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Metropolitan Opera House, N.Y.; April 8, 2002

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Sly was premiered at La Scala in 1927. Productions soon sprang up in many other European cities, but within a few years, it seems to have run its course. It was revived in 1998 in Zurich, then in Barcelona and then in Washington D.C with mixed reactions. Now it has arrived at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, and with Placido Domingo in the title role, it is garnering a great deal of attention.

The opera’s plot concerns a visit by the Count of Westmoreland and his mistress, Dolly, to a tavern where the poet/ne’er do well/ heavily in debt/drunkard Sly is a favorite; when Sly arrives, he entertains the crowd with songs before passing out in a drunken stupor. The Count has the cruel idea to transport Sly to his castle, dress him in finery, surround him with servants (including the Count himself) and when he awakes, convince him that he’s a nobleman who has been in a deranged state for ten years. The plan works: Eventually Sly is convinced, Dolly shows up as Sly’s unremembered (by him) wife, and she actually feels love for him in their duet. At the peak of Sly's happiness the hoax is revealed, Sly is humiliated, and in the brief third act – essentially a long soliloquy for Sly – he realizes the uselessness and foolishness of his life and slashes his wrists. He dies as Dolly re-enters and curses his tormentors.

The large orchestra plays Italian verismo-like music but with great Germanic coloration and density; Wolf-Ferrari was a fine orchestrator, if not quite a great melodist. Act I sets the scene but does little that is musically memorable. The second act is lavish exoticism as Sly is surrounded by servants and dancing girls; the colors coming from the orchestra are practically Debussy-ian and Ravel-ian but are served with greater emphasis and far greater volume. The effect is dazzling. The tragic final scene is quite moving. The opera rises and falls on the larger-than-life anti-heroic Sly, the drunken poet, the victim, the noblest person on stage. Domingo sings his heart out and makes us believe it all. As Dolly, Maria Guleghina uses her mammoth voice well, rising above the orchestra when needed and managing to scale her volume back and sing quite tenderly when her feelings for Sly turn to love. Juan Pons, as the cruel Count, is effectively nasty in a role which would probably suit a more Verdian-voiced baritone, and the remainder of the Met cast is good.

Marco Armiliato’s leadership is suitably grand and he keeps the superb Met players and the large cast in line while losing none of Wolf-Ferrari’s interesting sound pictures. Michael Scott’s sets and costumes are both handsome and functional; Marta Domingo’s direction adds nothing of interest or depth to what is clear in the music and libretto. Perhaps not a stable repertoire piece, but a nice rarity, an interesting look at opera composed between the wars, and in the end, an effective drama.

Sly plays again at the Met on April 13th (matinee), 18th, 24th, 27th (matinee), 30th, and May 4th (matinee).

Robert Levine

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