August 14, 2008


Rossini: L’Inganno felice. Kenneth Tarver, Corinna Mologni, Lorenzo Regazzo, Marco Vinco, Simon Bailey; Czech Chamber Soloists, Brno, conducted by Alberto Zedda. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Britten: Owen Wingrave. Peter Coleman-Wright, Alan Opie, James Gilchrist, Elizabeth Connell, Janice Watson, Sarah Fox, Pamela Helen Stephen, Robin Leggate; Tiffin Boys’ Choir and City of London Sinfonia conducted by Richard Hickox. Chandos. $34.99 (2 CDs).

Wolf-Ferrari: La vedova scaltra. Anne-Lise Sollied, Maurizio Muraro, Emanuele D’Aguanno, Mark Milhofer, Riccardo Zanellato; Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, conducted by Karl Martin. Naxos. $39.99 (DVD).

      Explorers of the byways of opera will enjoy any or all of these new releases, although none of the works rises to the heights that some of these composers’ other operas attain. Rossini’s L’Inganno felice (“The Fortunate Deception”), his fourth opera, dates to the astonishingly productive year of 1812, when no fewer than six operas flowed from his creative mind (and speedy pen). Rossini called this one-act opera a farce, but it is actually a fairly serious work, its buffo elements less important than its romantic and melodramatic ones. The story takes place 10 years after a duke, believing false rumors that his wife was unfaithful to him, has allowed her to be set adrift on the sea. Rescued by a local miner, she has lived with him for a decade as his niece, without revealing her identity, but does declare it when her husband – accompanied by the villains who spread the false rumors and sundered her from him – turns up in town. The plot involves her being reunited with her husband, who has loved her all the time, while the evildoers are caught and punished. It is a flimsy story that nevertheless made the opera very popular in Rossini’s time; yet it creaks too much to make L’Inganno felice a work worthy of frequent revival today. The music is perkier than the libretto, which consists mostly of give-and-take among the characters that English speakers will have difficulty following: Naxos makes the libretto available online, but only in Italian. The work is well sung and well played in this new recording, but it remains minor Rossini.

      Owen Wingrave, for its part, is minor Britten, having been written for British television (although its first performance, in November 1970, predated its initial BBC broadcast by six months). Based – like The Turn of the Screw – on a Henry James story, Owen Wingrave is less atmospheric and less psychologically complex than the earlier work and comes closer to being a straightforward musical statement of Britten’s pacifism. James’ tale is a ghost story, whose focus is a mysterious room in which a father who had killed his son is himself found dead, without any apparent wound. This part of the tale shows up at the start of Britten’s second act, and it is obvious musically and dramatically that death in the haunted room will be Owen’s fate as well. Indeed, the whole opera is rather obvious, its sole dramatic premise being that Owen – last of a family of warriors – disdains war and wishes he could make it a crime. Everyone else in the opera is, not very believably, arrayed against Owen, with Britten intending him as a lonely outcast in the mode of Billy Budd or Peter Grimes. But Owen, although well sung in this new recording by Peter Coleman-Wright, comes across as more petulant than anything else, simply declaring his pacifism and then sticking to it even when accused of cowardice, an assault on his family’s values, and so on. The Chandos recording, with its book including the libretto and its discussion of the opera’s place in Britten’s oeuvre (Britten wrote it in response to the Vietnam War), gives Owen Wingrave its due, but the work never seems as heartfelt or vibrant as several other Britten operas.

      Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s La vedrova scaltra, on the other hand, is a genuine discovery – it has never been on DVD before – and a most pleasant surprise. The title of this 1931 work translates as “The Cunning Widow,” and Wolf-Ferrari’s work bears more than a passing resemblance to Franz Lehár’s 1905 operetta The Merry Widow in making its heroine a young widow, Rosaura, who tests potential suitors to find her true love. One of a series of Wolf-Ferrari’s operatic adaptations of the witty farces of Renaissance playwright Carlo Goldoni, La vedrova scaltra features the widow (well sung and acted by Anne-Lise Sollied) disguising herself to meet, in turn, suitors from England, France, Spain and Italy, in order to determine which is the most sincere. There is a serious undercurrent to La vedrova scaltra that is missing in Lehár’s much more famous work, and Wolf-Ferrari’s music amuses without genuinely sparkling – there is nothing in La vedrova scaltra that audiences are likely to be humming after the final curtain. But Wolf-Ferrari gets Goldoni’s tone right, providing a lens of hopefulness and skepticism through which the audience sees the mating dance of the principal characters. And the four suitors, typecast though they certainly are, have some amusing moments as they put forth their countries’ personalities while wooing Rosaura. The staging is expert, the singing very fine, and the conducting nicely balanced and well paced. None of this turns La vedrova scaltra into a major opera, but it is certainly a minor find, worthy of occasional revivals and – in Naxos’ high-quality DVD presentation – very much worth viewing as well as hearing.

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