion of the character of Arlecchino, a servant who acts as an intermediary throughout the drama. The inclusion of this one figure from the traditional commedia del’arte pays homage to the theatrical traditional and also brings to mind the depictions of the character in other twentieth operas. Wolf-Ferrari’s is no mere copy of the others, and his Arlecchino stands out in the portrayal by Alex Esposito through his vocal abilities and his sense of physical comedy.

As Rosaura, the cunning widow of the title, Anne-Lise Sollied is vocally solid and dramatically convincing. Appropriate to her character, Sollied shows Rosaura to be aware of the consequences of her romantic choices, and her own concerns for mutual affection and fidelity. Sollied’s fine command of line and ornament is evident in her first, scene, the one in which she discusses marital prospects with her French maid Marionette. The duet with which the scene ends is a good example of the genial interaction with Elena Rossi, who plays the maid with the sensibility one would expect of Despina in Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Rossi shows her own vocal and dramatic skills well in the ensuing duet with Emanuelle D’Aguanno as Monsieur Le Bleu, the French suitor, who just happens to be Marionette’s countryman and thus, the preferred candidate for her mistress’s hand. Rossi is appropriately disarming in the ensemble at the end of the first act, the scene in which the Spanish suitor arrives with his entourage by gondola.

The entire cast works well with each other within the series of ensembles at the core of each act of the opera. The relationship between Rosaura and her maid Marionette resembles, at times, the one between the Countess and Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. Her engagement in the drama is direct, since she will be affected by the consequences of her mistress’s decision. Likewise, Rosaura is at first overtly equivocal about her prospects, and if it is fidelity which she values, the ruse she concocts to test the lovers is necessary for her to choose. Her Rosaura is an affable spirit, and most of all, sung comfortably and with appropriate style. She works well throughout the opera and is fittingly commanding in the concluding scene.

Among the suitors, the Conte di Bosco Nero whom Rosaura ultimately chooses, is sung well by the British tenor Mark Milhofer. His extended aria in the third scene of Act 2 “Quanta soave pace” is a fine example of his contribution to this production, and his duet with Arlecchino as sung by Esposito shows both men to good effect. As to the other suitors, each brings a distinctive style to his character. While none of the suitors entirely meet Rosaura’s standards at the end of the opera, the same cannot be said of their performances, which contribute to this enjoyable work. Again, this production of La vedova scaltra brings to light an unfamiliar score by Wolf-Ferrari, and while it may never supplant the place of The Jewels of the Madonna or The Secret of Susanna, it augments our knowledge of the composer’s music. The comments at the London premiere of Wolf-Ferrari’s earlier opera I quattro rusteghi, another Goldoni adaptation, are apt for La vedova scaltra: “It flows spontaneously; it has a touch of distinction which saves it from the obvious; it is technically modern yet picks up the opera buffa tradition of the eighteenth century with the utmost grace and learning; it has a vein of lyrical melodic and excels in ensemble.”

Naxos makes the performance Wolf-Ferrari’s La vedova scaltra available both on CD (8.660225–26) and on DVD (2.110234–35). The sound of the CD serves the work well, and the availability of the opera on DVD preserves the live production which was given at La Fenice—the recording was made before a live audience, and so it conveys a nice sense of spontaneity. The DVD is nicely filmed, with some well-thought close-ups and angles that take advantage of the lighting. On a practical level, the banding of the DVD is similar to that found on the CD and, as such, is useful in finding specific scenes and parts of scenes within each act. This helps to make the relatively unfamiliar score of La vedova scaltra more accessible to those who want to return to specific parts of the work. It is good to see the efforts of Naxos in presenting this opera so sensibly.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2008

One of the most successful ‘live’ opera recordings that I have heard in recent years, Wolf-Ferrari’s gentle comedy, La Vedova Scaltra (The Cunning Widow)proves a delightful discovery.

Taken from the stage of the Teatro La Fenice, it was first issued on Naxos DVD, and you will find an extended review of that release in the June 2008 edition of David’s Review Corner. Often mixing influences of Puccini and Richard Strauss, it is a score of attractive tonal shades, the story circling around the a young widow’s choice between four amorous suitors of differing nationalities. The cast is vocally strong, each vividly expressing their role to such good effect that they are effective without the visual additions DVD. Of course on CD we miss the big spectacles and the gorgeous costumes, but with stage and audience noises reduced to a minimum, and a realistic balance between singers and orchestra, it is only the slightly constricted sound from the orchestra pit that betrays its theatre origin. The enclosed booklet gives a detailed synopsis to guide you through the complex intrigues. An outstanding bargain opera release not to be missed.

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