Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: Sly (1927)

Opera in tre atti. Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

This is my first attempt with Wolf-Ferrari, and it will probably be more off the beaten path than most of my earlier work, although I am somewhat more familiar with this opera than his others.

Considering the late composition date, the score is rather conservative, so I might have a better chance with it. That being said, Puccini was originally given first crack at this libretto, and quickly turned it down, probably because the main character isn’t a sexually stunted female dying for love. Instead, it is about a sexually stunted male dying for love, and that would not serve the purposes of the Prince of Purple Musical Prose. Wolf-Ferrari took over the project mostly because he was in a rather low state of mind at the time.

The title character and basic plot elements are inspired by the prologue to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew which was my father’s favorite play, partially because it is set in Italy and partially because of Richard Burton’s performance as Petruchio in the 1967 film. That being said, only the first act really can be seen as comedic, as the opera takes a dark turn in act two (once the rouse is revealed to the title character) leading to imprisonment and a rather unfortunate, but successful, attempt at suicide just as true love is found. This is apparently unique for Wolf-Ferrari, whose operatic out put is generally seen as otherwise almost exclusively comedic, with the exception of 1911’s incesteous tragedy I gioielli della Madonna.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari was sort of like me genetically, an Italian-German mix, and is otherwise better known for comedic operas such as Il segreto di Susanna (spoiler: the secret is that she smokes!) and Il Campiello which features not one, but two tenors as elderly widows!

Although initially rather successful, Sly disappeared for around fifty years, from 1930 to 1980, apart from productions in Germany in the 1950s (where it was performed in a German translation), only to make something of a minor come back, championed by Jose Carreras, in the 1980s and 1990s (restoring the original Italian libretto), culminating in a successful 2002 run at the Metropolitan Opera which I heard on the radio as an 11-year-old. The most recent production, as of writing, was in Hungary in 2016.

The opera requires 23 soloist singers, most in minor roles, including three mezzo-soprano maids, eight noblemen (ranging from tenor to bass), and various servant roles.

SETTING: England, circa 1600. The Count of Westmoreland (baritone) decides to cheer-up his wife, Dolly (soprano) by tricking the drunkard Sly (tenor) into thinking that he is actually his wife’s long lost real husband and then have the drunk make love to his wife as a rather cruel joke. A fourth main character, John Plank (bass) features only during the somewhat comedic first act, along with an innkeeper’s wife (mezzo-soprano) who spends much of the act trying to stop the rest of the cast from making off with the contents of her husband’s wine cellar. Various servants and nobles are enlisted to enact the elaborate rouse, which leads to Dolly genuinely falling in love with Sly and Sly fatally slashing his wrists while imprisoned by the Count, just before Dolly confesses her love for him.

The video is exactly 3 hours long, but includes two very long interview sections during the two intermissions (35 and 25 minutes with baritone Sherrill Milnes and soprano Isabelle Kabatu respectively). There is a video which is of the audio of this performance (and is under two hours), but I thought it might be better to include visuals here since it was an option.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: An English Pub. (45 minutes)

4, 13: Oh storia filosofica/Prendi, un recordo The introduction has a sinister but rather conservative quality to it, similar to Dvorak (the woodwinds) and it flows immediately (and rather uneventfully) into a series of conversations between inn guests and the innkeeper’s wife as she tries to avoid shrinkage. Sly is apparently in the cellars, drunk as usual. The first moment of any note is a drinking song from Plank about a prisoner and Martin Luther which is obvious foreshadowing *, with the entrance for Dolly being something of a let down. There is then a simple, but touching, scene between Dolly and a girl named Rosalina who never appears again in the opera *, followed by the regal entrance of the Count of Westmoreland, which is accomplished by way of a mid-19th century-style recitativo. All of this sets up the scenario for the drama to come, but it is rather long, and also not all that interesting musically. If a section of the score could have been broken down to size, certainly it is this one.

20: John Plank! John Plank! Plank brings Sly (who so far has been spoken about but not seen) to the attention of Westmoreland, and it is only with the arrival of the title character than the opera even remotely gets off the ground ** (at least the chimes make the situation more energetic than anything before). Apparently Sly has just broken the law because a constable shows up. Sly is hidden and Westmoreland bribes the constable.

27: Un orso in Musoliera Sly goes into something of a mad scene about a bear in front of everyone ** which somewhat makes up for his absence earlier in the act as the monologue goes on for over ten solid minutes before he collapses from drink again and Dolly, who has become taken with the man, attempts to have him resuscitated. By far, this is the best section in the act, and designed to showcase the tenor as the poet-philosopher of the pub who entertains everyone else with his drunken musings.

38: O soccorretalo! The act finale mostly consists of the the planning for the rouse to occur in the next act, mostly by way of a mono-cant for Westmoreland * with interjections from the chorus and the other soloists. Sly is taken out and the guests call for wine again. John Plank has remorse, and feels sorry for Sly and the trick which is about to befall him. The act ends with what appears at first to be a fade out from the orchestra but they get one brief chord with which to bring down the curtain.

ACT 2: (43 minutes)

Scene 1: A room in the Castle Westmoreland, Sly in a bed.

0: The opening sequence * mostly consists of a strongly classical orchestral introduction and some interjections from the mezzo maid servants.

4: M’é Successo Altre Volte Sly wakes up * and the chorus hums about in the background oddly. Servants present him with a bowl to wash his hands and mirrors, towels, etc. Westmoreland, acting as a butler, presents Sly with luxurious clothes and gold. He starts to realize that it is a cruel joke, but blames it on John Plank (since he does not actually know nor recognize Westmoreland). Westmoreland has seen to this and has a pageboy (soprano) declare himself to be John Plank.

