28 Dec 2011
Leoncavallo’s I Medici
Ruggero Leoncavallo’s name is forever tied to that of Pietro Mascagni.
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The champagne corks popped at the close of this year’s Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at the Royal Opera House, with Prince Orlofsky’s celebratory toast forming a fitting conclusion to some superb singing.
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Two years ago, the well-established Des Moines Metro Opera experimented with a 2nd Stages program, with performances programmed outside of their home stage at Simpson College.
What to make of the unannounced decision to open this concert with the Marseillaise? I am sure it was well intended, and perhaps should leave it at that.
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Three parallel universes (before losing count) — the ephemeral Debussy/Maeterlinck masterpiece, the Debussy symphonic tone poem, and the twisted intricacies of a moldy, parochially English country estate.
This, alas, was where I had to sign off. A weekend conference on Parsifal (including, on the Saturday, a showing of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Parsifal film) mean that I missed Götterdämmerung, skipping straight to the sequel.
The culmination of Opera North’s “Ring for Everyone”, this Götterdämmerung showed the power of the condensed movement so necessary in a staged performance - each gesture of each character was perfectly judged - as well as the visceral power of having Wagner’s huge orchestra on stage as opposed to the pit.
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.