Notes and Editorial Reviews
With luxury forces throwing themselves unsparingly into an idiomatic, well focused and vigorous performance this is a significant achievement and DG’s enterprise deserves to be richly rewarded.
I Medici was intended as the first part of an ambitious trilogy of operas based on aspects of the Italian renaissance. The publisher Ricordi rejected the proposal and suggested that instead Leoncavallo should concentrate on writing libretti for other composers. However after the immense success of
Pagliacci in 1892 another publisher did accept it.
I Medici was produced in Milan the following year and subsequently in Berlin where it impressed Kaiser Wilhelm II sufficiently for him to commission an
historical opera on the subject of the Hohenzollerns. In total Leoncavallo wrote twelve operas and ten operettas but, except for a rare revival of his version of
La Bohème, all have vanished from the stage except the inevitable
Pagliacci. I would not want for a moment to disparage that opera which fully deserves its place but it is extremely welcome to have the opportunity to hear the present work. What this recording reveals immediately from the vivid opening hunting scene followed by an impassioned love duet is that this clearly comes from a composer with a real understanding of the needs of the stage and of singers. A large cast and orchestra are required, along with elaborate staging, but it is easy to imagine how effective it would be in the theatre.
I was frequently reminded in melody, harmony or scoring of
Pagliacci but no more so than between two works by any other composer with a distinctive musical personality. It is indeed good to realise that Leoncavallo did have such an individual voice although by no means as much as the learned note by Michele Girardi suggests and there are occasional reminders of contemporary composers including Wagner, Verdi and Massenet. There is no feeling that this is a patchwork of borrowings from those composers, rather that he is using the
lingua franca of the time for his own purposes. Much more important is the way in which the score embodies a real contrast in character between scenes and in the way in which tension is built up and released. The composer’s masterly ensemble writing, especially in the complex scenes in the middle acts where different groupings of characters emerge both musically and dramatically is a particular highlight. It has to be admitted that melodically it does not begin to match
Pagliacci in memorable quality but it surely equals the work of other Italian composers of the day such as Giordano or Cilea. It must also be admitted that the final scene, although satisfactory, does not really come as the kind of musical and dramatic climax that is needed, leaving the listener slightly disappointed at the end.
Many little performed operas have emerged on disc in recent years, for which the listener should be profoundly grateful given how unlikely they are to be seen on stage. Often these have been live recordings from less well known opera houses, where some shortcomings, musical or technical, have to be accepted. That is not the case here. A cast including Plácido Domingo, Carlos Ávarez and Daniela Dessi would be counted as a luxury even for a studio recording of a well known work, but is beyond normal dreams for such a little known work. There perhaps is the rub, in that all three singers, and indeed the cast as a whole, throw themselves unsparingly into the performance, but there is a lack of the kind of individual inflexion and detailed understanding that can only come from familiarity with the work on stage. It has to be admitted also that there are occasional signs of strain in Plácido Domingo’s upper register and that Renata Lamanda is prone to a very wide vibrato when strong emotions are called for, as in Act 3. Allowing for these matters and bearing in mind that for the most part the performance is idiomatic and well focused, what we have here is more than sufficient to convince me that the opera would be worth staging. The chorus and orchestra take every advantage of their extensive and grateful opportunities and Alberto Veronesi, as far as I can judge without a score, directs a detailed and vigorous performance. The recording is spacious and well balanced. Fortunately there have been no pointless economies over the presentation of the discs and the booklet includes a helpful essay, a synopsis and a libretto in four languages. Unusually there are no notes about the performers but it is right to put the emphasis on the work itself. Overall this is a significant achievement for everyone involved, and particularly for Deutsche Grammophon whose enterprise deserves to be richly rewarded.
