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ClassicsOnline Home » WOLF-FERRARI, E.: Vedova Scaltra (La) (La Fenice, 2007)
Wolf-Ferrari’s comic opera La vedova scaltra (The Cunning Widow), is among the works he based on plays by Goldoni. It matches closely the conventions of 18th-century opera buffa in its witty if sceptical look at the mechanisms governing the interplay of human relations. Four hopeful suitors, English, French, Spanish and Italian, vie for the hand of Rosaura, the cunning widow of the title, who disguises herself to meet each wooer, eventually choosing the only one who can demonstrate his sincerity. This production was recorded live at the Teatro La Fenice in February 2007 in celebration of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Goldoni in Venice in 1707.
By David Denton
One of the most successful ‘live’ opera recordings that I have heard in recent years, Wolf-Ferrari’s gentle comedy, La Vedova Scaltra (The Cunning Widow)proves a delightful discovery.
Taken from the stage of the Teatro La Fenice, it was first issued on Naxos DVD, and you will find an extended review of that release in the June 2008 edition of David’s Review Corner. Often mixing influences of Puccini and Richard Strauss, it is a score of attractive tonal shades, the story circling around the a young widow’s choice between four amorous suitors of differing nationalities. The cast is vocally strong, each vividly expressing their role to such good effect that they are effective without the visual additions DVD. Of course on CD we miss the big spectacles and the gorgeous costumes, but with stage and audience noises reduced to a minimum, and a realistic balance between singers and orchestra, it is only the slightly constricted sound from the orchestra pit that betrays its theatre origin. The enclosed booklet gives a detailed synopsis to guide you through the complex intrigues. An outstanding bargain opera release not to be missed.
Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876–1948)
La vedova scaltra
Rosaura - Anne-Lise Sollied
Milord Runebif - Maurizio Muraro
Monsieur Le Bleau - Emanuele D’Aguanno
Il Conte di Bosco Nero - Mark Milhofer
Don Alvaro di Castiglia - Riccardo Zanellato
Marionette - Elena Rossi
Arlecchino - Alex Esposito
Birif - Claudio Zancopè
Folletto - Luca Favaron
Un servo di Don Alvaro - Antonio Casagrande
Venice was where Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari was born and where he died, and it was Venice that provided the setting for many of his operas; but Wolf-Ferrari spent most of his working life in German-speaking countries, and his music did not make much of an impression in Italy until quite late in his life. Born to a German father and a Venetian mother, he had much in common with his older contemporary, Ferruccio Busoni, who was only one-quarter German but who regarded Berlin as his home. During the First World War both composers took refuge in Zürich (as did, those who have seen Tom Stoppard’s Travesties will recall, Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara).
Ermanno Wolf was born in 1876, one of seven children and the eldest of five sons. His father, August Wolf, was a painter well known for his copies of old Italian paintings made for Count Adolf Friedrich von Schack; his mother, Emilia Ferrari, came from a family of small-time traders. August wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, and the teenaged Ermanno did study art for a while in Rome and Munich; but he soon abandoned art, to the despair of his father, to become a pupil of Joseph Rheinberger at the Munich Academy of Music. He had already seen his first operas which, being by Rossini and Wagner, neatly counterpointed his mixed racial background. At about the time he left the Academy he emphasized this duality by adding his mother’s maiden name to his own.
In the winter of 1895 Wolf-Ferrari was in Milan, where he was looking for a publisher for his first opera, Irene. Nothing came of this, but he attended a performance of Verdi’s Falstaff, less than three years after its première. He was introduced to the master, who received him kindly, but Wolf-Ferrari was too tongue-tied to profit by the conversation. He did, however, profit greatly from seeing Falstaff, the fleet, conversational manner of which subsequently informed his own comedies. His marriage in 1897 produced a son the following year.
The first of his operas to be staged, Cenerentola, was a failure in Venice but a success when, duly revised, it was put on in Bremen. He enjoyed another success with the first performance, in Munich, of his cantata La vita nuova. Soon after this, he was appointed director of the Liceo Musicale in Venice. It was during this period that he composed the first two of his five operas based on Goldoni. Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) was a prolific Venetian playwright and librettist, whose collaboration with the composer Baldassare Galuppi produced some of the most popular operas of the mid-eighteenth century. Wolf-Ferrari did not make use of Goldoni’s librettos, but chose instead to set adaptations of his plays. Le donne curiose (Die neugierigen Frauen, Munich, 1903), regarded by Hans Pfitzner as ‘the best comic opera since Lortzing’, was followed by I quattro rusteghi (Die vier Grobiane, Munich, 1906).
