Schiller wrote the original melodrama, Die Räuber (The Robbers); Verdi gave London the opera, I masnadieri. But a brigand's life is not a happy one, and that in itself should have been an omen. Verdi's librettist, Andrea Maffei, made a pig's ear of the silk purse, and not even Verdi's burgeoning talent could salvage much dignity from it. There's a glimmer of originality in the darkly tearful cello concertino of the prelude. There are flashes of magisterial fire. But, for the most part, abject misery turns to unfettered joy – and vice versa – in a bar or less of Verdi's jauntiest accompagnamenti; for the most part, this is opera-by-numbers and it needs all the help it can get. But not here, not now, at the Royal Opera.
Elijah Moshinsky's production – first seen in Baden-Baden, Savonlinna and Edinburgh – is new to London, though any evidence that Moshinsky, or indeed any competent stage director, has been anywhere near it is sadly lacking. To call the evening theatrically moribund would be to suggest that there had once been life in it – and that I doubt. It's thoughtless, it's lazy, it's everything that opera can no longer be. No excuses. Imaginative direction and design can inject vitality into the lamest material. But here, even Paul Brown, the normally talented designer, is at a loss. A wall of windows – presumably suggestive of the fragile divide between respectability and the life of crime and deception to which the hero, Carlo, has been banished – is laboriously hand-turned by groups of costumed stagehands. Their body language suggests that they've worked on this production before – in another life. They move with the weariness and disengagement of the undead. Rain trickles down the glass. Tears? Before bedtime, certainly.
There's really not much else to say about the staging. Except that it makes the singers look bad even when they're not. Three members of the original cast, from four years back, recreate their roles. The odds against them doing so again must be fairly high. On this showing, I masnadieri was born and may die in London. Franco Farina, in the hefty tenor role of Carlo, should take some credit for his stamina. But try as he may (and he does, he really does), elegance eludes him. The voice suffers drop-out syndrome when he takes the sound away (too much can belto in big houses); intonation is not negotiable, but on occasions he appears to think it is. Paula Delligatti adopts what I would call the "big frock" approach with Amalia. Her singing is all about appearances, all about the notes and not nearly enough about what they tell us. And even the notes are cautious. Except the top "money" notes, unlovely and pushed enough to threaten the glasswork. Some inwardness, some intensity, would have been nice.
The lower voices both scored heavily in that regard. The sonorous Rene Pape made much of too little as the duped father Count Massimiliano, and his duet with Carlo is a glorious premonition of Verdian heartbreak to come. In an evening where even that great Verdi advocate Edward Downes seemed a little below par, this was a moment to seize upon. Others were provided by the one true star of the evening, Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Carlo's brother, the vindictive Francesco – Iago in embryo. What this fine artist always gives us is value to the bitter end of every note. No short-changing. His vocal charisma comes not just from a vibrant and seductive instrument but from a fierce intensity. "I've just had a terrible dream," he sings in his climactic scene. But it is no dream. He really is singing in this terrible production. Now that a new era has dawned at the Royal Opera, quality control should be stepped up to avoid dogs like this slipping through. Better a concert performance of I masnadieri than this.
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