Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, June 2000
(Live Recording)
By Ira Siff, Opera News, August 2001

It is not uncommon for artists, in the autumn of an important career, to take on roles that match their somewhat diminished vocal resources. It is more unusual for such roles to provide a revelation about the artist in question, and even rarer for such an undertaking to provide a revelation about the role itself. In the case of José Carreras and his late-career vehicle of choice, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's 1927 opera Sly, both artist and piece are reintroduced to the public with impressive results. But the title role in Sly is far more than a star turn or cameo by a veteran. This is a "big sing," requiring resources one may have thought the Spanish tenor no longer possessed. Carreras's championing of this largely forgotten work has proved it so stage worthy (and attractive to stars) that next season it will arrive at the Met, with Plácido Domingo as the protagonist.

When Wolf-Ferrari's musical tale of a drunken English poet had its premiere, at La Scala, on December 29, 1927, it was seen as a musically conservative throwback to the nuova scuola that succeeded Verdi, and which did not include composers (aside from Puccini) who wrote more than one or two lasting successes. Berg's Wozzeck and Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex were introduced the year before Sly, and Weill's Mahagonny Songspiel was unveiled the same year; there were many new forms of musical expression in the air. But Wolf-Ferrari was steeped in traditions that he bent to serve his expressive needs, rather than exploding or eradicating them. The result is, happily, a work of freshness and originality, sparked by the persuasive sensuality of the orchestration and the force of characterization written into the score, particularly for the title role. After all the current attention, Sly may return to the near-oblivion in which it spent the better part of seventy-five years. But its moment in the twenty-first-century sun will have shown Sly to be opera of rich musical textures, powerfully dramatic monologues and deft melodic inspiration.

Wolf-Ferrari's score, in fact, is sly, and full of wit. Although the composer was, by birth, half Italian and half German, Sly feels like an identifiably Italianate work, nicely balanced between the sort of pastiche homage to commedia dell'arte with which Wolf-Ferrari succeeded in I Quattro Rusteghi, and the attempt at bloodcurdling drama with which he did not in I Gioielli della Madonna. Wolf-Ferrari had created a number of his own librettos, often based on plays by Goldoni, but this time he enlisted Giovacchino Forzano, who devised a very singable text based on an episode from Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, full of humor and irony, but ultimately tragic. The poet Sly is a sad character, witty and entertaining, but a drunk reduced to performing for tavern crowds. He is whisked away by the Earl of Westmoreland, who has discovered his mistress, Dolly, frolicking in an unseemly tavern haunted by the poet. Sly's abduction will serve to entertain the nobility and the mistress, who's been hungry for some down-to-earth fun. Sly, who has passed out, will awake in the Earl's castle, surrounded by servants and gold, and be told he has been delusional for a decade, merely imagining his squalid existence. The plan proceeds, but it backfires when Dolly falls in love with Sly -- and vice versa. The poet, thrown into a dungeon to decide whether he wishes to remain a jester in the Earl's household or return to the streets of London, avoids both by drinking himself into a stupor, then slashing his wrists with the broken bottle. As lurid as it sounds, the stylish dignity of Wolf-Ferrari's writing saves it from the fate of many an over-the-top verismo epic, elevating it to the intended level of human tragedy.

The cast on this recording, made last year during performances in Barcelona, is mostly excellent, and committed to the drama at hand. But the piece rises or falls on the tenor in the title role. Carreras's expressivity is boundless. Lyrical passages are floated meltingly, not finessed, and are completely text-based and unaffected. The voice sounds bright, secure and far better than at those stadium outings wherein Carreras holds the Three position among The Tenors. He paints this character like a master, with a seemingly limitless palette of colors and nuances. There are no real arias (save for a marvelous song about a bear, which Sly sings to entertain in the tavern); instead, there are long monologues in which most of the melodic inspiration is lavished on the orchestra. The role is centered on the low-ish side, which makes it all possible, but it is by no means a walk in the park. Carreras sounds up to the demands and has the requisite stamina.