By December 1909, when Il segreto di Susanna (Susannens Geheimnis) had its première, Wolf-Ferrari had resigned from his Venetian post and moved to Schwabing, a suburb of Munich. Like Il segreto, the works that followed were not based on Goldoni. I gioielli della Madonna (Der Schmuck der Madonna, Berlin, 1911) ventured into verismo territory, while L’amore medico (Der Liebhaber als Arzt, Dresden, 1913) is an adaptation of Molière. During his self-imposed wartime exile in Switzerland, when Germany and Italy were on opposite sides, Wolf-Ferrari suffered from depression and was unable to compose. In the 1920s, now divorced and remarried, he completed Gli amanti sposi, a Goldoni piece that at last had its première in Venice (1925), and his favourite, Das Himmelskleid (Munich again, 1927). Sly, a serious opera only loosely connected with The Taming of the Shrew, followed (Milan, 1927).
In the 1930s Wolf-Ferrari returned to Goldoni with La vedova scaltra (Rome, 1931) and Il campiello (Milan, 1936). His last operas were La dama boba (Milan, 1939) and Gli dei a Tebe (Der Kuckuck von Theben, Hanover, 1943).
Wolf-Ferrari became professor of composition at the Salzburg Mozarteum in 1939, commuting from his home at Planegg near Munich for two days a week. From Planegg he moved into Munich itself, but the Allied bombing forced him and his wife to flee to Alt Aussee in the Salzkammergut, where they lived in a single room. After the war Swiss friends came to the rescue by inviting them to stay in Zürich; and in April 1947 Wolf-Ferrari returned to Venice, where he died in January 1948. La vedova scaltra (The Cunning Widow) is a straightforward comedy about Rosaura and her four suitors from, respectively, France, England, Italy and Spain. Of the servants, Arlecchino (Harlequin) is a commedia dell’arte character who employs a mixture of Venetian dialect and comprehensible Italian.
 Milord Runebif, Monsieur Le Bleau, Don Alvaro and the Count di Bosco Nero are at dinner. Led by the Frenchman, they sing a drinking-song ‘alla francese’ before discussing Rosaura, the beautiful widow. Milord Runebif gives the waiter, Arlecchino, a ring to deliver to the lady as a prelude to his visiting her. The Count insists that she does not welcome visitors, while Don Alvaro believes that Spanish doubloons will win her.
 Rosaura’s French maid, Marionette, is applying the finishing touches to her mistress’s make-up. Although only recently widowed, Rosaura already finds the Count not displeasing. Marionette advises her to choose a Frenchman, as French husbands are not jealous, and she continues to sing their praises even while Rosaura, to the tune of a waltz, is making it clear that she is looking only for love and fidelity.
 Arlecchino enters with the ring: he is astounded when Rosaura refuses it. As Milord Runebif approaches, Rosaura reflects that the Englishman is too serious … but who knows? Marionette serves chocolate. In the course of conversation, Milord Runebif admits to Rosaura that he is interested in taking a mistress rather than a wife. Marionette announces the Count …
 … who, to the disdain of Runebif, is furiously jealous to find Rosaura entertaining another man. Runebif makes a dignified exit, whereupon the Count pours out his passion. Rosaura confesses that she loves him, but vigorously asserts her right to behave as she pleases.
 Monsieur Le Bleau and Marionette, old friends from Paris, are surprised and delighted to run into each other. He is looking for Rosaura: this distresses Marionette, but she is happy to disclose her mistress’s whereabouts when Monsieur Le Bleau offers to pay her. The money is not immediately forthcoming, however, and Marionette contrasts his behaviour with the English custom of paying on the nail.
 Rosaura is in the garden. To the accompaniment of a flute, Monsieur Le Bleau woos her in extravagant terms. He does his cause no good, however, by regretting that Rosaura was not born in Paris.
 Guitars and an off-stage chorus of servants signal the entry of Don Alvaro in a gondola. Rosaura leaves it to Marionette to welcome him. The grandee is so grand that he disdains to retrieve the gold watch that he drops by accident. Marionette goes to call her mistress.
 Monsieur Le Bleau instructs Arlecchino to deliver his portrait and a sonnet to Rosaura. One by one, the other suitors also arrange for the despatch of valuable items to the widow. The Count’s offering is a letter of apology which he gives to his lackey, Folletto. Milord Runebif sends jewels via his servant, Birif; while Arlecchino’s second task is to present Rosaura with Don Alvaro’s family tree, together with a poem.
 To a keyboard accompaniment Rosaura sings a set-piece about two separated lovers, Daphne and Amaryllis.
