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2006: I masnadieri


Program notes by George W. Martin


Verdi based his eleventh opera, I masnadieri (The Robbers) on Schiller’s long, ruminative drama Die Räuber, first published to great acclaim in 1781 and the next year, in a tightened version, produced as a five-act play. In both reading and staged versions Schiller attacked contemporary society which he, at twenty-two, thought stifled by an authoritarian state and church. In the reading version, upon which Verdi’s librettist, Andrea Maffei, chiefly relied, Schiller has his protagonist rage against Christian intolerance, covetousness and hypocrisy, and the language throughout veers from lofty to vulgar, is full of Biblical allusions, and often is violent. 


Verdi’s opera, which had its premiere in London on 22 July 1847, initially had little success in England, only four performances, but for fifteen years played well in Europe and abroad. Its last nineteenth-century revival at La Scala was in 1862 by which time Rigoletto, Trovatore and Traviata were pushing aside his earlier operas. In the twentieth century the opera shared in the Verdi revival that blossomed after World War II, and by the late 1970s had returned to England, Italy, Germany and the United States. La Scala staged it in 1978 as part of the house’s bicentennial anniversary, and Covent Garden produced it in 2002 to the delight of the critic for Opera, who proclaimed, “there is marvelous music in it.”


The story concerns a young man, Karl (Carlo) who, in a burst of anger against his father, agrees to lead riotous friends in a gang of robbers. Only later does he learn that his younger brother Franz (Franceso), scheming to displace him in his father’s affections and estate, has misled and imprisoned the old man. Filling the drama with overtones of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Schiller turns it from an account of one adolescent’s petulant gesture into a study of the potential costs of rebellion. For Karl’s oath of loyalty to his companions, conflicting with his basic wish to be a good son to his father and future husband to his cousin Amalia, leads him into a tangle of emotions and decisions which he can resolve only by killing Amalia and (in effect) his father. If this seems merely an over-heated example of German romanticism, recall that the French Revolution began with high hopes in 1789, descended in 1792 through the “September massacres” of 1200 prisoners by a mob, into the Reign of Terror, July 1793 to July 1794.


Musically, the opera is often criticized for its “old-fashioned” style. In the first act, for example, Carlo (tenor), Francesco (baritone), and Amalia (soprano) are each introduced in individual scenes by the traditional slow aria followed by a fast, and this repetitious progression, compared to the opening scenes of Rigoletto, is dramatically slow. Moreover, the act ends with a much-admired quartet for Francesco, Amalia, the father Massimiliano (bass), and a servant Arminio (tenor), but which begs the question: Why a servant for the tenor line when Carlo, tenor, is the opera’s protagonist? Moreover Carlo, after opening the opera, does not reappear until the second scene of the second act. A long absence. On the other hand, the last act is carefully cumulative and at its end moves at an extremely fast pace. Perhaps too fast. For most people, however, the opera’s most curious flaw is that Verdi, so good at scenes of musical confrontation, never brings the brothers, tenor and baritone, face to face. But that defect is also in Schiller. 


In the nineteenth century the opera was famous for presenting Jenny Lind as Amalia in its London premiere, and Verdi tailored the role to suit her. But in doing so, some think, he injured the opera. Lind’s voice was small, most effective in its top register, and her breath control and trill were remarkable. She triumphed chiefly in roles of innocence and pathos and did less well in those requiring drama and force. For her, Verdi pushed Amalia’s music up and added many trills and decorative features. But is that what Amalia should sound like? The strong-willed Amalia, who at the end tells Carlo to kill her if he cannot break his ties to the robbers? 


In the twentieth century Joan Sutherland, whose voice somewhat resembled Lind’s except for being larger, often sang the role and with great impact. But her virtuosity (at least in San Diego in 1984) tended to throw the opera off balance. Its chief character is not Amalia, but Carlo. And Verdi gives even the evil brother, Francesco, a much larger share of the final act. But such quibbles aside, “There is marvelous music in it.”


George W. Martin has written several books on Verdi, including his often reissued biography, Verdi, His Music, Life and Times.


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