Soprano Isabelle Kabatu, who made a favorable impression as Tosca with New York City Opera in 1998, begins a bit thickly, a shade shy of a few high notes, but as the voice warms up, it becomes more pliant and attractive, and her Dolly is suitably sympathetic and torn. It is luxury casting to have Sherrill Milnes as the Earl of Westmoreland. Also impressive is Alessandro Guerzoni as Sly's friend, the sympathetic John Plake. David Gimenez leads a tautly dramatic performance, with the Liceu orchestra giving him the many hues called for in a score that alternately insinuates, taunts, underlines and explodes. The recorded sound is warm and flattering without being overly reverberant.

Kabatu, Cantarero; Carreras, Milnes, Guerzoni, Rubiera; Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Gimenez. Text and translation.
Koch/Schwann 3-6449-2 (2)

By Giancarlo Landini, L' Opera, May 2001
Amongst the most interesting operas of the early 20th century, Sly has
returned to prominence thanks to Jose Carreras who in recent years has
authoritatively brought it again to several European stages, including that
of the Teatro Regio di Torino for the opening of the current season. In fact,
after World War II it had completely disappeared from Italian stages, to be
performed almost exclusively in German opera houses, where already before the
war it had achieved success from its first presentation in Dresden with the
excellent conductor, Fritz Busch.  Until now, the only official recording was
by Acanta: a live recording in 1983 from the Hannover Opera, re-released on
CD by Arts (47549) with the tenor Hans-Dieter Bader in the title role and
Deborah Polaski as Dolly.
Sly can count on Giovacchino Forzani's excellent libretto and Wolf-Ferrari's
honest music which, as Gaetano Cesari pointed out in the Corriere della Sera
after its world premiere, makes the drama immediately understandable without
letting itself be tempted by modernity, and creates a character, that of the
protagonist, that impresses with his strong humanity.
To bring it to life one needs an artist like the one Carreras has shown
himself to be. He is a singer of world wide popularity even though debated
and debatable for the obvious technical shortcomings that did not allow him
to reach the absolute heights that the undoubted beauty of his voice led us
to hope for. The Spanish tenor finds fertile ground in the character of Sly
to bring to fruition his strong charisma as an actor.  Even though the CD
deprives us of the action on the stage, the accents, the phrasing, the
immersion in the character come through clearly even if one is only
listening. These are qualities that in our opinion compensate for the vocal
limitations which are particularly evident in the higher register and in the
more intense parts of the score which Carreras approaches by adapting it to
his possibilities.
Nothing bad in that: the sacrosanct laments of the voice expert are silenced
when confronted with a sculpting of the drama that finds moments of great
fascination both in the "Song of the Bear" in Act I and in the great
monologue "Eppure... era commossa" in Act III. What must also be emphasized
is the coherence of Carreras' interpretation that wastes not one phrase,  but
unites them all in a unified vision, in a human and moving interpretation of
the character.
Carreras then, whom we cannot really put forward for other roles, perhaps in
the entire repertory, because of his evident state of vocal decline, manages
in this undertaking to tie his name to a character. Even if his other
performances might be forgotten with time, the Catalan tenor will always
remain tied to Sly, a character whom he has taken for his own.  In fact, the
celebrated interpretation of Aureliano Pertile, the first interpreter of the
role has not been preserved on disc, and is fading in the yellowed pages of
newspapers from long ago, without the possibility of objective comparisons.
The others, from the conductor to the other singers, amongst whom is the
famous Sherill Milnes, form an adequate (or almost)  frame around the
celebrated tenor.  While waiting for a video to complete the testimony of
Carreras' performance, the Koch recording should absolutely be in a
collection. Both for the opera which deserves to be honoured in the repertory
and for the high merit of the interpretation by its protagonist. Vocal
condition aside. These are the mysteries of opera.
English Translation © Jean Peccei


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