 Arlecchino arrives with the portrait and sonnet from Monsieur Le Bleau. Though dressed as a French valet, he still speaks in Venetian dialect and he is immediately recognised by Marionette. While Rosaura composes her reply, the servants engage in an exaggerated flirtation. As Arlecchino leaves, Folletto comes in with the Count’s letter. The situation is repeated, Folletto seeking an assignation with Marionette while Rosaura is busy with her reply. She is touched by the letter, but she knows how a lover can dissemble.
 Birif then enters with Milord Runebif’s present of jewels, their glitter illustrated in the orchestra. Jewels are better than a love letter or a portrait, opine the women; but all the same, Rosaura is not to be bought. Arlecchino is seen approaching, this time dressed as a Spaniard. Arlecchino presents Don Alvaro’s family tree and the poem; Rosaura writes yet another letter. Once Arlecchino has gone, she tells her maid that she likes all four suitors, but is not dismayed at the prospect of making a choice. The scene ends with a reprise of the waltz tune from Act I, Scene 1.
 In a small square, a campiello, Milord rebuffs the Count’s attempts at conversation. Birif and Folletto arrive hotfoot from Rosaura’s house. There is a letter for the Count. He reads it with delight, and sings of his happiness: Rosaura loves him, and life is beautiful.
 Don Alvaro is waiting for Arlecchino. When the servant arrives, he assures Alvaro that he sang the poem to Rosaura ‘like a swan’. (Don Alvaro evidently does not know that swans are mute.) When he produces the widow’s reply to Monsieur Le Bleau by mistake he improvises hastily, to Don Alvaro’s eventual satisfaction; but his reward is merely a certificate. Arlecchino makes himself scarce as the Frenchman enters.
 Monsieur Le Bleau is not happy with his Venetian wig and shoes, but he forgets his woes when Arlecchino reenters, having changed out of his Spanish clothes. Handing over the letter meant for Don Alvaro, Arlecchino again has to talk his way out of trouble. His reward is a piece of ‘the most precious thing in the world’: Rosaura’s letter.
 When Marionette asks for a share of Arlecchino’s tip from Monsieur Le Bleau, the servant duly gives her the scrap of paper, quoting the Frenchman’s words. Marionette is furious: Arlecchino mocks her from the kitchen roof before making his escape.
 Rosaura tells Marionette of her plan. She will appear to each suitor in turn in the guise of a temptress from his own country. She will marry the one who resists. The ball to which she is issuing invitations is a pretext for getting all four together.
Monsieur Le Bleau and Don Alvaro are, separately, having doubts about Rosaura’s reply. When Arlecchino changes the letters over, they realise the situation and prepare for a duel; but, before it can begin, Monsieur Le Bleau is distracted by Rosaura’s pretty maidservants.
 Milord Runebif and the Count do fight, and the latter is wounded. Alone, Runebif responds to the approaches of a beautiful English lady in a mask. She says that they will meet at the ball, and requests a token so that he will know her unmasked.
 Don Alvaro, already irritated by Monsieur Le Bleau’s disappearance, is infuriated by Arlecchino. When Le Bleau reappears, the Spaniard draws his sword; but they are prevented from fighting by a beautiful French lady in a mask. Le Bleau immediately responds to her advances and gives her a token, as she asks. After she has left, he has second thoughts and tells Don Alvaro that he will not give her up. As they fight, a beautiful Spanish lady in a mask enters. She snubs Le Bleau, and turns her attention to Don Alvaro. He soon succumbs and he, too, gives her a token.
 Arlecchino and the Count enter, in mid-conversation: Rosaura has invited the guests of the inn to a ball. The Count notices a beautiful Venetian lady in a mask looking at him tenderly. He speaks to her, making it clear that his love is reserved for ‘madama Rosaura’. As he leaves, he gives her, at her request, something to remember him by: his handkerchief. To the accompaniment of her waltz tune, Rosaura now has confirmation of the love and faithfulness that she has been looking for.
 The guests assemble for the ball. Marionette appears as Eros, and addresses Rosaura as the Rose of Arcady.
 Rosaura says that she will choose her husband in public. In turn, Milord Runebif, Monsieur Le Bleau and Don Alvaro are confronted with the damning evidence of the tokens they gave to the mysterious masked beauty: Rosaura herself, of course. She will marry the Count, who alone passed the test. In Venetian dialect, all agree that the love of a fellow countryman – and of Goldoni – is a fine thing, and that the heart cannot be commanded. With a last flourish of the waltz tune in the orchestra, the opera is over.
© Richard Lawrence, 2008
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