18: Or Son Dieci Anni, Qui Westmoreland goes in for the kill with a Wagnerian monocant about how Sly is in fact the lord of the manor and has been in a coma for the last ten years **. Suddenly, bells rung, announcing the return of Dolly, Sly’s apparent countess, who is heard singing a well positioned 17th century hymn in the castle chapel. Sly is dressed to greet Dolly.

24: The intermezzo *, why there must be a scene change is not obvious, as Dolly could just as easily arrive in her own husband’s chamber, but, intermezzo we have.

Scene 2: Great Hall of Westmoreland Castle.

27: Gloria A Sua Grandezza Risanata A grand chorus * as Sly mounts the throne of Westmoreland.

29: Signore! Sposo Mio! Dolly and Sly meet *** in the long act finale, by far the best section in the opera up to this point. Although she has already demonstrated more care for him than any other person in the opera so far, over the course of their duet, she gradually falls genuinely in love with him as he expresses his joy upon seeing her and, believing her to be his wife, just how pleasant that is to him. There is no great tune, but it ends with one of the few moments of genuine jubilation in the score. It ends with the rouse being revealed as such as the servants and Westmoreland praise Dolly for her apparent “acting” and laugh at the foolish Sly, who is left devastated. Although Dolly protests, Westmoreland has Sly locked up in his dungeon. The act ends with a rousing chorus making fun of Sly the Lover-Philosopher, as he is dragged away, Westmoreland is congratulated, and Dolly is left devastated and rather ashamed of herself. A good orchestral finish as well, as Wolf-Ferrari pulls off one of the last 19th-century-style battery-chord finishes as the curtain falls. Very effective.

ACT 3: The Dungeon of Westmoreland Castle. (21 minutes)

0: The act starts off with two soundings of a gong, the second being a cue for the tenor to begin an otherwise unaccompanied dialogue with the warden. This eerily starts to come close to realist theatre *, as the gong is the only sound heard for several minutes (it is nearly three minutes in before the orchestra comes on, and then there is yet another sounding of the gong).

3: Eppure, Era Commossa The pathetic Sly has been left alone in his cell and gets one of the most effecting scenes in the opera ***. He starts to fantasize, and play out his meeting with Dolly, and then the uncovering of her apparent deception. Around seven minutes in there is a very strong, almost militant, theme that appears in the orchestra. He tries to strangle himself with his coat, which does not work, so he breaks a wine bottle and cuts his wrists with the broken glass, which he then hides in the coat, as he waits for the ultimate dream: Death.

17: Sly, Sly, Sono Venuta Dolly shows up and confesses to Sly, both for pardon, and for him to accept her love, but it is too late as he is already rapidly bleeding to death. He dies, she collapses upon his body in despair. In the finale *** Wolf-Ferrari beats out anything he had previously done in the opera and, with only two soloists and orchestra, pulls off a believably honest tragic ending. Curtain.

COMMENTS:

Sly is a very slow moving work. Not much actually happens in the opera, and it is already under two hours to begin with, so it can hardly be considered long, but it feels longer than it is. The first act in particular is utilitarian in construction: everything serves a plot point, and not much else, including musical interest, gets much servicing. This would be okay, many good operas have slow and even boring first acts, where this not the longest act, and also what is considered to be the jollier of the three. Although there are slight hints to the tragedy to come, the music has to progressively evolve in order to get better, rather rather being consistent, indicating that the score of the first act may have been written much earlier, and in a slightly different style, than that of the second and third acts. John Plank disappears after this first act, apparently dead from drink, foreshadowing Sly’s demise by another means involving a glass wine bottle.

The plot is simple: nobleman plans cruel joke on drunk, his wife falls in love with the drunk, tragedy needlessly ensues when drunk commits suicide. Any one of these three basic elements could be removed and the plot would turn out differently. However, this simplicity is also a strength of the opera, not a weakness. Apart from the brief song for Plank in act one, and the bit of melodrama in act three, there is almost no padding at all in the entire opera, and the only sub-plot involves the innkeeper’s wife in act one trying to keep people from breaking into her cellar, which is hardly un-amusing.

The score is oftentimes darker than the 1930s filler music Mascagni wrote for Nerone, and yet a criticism of it is that it is not modernist enough. In 1927, Wolf-Ferrari was accused of copying Puccini, but I really find Verdi or other 19th-century influences rather than frenemy of the blog Giacomo in Sly. By the second act, the scenario can even be seen as classist, but at the same time the score improves in two important places: Westmoreland’s account of Sly’s last decade, and the love-duet/act finale in which the relationship between Dolly and Sly gets most of its development. The chorus which finishes the act is probably the most well constructed music in the score up to that point, which mostly limped around, however effectively, for the better part of an hour and a half. That is not to say that what has earlier transpired is bad, but it doesn’t really show much inspiration either. What could have saved the opera would have been a strong leitmotif system, of which there is little.

The third act is by far the strongest musically and dramatically, although it is also brief, consisting of less than 20 minutes of actual music. It also contains most of the genuine emotion and passion in the opera, both for the characters and the orchestra. Up until this point, the opera has been mostly pretense, Sly being the only character consistently being honest, apart from John Plank late in act one. Now Dolly is solidly a good person, and it is heartbreaking to see her lose her love after it has been so recently discovered. Sly himself has been turned from a comedic drunkard into a tragic figure, one that makes a strong impression. Certainly a great impression than that of Werther or similar tenor opera suicides.

Others may claim that I am promoting the old-fashioned elements of the score rather than its progressive ones, and those who know both the opera and my blog may have come to this review knowing my conclusion as a foregone assessment, and that may be true, but I know what is dramatically effective and the more conservative elements are what work best here.

Although it takes until the eleventh hour to pack its punch, Sly should not be overlooked. Although perhaps not an alpha because of its lack of musical consistency, a worthy beta.

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