The bad flop of the 1840 La Scala premiere definitively signed the destine of Verdi's second opera. Neither its 1845, not so badly welcomed, reprise as "Il finto Stanislao", in Venice, changed very much the standing of this underrated work in the repertory, also because Verdi himself substantially repudiated it.
But, the general opinion is that the flop was not due to the intrinsic value of the opera.
The main problem was that, for the sophisticated audience of La Scala, the work sounded irremediably old-fashioned.
As a matter of fact, Romani and Verdi had a very short time to prepare it.
Felice Romani (1788-1865), for the novice Verdi, hurriedly recycled an old work dated 1818, based on the play "Le faux Stanislas" by Alexandre Vincent Pineux-Duval (1776-1842). The libretto had been already used by Adalbert Gyrowetz (or Vojtěch Jírovec, 1763-1850) for his opera "Il finto Stanislao", premiered in Milan (!) that year.
Besides, during the composition, Verdi lost his two children and their mother Margherita Barezzi.
Another element is that the only available cast for the premiere was not accustomed to the buffo or comic genres.
In a few words, everything seemed to plot against Verdi's new opera.
But, obviously, today, while listening to old operas, we are not looking for fashionable or "new" works, but for works which maintain their artistic value during the centuries. Besides, to listen to a really comic opera from Verdi - Falstaff has also a melancholic vein - is completely unusual and this gives to the work a renewed freshness.
The result is that we here have the occasion to listen to a very pleasant and well built opera. Felice Romani was a very skilled librettist and a real artistic talent. The narration is well developed; verses are both elegant and smart. All the characters are well outlined and depicted. Psychological insight is anything but superficial.
In short, we meet an amusing and interesting work.
The young Verdi demonstrates to perfectly master the "classical" style.
In his opera there are a lot of Rossinian features; even if he is not still refined as the old Master, Verdi adds his own mark, that is the typical musical vigor.
Harmonization is more accurate than in the average of Donizetti's operas, even if Verdi is not yet able to produce similar brainwaves.
The Romani's libretto and meter give the opera a sort of Bellinian elegance.
There is also something, in the general atmosphere, from Auber.
Besides, the vocal palette is complete and colorful, far better than in several Rossini's Neapolitan operas, where scores were literally "tenor-driven" (even six, opposite one soprano).
Arias, even if not particularly catchy, and concertati are very well developed; the use of the chorus is attentive and very effective.
In short, to our ear, the opera is fresh and really pleasant.
Even in a historical perspective, it is not so banal as often depicted. As already underlined, Verdi's vigor generates a partly innovative approach and effect; as a consequence, the work, on the whole, does not sound as merely imitative, but as a personal reinterpretation of traditional stylistic features.
In conclusion, considering this one as a first experiment and what of grand Verdi finally achieved with "Falstaff", I regret he did not pursue and cultivated also his talented vein for this genre.
Stated that, in my opinion, the material is anything but terrible (on the contrary!), what makes these two CDs a real treasure is the absolute excellence of the performance they contains.
I think we have to be really grateful to the "old" Philips for this exceptionally praiseworthy 1973 project and to have recruited a so outstanding cast for what was generally considered a largely minor, even odd, work.
Rarely we can enjoy performances so robust and artistically quite perfect in every component. Here, this aspects results particularly effective, because the "weights" of the six main roles are nearly similar.
Besides, the ages of the singers are well matched to the ages of the characters, that is another really rare feature.
José Carreras (b. 1946) is simply incredible. His Edoardo di Sanval is perfect and there is nothing to add through words: let's listen to him!
Jessye Norman (b. 1945) is a fresh and vocally wonderful Giulietta di Kelbar. Norman is often accused of a sort of affectation and coolness, but here (as, for instance, in "Il Corsaro" - with Gardelli - or in "Le nozze di Figaro" - with Colin Davis) she demonstrates to be able to be spontaneous, involved and humanly vivid. From a technical point of view, the quality of her vocal emission was already beyond question, while some non-Italian inflections are detectable in her pronunciation.
Ingvar Wixell (1931-2011) is a witty Cavaliere Belfiore, that is "Il finto Stanislao". My only reservation, about his excellent interpretation, concerns a light lack of youthfulness in his timbre and in some minor non-Italian inflections in his pronunciation. Anyway, he sings very well and he vividly renders the prompt and smart personality of Belfiore.
Fiorenza Cossotto (b. 1936) is an astonishing Marchesa del Poggio. She drives her sentimental and psychological duel with Cavaliere Belfiore with convincing artistry and technique.
Vincente Sardinero (1937-2002) gives his voice to Gasparo Antonio La Rocca (the Treasurer). His "duel" duet with the Barone di Kelbar is simply exhilarating.
Sardinero's excellent technique and Italian pronunciation, joined to his intelligent interpretation and to his not so beautiful timbre, are exactly what needed, in this "Buffo" role, to perfectly render the vivacious character of the greedy, not young, Treasurer.
The Barone di Kelbar is none other than the wonderful Wladimiro Ganzarolli (1932-2010), here called to cover the other "Buffo" role. Ganzarolli excellently depicts and sings a sanguine and exuberant Kelbar. He perfectly interacts with Sardinero in their comic scenes.
William Elvin (Delmonte and Servo) and Ricardo Cassinelli (Conte di Ivrea) complete, far more than adequately, in their minor roles, the excellent cast.
Lamberto Gardelli (1915-1998) possibly was the best specialist of "minor" Verdi and, obviously, he masters the idiom. His orchestration and conducting are quite perfect, warm and vivid. Paces are very well chosen, conveying the needed brio, without fastening too much the tempos, which, in Verdi, is always dangerous, risking to transform operas into operettas, in particular where metre is triple.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is involved and accurate and it perfectly supports Gardelli's interpretation.
The Ambrosian Singers and John McCarthy (1919-2009) are, as always, simply perfect.
Richard Nunn (1937-2012) is an expert harpsichordist.
Sound (stereo-analogic) is very good, warm and detailed. Some tridimensional effects (variations in the distance of the voices) are, in my opinion, sometimes a bit too forced.
The booklet contains a synopsis in English, French and German, while the Italian libretto is translated only in English.