Amarilli Nizza (Amalia) and Misha Didyk (Carlo Moor) (Photo: Opéra Royal de Wallonie)
I never "got" I Masnadieri; not even in the wonderful Bergonzi-Caballé recording I bought the moment it appeared in 1975. I had a feeling that for once Verdi had lost his unbelievable magic as a tune-smith. Corsaro, Giorno di Regno, Battaglia, Alzira etc. all sounded familiar after a few playings but Masnadieri never got under my skin with the exception of the rousing tenor cabaletta and the soprano's aria. I was in good company as even Budden in his well-known analysis of the opera speaks of "a seemingly backward step." Well, the good news is that Verdi of course knew it better and that the opera really works in a professional production with acceptable singers.
Not that the Liège production (originating in Lübeck) by the Swiss director Dieter Kaegi with sets and costumes by Stefanie Pasterkamp was stunningly revealing. You cannot pin a definite time-frame on it though it definitely looks post World War II. The first scene in the first act has Carlo singing in a magnificent library instead of the outside of a tavern on the frontier and the masnadieri literally push their way in through the library walls destroying a lot of books while their destroyed pages will stay on the scene till the end of the opera; probably a symbol for tenor Carlo's lost academic career.
From the second scene on we are in the castle of the Moor family where we'll stay for the remaining three acts as well though the castle becomes more and more of a waste. So there is no forest and one wonders why Amalia on her flight for Carlo's utterly bad baritone brother Francesco is running around in the same place where the bad guy tried to have his way with her.
Another "modern" touch was having father Massimiliano pushed around by Amalia in a wheelchair on a platform above two forbidding stairs. Now it's not a bad idea to have poor old and sick Massimiliano creep down those stairs but there was some tittering in the house the moment the soprano started her aria while at the same time trying to push the wheelchair (luckily without the bass in it) downstairs.
A better idea was the end of the opera. After Carlo has killed Amalia (which is in the libretto) his bunch of bandits kill him (not in the libretto) to punish him for his back-pedalling on his oath or because they cannot enjoy the girl. Anyway it made for strong theatre. All in all, the production was not outrageous or didn't make the singers life miserable but neither did it much to help us forget the libretto's weaknesses.
The musical side was very strong with one exception. Honour should go to Jean-Pierre Haeck and his orchestra. He clearly believed in the score and didn't rush the cabaletti to get over with them as quickly as possible. He supported his singers very well and allowed them the acuti Verdi didn't write or the cadenza's the composer left to the imagination of the singers (as a practical guy he knew that creator Jenny Lind would improvise her own anyway, so why lose energy on writing them). Haeck succeeded very well in mounting the tension of the opera and by the third and fourth act the whole house was in thrall of a musical drama which they would probably find ridiculous if they read it beforehand. Haeck integrated the rum-ti-tum chorus passages well, making these waltzes even threatening.
The best singing of the evening came from bass Enzo Capuano. This veteran is always a joy to watch and to hear. His voice is not overly big or distinguished though there is a certain nobility in the timbre but he is clearly steeped in the great Verdian tradition, knows how to emphasize a phrase and has the legato necessary for those long rolling utterances.
Less Verdian was Ukrainian tenor Misha Didyk. Mezza-voce and piano are not his strongest features and he has a lisp in the best Corelli-tradition. But the voice is a real tenor, with a lot of metal, ring and squillo in it and he made some exciting sounds in the cabaletta "Nell'argile" while in the last act he rose to the tragic situation. The voice is almost a copy of the sound of youthful Galouzin before that darkened so heavily.
Amarilli Nizza has some fine qualities. She is beautiful and slender and has a real Italian rich voice, especially in the upper middle register. Above the staff however the voice at times (which she seemingly cannot always control herself) often becomes either thin or somewhat shrill.
The musical fly in the ointment was baritone Marcel Vanaud. Of course it is the duty of the Walloon opera to give chances to Walloon singers but Vanaud has been singing here for 30 years and it was never a thing of beauty. The voice is big, still can sail to a G but is unacceptably throaty and has some really ugly patches. Francesco may be a villain but that doesn't mean that pure noise without any smoothness or a hint of legato will do. So I think it's more than time for Mr. Vanaud to retire (and next season he is back as father Miller, a role which really asks for belcanto singing) and leave his place to younger and far better Walloon Verdi baritones as Lionel Lhote who is this season's favourite baritone in the Flemish opera.