-- John Sheppard, MusicWeb International
This is grand verismo opera at its grandest, which is to say, very loud and almost unremitting, but nonetheless viscerally thrilling. It has the extra overblown quality of being what composer Leoncavallo saw as the first of a trilogy titled Crepusculum, named after Wagner's Götterdämmerung (both meaning "twilight"); but instead of Wotan, Loge, and the rest of the boys, we have the Medicis (the other two operas were to be concerned with Savanarola and Cesare Borgia). It was to be as emblematic of the "Italian spirit" and celebrate "Italian-ness" in the same manner as Wagner's operas did with more northern places. Wagner, of course, did it through myth, but Leoncavallo worked with history. He wrote his own libretto in 1887, composed the opera in 1890, and it was performed, to little acclaim, in 1893, with Francesco Tamagno, Verdi's Otello, as Giuliano de' Medici, the role here taken by Placido Domingo.
And so: we are in Renaissance Italy. Giuliano de' Medici, out hunting one day with his brother Lorenzo, meets the fragile, lovely Simonetta and they fall instantly in love. He later becomes entangled with and impregnates her best friend Fioretta, who also loves him and feels terrible about betraying her Simonetta, although all Giuliano does is ask about the tuberculin Simonetta. Simonetta hears of a Vatican plot against the Medicis, headed by Papal assassin Montesecco and Pazzi (from a wealthy, competitive banking family), and tries to warn Giuliano, but she dies first. The murder is to take place in church; Giuliano is killed but Montesecco refuses to kill Lorenzo in a holy place. The poet Polizano pushes Lorenzo into the sacristy, out of danger; moments later Lorenzo delivers a loving, family-defending spiel to the masses and wins back their support. He, by the way, became patron to Michaelangelo. Giuliano's dying request to his brother is that he care for the pregnant Fioretta. Giulio, by the way, later became Pope Clement VII.
Despite the fact that there are moments in Act 2 during which you fear it will never end, and there are other sequences that could be cut in half, there also are some very appealing, echt-Italian moments to be found here, and certainly full-blooded vocal lines are among them. Recorded in 2007, it finds Domingo in his very-late-bloom voice as Giuliano, certainly with some strain on the big B-flats, but most assuredly handsome in the lower registers and magisterial when exclaiming. The role does not lie low, however, and he could not pass for young; nor does he quite sound involved with the character. (Perhaps he realized that the opera will never be mounted for him and learned it without actually "inhabiting" it.)
Daniela Dessi sings Fioretta, and she also is sounding a bit senior (probably purposeful casting to match Domingo). Her verismo-drenched sound always has had a bit of a wobble that is now more pronounced. And considering how fragile the character is supposed to be, she sounds pretty fierce. Renata Lamanda, a name new to me, sings poor Fioretta. The voice is rock solid and she shines in the duet with Giuliano that ends Act 2 (which will remind listeners of Nedda's and Silvio's in Pagliacci, occasionally note-for-note, but with more urgency since tenor replaces baritone and tessitura is therefore higher) and in her third-act aria.
The star is Carlos Alvarez as Lorenzo, his baritone occasionally sounding as impressive as Sherrill Milnes'. His final rant to the people is a breathtaking display, worthy of a great Verdi role. In smaller roles, Eric Owens is luxuriously cast as the murderous Montesecco, sounding like doom whenever he sings. The others in the cast are fine, particularly Vitalij Kowaljow as Pazzi.
Alberto Veronesi is a great champion of verismo and of Leoncavallo, and he gets everything possible from this purple score, sculpting the ensembles (surely the best parts of the opera) as if they were great music. The Florentine players and singers respond superbly. You will know if this should be a part of your collection: Francesca da Rimini fans, verismo and Domingo completists, and those curious as to Leoncavallo's non-Pagliacci, non-Zaza output need apply. I also recommend that you listen for direct quotes from Wagner. They are many and amusing. Sound is superb.
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
I Medici by Ruggero Leoncavallo
Vitalij Kowaljow (Bass),
Eric Owens (Baritone),
Daniela Dessi (Soprano),
Placido Domingo (Tenor),
Carlos Alvarez (Baritone)
Florence Maggio Musicale Orchestra,
Florence Maggio Musicale Chorus
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