David McVicar’s new production of I masnadieri (The Robbers) for La Scala features a monumental set by Charles Edwards which is modified during the opera, but largely remains the same, so there is a line of showers (functional) alongside a tomb and a series of tavern tables and benches all within the entrance hall of a castle. It is beautifully lit throughout by Adam Silverman.
The upper gallery can support the entire (male) chorus while the robbers of the title are played by actors who run around energetically often displaying ripped torsos, which I imagine most of the chorus don’t possess. As Count Moor’s self-destructive family descends into gothic tragedy, the set starts to burn, and eventually charred massive ceiling beams cross the stage.
The rarely performed opera has some exquisite pages. It was commissioned by Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, and this early work had its premiere soon after that of Macbeth in 1847. I masnadieri hasn’t been seen at La Scala since 1978 when it was conducted by the theatre’s current musical director, Riccardo Chailly, who was called in when he was 25 to substitute an indisposed Gianandrea Gavazzeni. It is easy to think of this production’s Michele Mariotti as a whizz-kid conductor, but time also passes for him, and he has just turned 40. He gave a very tight reading of the score with exhilarating tempi and rousing choruses. It’s a dark and violent work, but Mariotti didn’t cloud the orchestral sound or rack up the volume, allowing the singers to come across easily.
And what a first-rate cast it was. Lisette Oropesa making a house and role debut was glorious as Amalia, the orphaned niece of Massimiliano, the elderly Count Moor, who was finely played by Michele Pertusi who sang with that melancholic pain in his voice that only basses have. Oropesa has a distinctive tone and vibrato with an easy coloratura, plenty of volume with a ringing but full top to the voice, and was touchingly beautiful in her lyrical passages. She is a lovely, delicate presence on stage too, which provided a striking contrast with Fabio Sartori’s giant form. As Carlo, he was vocally magnificent, with silver-trumpet high notes that sliced through the choruses, yet they never become reedy, and he was always richly full-voiced throughout his range – an exceptional instrument. Massimo Cavalletti as Francesco showed himself once again to be a fine actor. Sometimes he was a touch underpowered, but it was only for fleeting moments, and his singing was always elegant.
An odd unnamed character was played by a mute actor, often carrying parchments and always looking on, usually aghast, at the tragedy playing out before his eyes. Though there were no programme notes (or credit) to explain his presence, one imagines that this was Schiller, the author of the play that the libretto was based on.
The performance started late because of a tribute to Giuseppe Bellanca, a tenor from the chorus who had been killed in a road accident two days previously. He was 48. Maybe it was for this that the chorus sounded even more impressive and formidable than usual.
Massimiliano – Michele Pertusi
Carlo – Fabio Sartori
Amalia – Lisette Oropesa
Francesco – Massimo Cavalletti
Arminio – Francesco Pittari
Moser – Alessandro Spina
Rolla – Matteo Desole