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Miccolis, Claudia; Colosimo, Braga; Guerra. Live recording, Rio di Janeiro, June 26, 1959. Italian libretto; Notes in English and Italian. Bongiovanni 1226/27 (2)
For some twenty years after Verdi retired from active composition with Aida, Italian grand opera awaited the New Thing, verismo, which eventually turned up with Cavalleria Rusticana. The few popular composers in these years took Verdi and Meyerbeer as their models and evolved along those well-tried grandiose lines. The most successful were Ponchielli and the Brazilian entrant, Carlos Gomes (1836–96). These composers did not appeal to the young bloods or the Wagnerians, but they delighted audiences. With the proper intense vocalism, they still can.
Gomes made his name in Milan with Il Guarany, his best-known opera, which uses the Aida method to tell a "native" story. Later works, such as Salvator Rosa and Maria Tudor, turned to European sources. But Gomes's ambition was to create a national epic for Brazil, at that time torn by the battle to end slavery. The opera that emerged was Lo Schiavo (The Slave). The management of La Scala, however, did not wish to risk the African racial card and insisted the story be backdated to the sixteenth century and that, like Guarany, it only concern enslaved native tribes. This led to rewrites, postponements and lawsuits with the composer. By the time the opera had its premiere, in Rio de Janeiro in 1889, slavery had been abolished and the monarchy overthrown.
Lo Schiavo was acclaimed in Brazil, though it has hardly traveled beyond Latin America. The performance recorded here, long available in various formats, comes from a celebrated revival in Rio in 1959, sung by Italian-trained Brazilian singers with the proper fire and finesse. Lovers of old-school Giocondas and Aidas will be delighted to make the score's acquaintance through this performance. (Who sings like this today?) There are also hymn-like choral anthems and orchestral interludes to accompany exotic scenic backdrops. Gomes's big melodies are generally in the post-Verdi broad and sweeping tradition, but there are suave twists and turns that seem Hispanic, though perhaps one should say Lusitanian.
The story begins like Luisa Miller, with saturnine and racist Count Rodrigo tricking his son, the idealistic Americo (can this name be symbolic?), out of his love for the slave, Ilàra, by forcing her to marry another slave, Iberè, with whom Americo has sworn brotherhood. Act II brings on a coloratura French (ergo free-thinking) Countess to flirt with Americo and free her own slaves (cue ballet). Then the story takes a turn for The Pearl Fishers, with the noble savage Iberè giving up his love and his life so that Americo and Ilàra can run for it from indignant tribesfolk. The booklet includes a detailed synopsis, but the libretto is untranslated — not a problem, since it consists of Italian opera clichés.
Alfredo Colosimo, Brazil's leading Manrico and Chénier in his day (he was still singing Altoum in 2002), is the tormented Americo, a forcefully irrational hero whose sound is not quite ringing in the topmost passages. Ida Miccolis, a niece of Aureliano Pertile, tenor divo of the 1920s and '30s, sings Ilàra with her uncle's passionate involvement in every melodramatic alteration of her circumstances. Her fine, chesty soprano is intriguingly varied when Ilàra has second thoughts or exotic daydreams, but she seems unable to scale it down for intimate scenes. Lourival Braga brings gruff power to the jealous but heroic Iberè and fine lyric line to his introspective monologue. Antea Claudia's Countess is all Mady Mesplé-like flutters, but she brings impressive power to the Act II ensemble finale. Santiago Guerra is the conductor, and the orchestra's professionalism and familiarity with melodrama are beyond question.
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