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A Triumphant 'Sly' in Zurich

By David Stevens    International Herald Tribune

ZURICH - Never mind the Three Tenors. In a recent two-week period the Zurich Opera had the Four Tenors on tap, something most impresarios can only dream of, but which here took place in the context of the busy schedule of a medium-sized repertory house.

Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Alfredo Kraus passed through town quickly, but Jose Carreras took on a major career challenge, triumphantly so, in the title role of a new production of a real rarity, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's ''Sly.''

Wolf-Ferrari is himself something of a rarity. Torn between his paternal Munich and maternal Venice, with periods of refuge in Zurich in the two World Wars, he returned to his native Venice a ''tired pilgrim,'' in the words of the plaque on the house where he died in 1948.

The composer is most characteristic in his five settings of plays by Carlo Goldoni (a fellow Venetian of earlier vintage), in which his elegance and charm in writing for the voice and skill in handling the orchestra are winning.

''Sly'' is a different matter altogether. First performed at La Scala in 1927, it is on one level a shot at verismo, but beyond that a real attempt at music drama. Giovacchino Forzano, Puccini's collaborator on ''Gianni Schicchi,'' concocted the book from the brief, almost never performed ''induction'' to Shakespeare's ''Taming of the Shrew,'' but much expanded.

In Shakespeare, Christopher Sly is a tavern toper who is the victim of a nobleman's practical joke - he is taken dead drunk to the noble's castle and when he wakens is made to believe he is really the aristocratic owner of the premises who has been asleep for years.

In the opera the joke is developed and given a tragic twist. The character of Sly encompasses two literary-theatrical legends - that of the long-distance sleeper awakened and that of the dissolute but gifted poet, not unlike Brecht's Baal. Dolly, the nobleman's girlfriend, pretends to be Sly's wife who has long awaited his reawakening, but actually falls in love with him. But when the joke is over, Sly is thrown into the castle's dungeon and kills himself, unable to believe in her sincerity.

Despite the composer's adroit use of musical pastiche, this is an uncharacteristic work in which he seems to be speaking a different language. It requires a huge cast of drunks, servants, hangers-on and various ''dubious individuals.'' In short, it requires a real production.

There are four major roles, of which the tenor title part is at center stage most of the time, culminating in a daunting final act monologue. It is not a high-ranging part but it calls for real stamina, and Carreras carried it off heroically.

Juan Pons was the formidably wicked Earl of Westmoreland, author of the deadly prank; Daniela Dessi was the ambivalent Dolly, and Carlos Chausson was John Plake, an actor, fellow drinker and true believer in Sly's gifts as a poet. Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos as the conductor made the most of a sometimes dense and difficult score.

The three acts include a tavern, a castle with an elaborate charade for the awakened Sly and a final dungeon scene. Hans Hollmann's staging, Hans Hoffer's sets and Dirk von Bodisco's rich costumes all made solid contributions in behalf of this little-known but solid piece of music theater.

But the Zurich Opera, with about 300 performances a season, does not live by novelties alone. Alexander Pereira, the company's director, has to be and is skilled both at long-range artistic planning and at fielding emergencies.

At a matinee performance of Donizetti's ''L'Elisir d'Amore,'' the scheduled tenor was replaced by Reinaldo Macias, a Cuban-born American, who won a well-earned triumph, along with Isabel Rey as Adina, Angelo Veccia as Belcore and Chausson the adroit Dulcamara.

Another house tenor, the Bulgarian Boiko Zvetanov, was impressive in a double-bill that paired ''Pagliacci'' and Puccini's ''Le Villi,'' an early work based on the same material as the ballet ''Giselle,'' with the tenor danced to death by the spirits of girls abandoned before marriage.