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Leoncavallo and the Medici

available at Amazon
Leoncavallo, I Medici, P. Domingo, C. Álvarez, D. Dessì, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, A. Veronesi

(released on June 8, 2010)
Deutsche Grammophon 4777456

Online score:
Leoncavallo, I Medici
Wagner's influence on composers outside of Germany continued to grow in the years after his death, heard most famously perhaps in the late operas of Verdi. Inspired by the Ring cycle, Ruggero Leoncavallo even began a trilogy of operas on epic themes drawn from Italian history, with similar aims of championing Italian national heritage. If Wagner turned to German pre-Christian legend, it made sense that Leoncavallo would see the Renaissance as a cause for pride among Italians. The cycle was to be called Crepusculum, a name itself drawn from the Italian translation of Wagner's Götterdämmerung, and it would include operas based on the lives of Savonarola and Cesare Borgia (more information available from the Fondazione Leoncavallo). He completed only the first part, I Medici, relating the infamous Pazzi conspiracy of the late 15th century, an attempted coup d'état in Florence, orchestrated by the Pazzi family and others, even involving the Archbishop of Pisa, Francesco Salviati, and Pope Sixtus IV, both enemies of the Medici. At Sunday Mass in the Cathedral of Florence (identified in the libretto by its former namesake, Santa Reparata) on April 26, 1478, assassins stabbed the two ruling sons of the Medici, killing the younger brother, Giuliano, but allowing Lorenzo to escape and be locked safely in the sacristy by poet Angelo Poliziano.

Again imitating Wagner, Leoncavallo wrote his own libretto, a decision that is a creative mistake in more cases than not. He personalizes the historical events, abbreviating many years into four acts, by focusing the story on Giuliano, a role Leoncavallo entrusted to Francesco Tamagno, who also created Verdi's Otello. Sung here by the legendary Plácido Domingo, with heroic resolve in the face of declining vocal power, it adds some needed star power to a work that is, not without reason, almost completely unknown. (I Medici was reportedly first recorded in 1993, with Marcello Viotti conducting, an LP recording not yet transferred to CD.) Giuliano is loved by Fioretta de' Gori (sung with beauty and forthright strength by Renata Lamanda), who bears him an illegitimate child, a boy later adopted by Lorenzo and destined to become Pope Clement VII. Giuliano, however, loves Fioretta's friend, Simonetta Cattanei, who is dying, quite operatically, of consumption: the performance by Daniela Dessì is overly brawny, even harsh, although the fault may be partially due to microphone placement or balance manipulation, since the various singers are heard with puzzling differences of presence.

The best vocal work comes from the male side, especially the robust Carlos Álvarez as Lorenzo de' Medici and throaty Eric Owens as Giambattista da Montesecco, one of the conspirators, which is not to say that the rest of the cast is not good. The work itself is not exactly a hidden diamond waiting to be unearthed, but it is certainly worth knowing. In the liner essay, Michele Girardi observes that Leoncavallo kept meticulous notes of examples in operas by his competitors that were based on other composers' work, going on to write that "intertextuality almost seems a fixation, if not a mission, with him" (trans. Kenneth Chalmers). Leoncavallo not only wove many Wagnerian references into I Medici but had clearly been studying the works of Verdi. He even out-Rigoletto-s Rigoletto with the third act, set along the Arno by the Ponte Vecchio: two parallel scenes unfold simultaneously, one inside the house of Fioretta, where the drama of Giuliano's love life unravels, and the other in the street, where the conspirators lay their final plans. This is hardly an essential purchase but certainly an interesting curiosity, especially for fans of verismo opera.

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