28 Dec 2011
Leoncavallo’s I Medici
Ruggero Leoncavallo’s name is forever tied to that of Pietro Mascagni.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
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800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
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How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
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Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
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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.