Thursday, 6 August 2015

Il Segreto di Susanna

Il Segreto di Susanna
Wolf-Ferrari Il Segreto di Susanna; Judith Howarth, Angel Odena, Oviedo Filarmonia, Friedrich Haider; PhilArtis Vienna
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 23 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Sparkling introduction to the charming world of Wolf-Ferrari's operatic comedies

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari made his name with a series of operatic comedies based on plays by Goldoni. His one-act opera Il Segreto di Susanna is set in modern times, yet seems to partake of the comic atmosphere of the Goldoni operas. Il Segreto di Susanna is perhaps Wolf-Ferrari's most performed opera nowadays (which isn't really saying much). This recording from Friedrich Haider and the Oviedo Filarmonia on the PhilArtis Vienna label, has Judith Howarth in the title role with Angel Odena as her husband, Gil.

There is something fascinatingly pan-national about this recording which reflects Wolf-Ferrari's own mixed heritage (his father was German and his mother Italian), with an English soprano, Spanish baritone and Spanish orchestra, and Austrian/Italian conductor.

Like a number of Wolf-Ferrari's other operas Il Segreto di Susanna went down better in Germany than Italy and the opera premiered in 1909 in Munich (in German). It came after a pair of operas based on Goldoni, Le donne curiose (premiered in Munich in 1903) and I quatro rusteghi (premiered in 1906). Il Segreto di Susanna seems to have been part of a deliberate attempt to move his operas into the contemporary world, as it was followed by the neo-Versimo of I gioielli della Madonna (1911). The librettist was an Italian author Enrico Golisciani (1848-1919) whose previous librettos had included work for Mascagni and Cilea.

The plot is simple, Gil and Susanna are happily married but he has a tendency to be jealous and, smelling tobacco smoke in the house, becomes convinced that she has a lover. He tries to catch her out and eventually catches her smoking, so all ends happily with the two smoking together. It is the sort of non-PC plot which nowadays would be less acceptable (rather like, though not as bad as, Donizetti's comedy about wife-beating, Rita or Deux Hommes et une Femme).

We open with a sparkling overture which is full of lovely details. This introduces us to Wolf-Ferrari's comic style, busy, finely constructed, a light effect masking a serious construction and response to the words. It can be argued that Wolf-Ferrari's operatic works are just as much gesamkunstwerk as other far more neo-Wagnerian opera composers of the period. In fact, playing the opera to a friend en route for Handel's Saul at Glyndebourne they brought up the links to Richard Strauss's 1923 comedy Intermezzo, and in fact another link is perhaps that Wolf-Ferrari's Italian accented German style can be linked to Richard Strauss's music of Moliere's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

Throughout the opera, the orchestra is busy but the orchestration is often transparent so that voices are heard easily and the dialogue can zip along as it needs to. And the orchestra does not noodle, the characterful detail is commenting and amplifying. Much of the vocal writing is recitative shading into lyrical arioso, but there are moments were arias flower and though Wolf-Ferrari had great melodic talent he does not overstretch things. There are also complex orchestral interludes, important in what is a two-hander with pause needed for the singers to re-group.

Judith Howarth is a soprano whom I have admired since she was a young artist at Covent Garden and she has not had the recognition on disc that she deserves. Here she sings with a warm bright sound which encompasses all the elaborations of the vocal part. Lyrical but with a strong core to the voice, we get a very expressive result. Angel Odena does not perhaps have a great voice but he is again characterful and engaging and uses his voice well. There is a lovely lyrical duet which really does allow the two of them to flower.

This recording is a great delight and deserves to be better known, like the opera. It makes an ideal one-disc compact introduction to Wolf-Ferrari's intelligent, sparkling and rather charming world.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948) - Il Segreto di Susanna (1909) [44.04]
Susanna - Judith Howarth (soprano)
Gil - Angel Odena (baritone)
Oviedo Filarmonia
Friedrich Haider (conductor)
Recorded live on 14 May 2006 at Auditorio Principe Filipe, Oviedo
PhilArtis Vienna PAV0608 1CD [44.04]

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