28 Dec 2011
Leoncavallo’s I Medici
Ruggero Leoncavallo’s name is forever tied to that of Pietro Mascagni.
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Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
Ruggero Leoncavallo’s name is forever tied to that of Pietro Mascagni.
Both composers found early acclaim with one-act operas, and to this day the pairing of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci serves as a popular mainstay of most opera houses. The sad shadow of that imposing success also falls on both composers, as neither ever managed to create another work as loved or esteemed. Leoncavallo, in fact, would have much preferred his name be linked, as unlikely as it may seem, with that of Richard Wagner. Leoncavallo considered himself to be better educated than his Italian contemporaries, including Puccini, who famously refused to acknowledge Leoncavallo’s prior claim to a novel about life among poverty-stricken hipsters in 19th century Paris — with Puccini’s La Bohéme driving Leoncavallo’s work into obscurity.
Leoncavallo would love to have created a multi-part epic along the lines of Wagner’s Ring cycle, and he actually completed the first of a planned triptych set in the Italian Renaissance — I Medici. In 2007 Deutsche Grammophon assembled some first-class artists to record this rare score. The booklet notes of DG’s handsomely produced set don’t attempt to peddle the opera as a long-lost masterpiece, offering the politely conditional, “If his opera ultimately does not work as drama ” while praising the highlights of the composer’s musical efforts. But there is more memorable melodic material in any fifteen minutes of Leoncavallo’s famed one-act work than in all four acts of I Medici.
The libretto complexly fails to provide any meaningful portrayal of the Renaissance or the political and cultural power of the two Medici brothers, Lorenzo and Giuliano. Other than a few lines at the beginning and end, the deeper issues Wagner would have dug into are ignored for a prosaic love triangle, with Giuliano in love with the sickly Simonetta, who would reciprocate if she weren’t so unwell she faints routinely. So Giulaino enjoys himself with her closest friend, Fioretta. Even as a love story, I Medici fails to satisfy, as Simonetta dies in act three almost as soon as she becomes aware of Giuliano’s dalliance with her friend, and before she can warn him of a conspiracy she has overheard to kill him and his brother. Giuliano falls victim to the assassins, while Fioretta mourns him and Lorenzo escapes. Lorenzo stays on the sidelines, making his shout of triumph at the end a bizarre non-sequitur. A menacing figure named Montesecco hangs on the outside of most of the drama yet has nothing pertinent to do in the action. The plot has more dead ends than a corn maze, but less suspense.
As a listening experience, however, I Medici shouldn’t be slighted. From the bray of hunting horns heard in the prelude through the song contest and dance sequence of act two up through the church music heard before the violence of act four, Leoncavallo stretches himself as an orchestrator. Why his lyric gift failed him can only be ascribed to the composer’s acknowledgement of his librettist’s (himself) failure to create any truly worthy inspiration.
The score finds worthy exponents in conductor Alberto Veronesi and its two male leads, Plácido Domingo and Carlos Álvarez. In 2007 Domingo still had a tenor’s silver in his vocal coloring, and he is caught in fine voice. Álvarez lacks the start tenor’s glamour and unique profile, but he has strength and nobility. As the perpetually ailing Simonetta, Daniella Dessi sounds very healthy, except for some harshness at the top. Renata Lamanda can’t make much of the dreary Fioretta, while Eric Owens lends his smoky bass in the negligible role of Montesecco.
For collectors of rare repertoire, this is an obvious “must-buy.” Otherwise, the appeal of this set is probably limited to devoted fans of either male lead.