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John Yohalem
Opera News, March 2009

Passion versus patriotism—haven’t we heard this before? Two friends, united by love of country, are mortally divided when one of them seduces his comrade’s girlfriend. Guilt, remorse and murderous hatred ensue, but the spirit of brotherhood recalls them to duty, and they die fighting for the homeland.

In 1902, the rise of national consciousness was still a potent myth, and since Verdi hadn’t minded which oppressed nationality he glorified—Hebrews, Scots, Flemings, Sicilians—Alberto Franchetti thought the rising of German students against Napoleon would have similar appeal. He employed Luigi Illica, the foremost librettist of the day—which is why Germania reads like Andrea Chénier in Deutschland, with "Gaudeamus Igitur" instead of the "Marseillaise." (The plot, however, suspiciously resembles Verdi’s Battaglia di Legnano.) Toscanini conducted the premiere at La Scala, and Enrico Caruso sang. They liked it so well they brought it to the Met in 1910, with Emmy Destinn, Pasquale Amato and Adamo Didur joining them, and Caruso recorded three excerpts. But what with one thing and another, in the course of the following century, Germany’s national legend lost much of its appeal. Today, Germania probably couldn’t be staged any place but Berlin, the source of this 2006 performance— yet it’s very much an Italian opera, demanding verismo technique and style such as no house today, in or out of Italy, possesses in abundance.

Franchetti struggled against terrible disadvantages for a Romantic artist: his father was a baron who encouraged his artistic talent, and his mother was a Rothschild. Though not obliged to work for a living, he studied composition in Dresden and was mentioned with Puccini, Leoncavallo and Giordano as one of the coming operatic generation; in 1892, Genoa commissioned his Cristoforo Colombo to celebrate its most famous son’s voyage. Franchetti’s ability was well summed up when Germania reached the Met: a review in The New York Times praised his melodic gift and skill at the deployment of huge choral and orchestral forces but regretted his lack of concision and focus—precisely Puccini’s specialties.

Choral and orchestral effects do make up the best of this performance, especially a sublime female keening to accompany the oaths of the conspirators and a fine intermezzo depicting the Battle of Leipzig (while, onstage, the goddess Germania, fully armored, stalks the battlefield). Lise Lindstrom throws herself into the role of guilt-ridden Ricke with a bright, silvery sheen, but she lacks the gutsy Italian chest voice Franchetti clearly hoped for. Carlo Ventre, her Federico, has a good top when he doesn’t wobble, and he provides some notion of how thrilling his music might be if a Caruso or Del Monaco were to sing it. Bruno Caproni’s growl suggests the mixed emotions of Wurm, but he lacks a Verdi baritone’s luster. In small roles, Sarah van der Kemp and Jacquelyn Wagner give pleasure. Renato Palumbo conducts with the intensity and thrust a verismo score needs if it is not to fall flat, lovingly displaying the score’s many charms.

The accompanying booklet provides an essay on Franchetti’s use of folk songs; a detailed plot synopsis and a paragraph or two about the real events and persons in the opera would have been more useful. Bewildered viewers should seek out the Met’s 1910 libretto online. That wall of words in the prologue? Turns out it represents an old mill that’s been turned into an underground press.

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