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Marchetti: Ruy Blas

CD Button Theodossiou, Marini; Malagnini, Gazale, Monici. Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana, Coro Lirico Marchigiano “Vincenzo Bellini,” Lipton. Bongiovanni GB 2237/38-2 (2)

Recordings Ruy Blas Cover 1215

FILIPPO MARCHETTI'S RUY BLAS was big news in the nineteenth century. For decades after its 1869 premiere, it was performed all over Europe and in no fewer than fifty Italian theaters. But now the piece lies in near-total obscurity; to the extent that anyone pays attention to it, it’s as an object of contempt. Its New Grove Dictionary of Opera entry is an occasion for musicologist William Ashbrook to note its “nondescript vocal lines” and “tiresomely repeated little motifs.” The work, Ashbrook concludes, “seriously overtaxed Marchetti’s limited powers of inventiveness.” 

The present recording, from a 1998 live performance at the Teatro Pergolesi in Jesi, shows that Marchetti was capable of generating pleasant music, but in general, it does little to prove Ashbrook wrong. Ruy Blas, adapted by Carlo d’Ormeville from Victor Hugo’s play of the same name, preserves the implausibility of its source’s mistaken-identity-driven plot, while in no way imbuing it with the dramatic vitality or musical inventiveness of Hugo adaptations like Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia or Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. The piece falls especially short when compared with Ernani and Rigoletto, the Hugo operas of Marchetti’s near-contemporary Verdi. 

For a modern listener, in fact, Verdi’s spirit at every turn seems to offer an implicit rebuke to Ruy Blas. Like Un Ballo in Maschera, the work alternates between court gaiety and private tragedy; like Don Carlos, it treats political intrigue and impossible passions in the Spanish royal house. (It even features a lady-in-waiting who, Eboli-style, sings a mock-Spanish song to entertain her fellow attendants.) The mere thought of these correspondences is enough to throw Ruy Blas in the shade. Marchetti comes up with any number of initially engaging ideas, but doesn’t let them expand: they typically peter out as soon as they’re stated. You never get the sense, as you do with even Verdi’s roughest efforts, of a drama expressed through and shaped by the musical continuity. 

The best passages fall to the prima donna—the Queen of Spain, adulterously in love with the title character, a servant disguised as a nobleman. Her music taps into a vein of sweet melancholy reminiscent of Donizetti’s tragic queens in their more elegiac moments. The kinship is manifest in the work of Dimitra Theodossiou: as heard here, a true bel canto singer. My previous acquaintance with this soprano is through a 2009 Nabucco DVD, on which she delivered some squally vocalism; caught twelve years earlier, the voice, if not conventionally pretty, is firm and characterful. (Think mid-career Renata Scotto.) Moreover, Theodossiou sings with real artistry, consistently phrasing with suppleness and imagination.

Tenor Mario Malagnini offers plenty of squillo to the title role, but his singing is marked by pervasive rawness: his ascents to the top can make your throat ache in sympathy. Alberto Gazale sings the villainous Don Sallustio in grand baritone manner, but with an unfortunate tendency to bellow at climaxes. The bass of Gabriele Monici is too woofy to bring much menace to the role of the hero’s antagonist Don Guritano. The sprightly lady-in-waiting Casilda seems to call for a mezzo more nimble of voice than Sylvia Marini.

Under Daniel Lipton, the orchestra plays with stylistic assurance; the chorus is, at best, rough-and-ready. Lipton finds buoyancy in the music—at least, in those passages where Marchetti has let him do so. But the edition he uses is a disaster. The nineteenth-century libretto that I consulted contains any number of passages not on the recording; the “jiggling divertissement” mentioned in the Grove entry is likewise nowhere to be heard. From the sounds of it (I did not have a score to guide me through), most of the numbers that remain suffer from internal cuts, and there isn’t a repeat to be heard in the whole recording. The result is to make Ruy Blas sound more short-breathed and aimless than necessary. Bongiovanni for its part has provided neither libretto nor notes—a defensible tactic for an archival release of a standard-repertoire opera, but a severe stumbling block to the comprehension of a piece that no doubt will be unfamiliar to most of its listeners. —Fred Cohn

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