WOLF-FERRARI I quatro rusteghi (Petrenko)
How good is your Venetian dialect? Reissuing an opera like Verdi’s Falstaff without a libretto printed in the booklet is just about excusable. Listeners may have a smattering of Italian, or are likely to know the opera or will have an alternative version with a libretto to hand. But issuing a rarity such as Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s I quatro rusteghi – sung in Venetian dialect, if you will – without a libretto is extremely poor form, especially when you follow directions to Rubicon’s website to access the text only to discover that there are three files: one in Italian (Venetian), printed in 1981 and poorly scanned, with two in English which don’t even match the layout of the Italian text. So even if you can be bothered to open two windows side by side on your computer while you listen, you have to scroll through both at different rates to try and keep up with the garrulous plot. It grated my patience wafer thin.
Based on a play by Carlo Goldoni (as were several of Wolf-Ferrari’s operas), I quatro rusteghi is a farce. Translated as ‘The Four Curmudgeons’ – or ‘The Four Old Gits’, to use modern slang – it’s essentially about four husbands who try to keep their women in line but are constantly outwitted to make sure that young love triumphs. The plot has shades of Falstaff but the music is a pale shadow of that autumnal Verdian masterpiece.
Gerald Larner claims in his booklet note that Wolf-Ferrari anticipated Stravinsky’s neoclassicism here but I beg to disagree. It sounds more like an opera buffa pastiche, conversational in style and without any great set pieces, although Lucieta has a pretty aria in Act 2 (disc 2, track 2). It’s fairly standard Wolf-Ferrari, I’m afraid, not unlike the tedious Le donne curiose (also in Venetian dialect).
Conducting the RLPO in staged concert performances from 2012, Vasily Petrenko goes full out on Italian charm. This was a project by the European Opera Centre and the many soloists – spanning the continent – are all young and committed. Mihnea Lamatic is suitably grumpy as the antique dealer Lunardo, trying to honour local custom by not allowing his daughter to see her bridegroom ahead of her wedding. Romina Casucci’s pert soprano makes for an engaging Lucieta. For collectors of unusual ensembles, there is a bass trio in Act 3 (disc 2, track 10).
The only competition comes on a crumbly live recording from Turin, conducted by Ettore Gracis (1969). To be curmudgeonly, this new recording understandably sounds fresher; but this is no neglected operatic gem. Ironically, it was Wolf-Ferrari’s single attempt at verismo that provided his greatest work: I gioielli della Madonna (‘The Jewels of the Madonna’).