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WOLF-FERRARI: I Quattro Rusteghi

CD Button Casucci, Degennaro, James, Beltrami; Akzeybek, Pelligra, Ialcic, Lamatic, Quarello, Stefanovski; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, V. Petrenko. Texts online. Rubicon RCD1024 (2)

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ITALY WAS IN THE GRIP of the verismo craze when Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876–1948) wrote his comic operas, including I Quattro Rusteghi (The Four Codgers), first performed in Munich in 1906. A native of Venice, Wolf-Ferrari based the opera on a play by fellow Venetian Carlo Goldoni (of The Servant of Two Masters/One Man, Two Guvnors fame), and all but one of the characters sing in Venetian dialect. 

In it, a cadre of four grumpy old men browbeat their wives so much that the women lament the day they married. The chief grump, Lunardo, makes a pact with his pal Maurizio to marry off his daughter Lucietta to Maurizio’s son Filiperto. They won’t let the pair meet before the wedding, but fortunately, it’s Carnival time, savior of opera plots and star-cross’d lovers. Felice, who, alone among the wives, has rebelled against her husband’s tyranny by taking an aristocratic lover, arranges for the young couple to meet while masked. When the fathers realize they’ve been undermined, they threaten to call off the wedding—even though Lucietta and Filiperto have, predictably, fallen in love. Felice calls out the codgers on their boorishness, and they back down like the cowards they are.

Wolf-Ferrari synthesizes the lush lyricism of Puccini with the buoyant joy of Mozart, the twinkle of Donizetti, the rhythmic vitality of Stravinsky and the intricate layering of Strauss’s orchestral textures. The result is distinctive and enchanting, and one wonders why Wolf-Ferrari’s work is not more frequently performed. The standout set-pieces include a sumptuous quartet at the end of the penultimate scene of Act I; the gracious neoclassical and contrapuntally elegant trio “Velo qua, eh!”; a deliciously frenetic Act II finale; and an elegantly melodious ensemble, riven with sweetly poignant harmonies, when Lucietta and Filiperto finally meet. There’s also an entertaining, if not politically correct, duet for Lunardo and Simone, in which they recall an era when men ruled the roost, bawling like babies and impersonating their gossiping wives in falsetto. 

This live capture from the European Opera Centre in Liverpool, conducted by Vasily Petrenko, makes a terrific case for the piece. Ana James bursts in with a glowing, magnetic soprano over excitable spiccato strings to establish Felice as the glamorous centerpiece of the proceedings. Soprano Romina Casucci is a firebrand-in-training as Lucietta, while mezzo-soprano Silvia Beltrami, as the harried Margarita, finds her fierceness in Act II, expressing herself with forceful, chest-toned opposition. Soprano Daniela Degennaro is a sparky Marina, Filiperto’s aunt and advocate. The codgers are brought to life gruffly by Mihnea Lamatic, Aleksandar Stefanovski, Mirko Quarello and Roman Ialcic, all basses exhibiting varying degrees of gravel and bombast. One suavely pretty romantic tenor (Tansel Akzeybek, as Filiperto) and one arch character tenor (Giulio Pelligra, as the besotted Count Riccardo, the only one to sing in Italian) round out the cast. Librettos in Venetian dialect and English are available online, but not in the same document, which makes following along trickier than it needs to be.  —Joanne Sydney Lessner

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