Many musicologists regard Wolf-Ferrari as having written only one "verismo" opera (I gioelli della Madonna, Berlin, 1911). I respectfully disagree, and would consider Sly (Milan, 1927) not only as being, in many ways, a verismo opera, but also as being nearly the last of its' kind. And, as such, the virtual end of a noble line of Italian opera, starting, perhaps, with Cimarosa, perhaps with Paisiello, perhaps even much earlier, passing through bel canto, continuing with Verdi and his contemporaries, and eventually ending with verismo. In all these operas the singer was pre-eminent, while in German opera it was the composer and the orchestra.
This is not to say that Sly was pure verismo (for that matter, neither are many other Italian operas of the period)--far from it, it is much more than that, and has many light-hearted elements of musical comedy in it. But that is only what can be expected from Wolf-Ferrari. His early successes had (with the exception of Gioelli della Madonna) all been comedies. Not, of course, in the style of Rossini and Donizetti, but comedies nevertheless. And the influence of these earlier operas was to come shining through in Sly. In fact, the story of Sly can almost be regarded as what started out as an elaborate practical joke (a rather mean joke, true--but still a joke) going sour. Thus, the first act is rather light hearted, and the real verismo elements do not come into play until the tragedy begins to unfold in the later acts.
But, before looking more closely at Sly, it might be a good idea to glance at Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari first. Ermanno (or, perhaps, Hermann) Wolf had been born in Venice on Jan. 12, 1876, only a few years after Venice had been returned to Italy after having been under Austrian rule for some time. His father was a Bavarian painter, while his mother, Emilia Ferrari, was Venetian. Wolf-Ferrari was to be plagued by the conflict between his two nationalities for the rest of his life, alternating both musical studies and residence between Italy (musical studies in Rome, residence in Venice) and Germany (primarily Munich). Many of his operas, originally composed to Italian texts, were actually premiered in Germany (most frequently in Munich) to a translated version of the libretto. In fact, Sly was only the third of his operas to have its' first production in Italy. The first was La cenerentola (Venice, La Fenice, 1900), which failed, possibly because it was too Germanic in style, perhaps because it had to compete with Rossini's earlier, and still popular version of the fairy tale, but succeeded when revised for Bremen in 1902. His next five operas, including four of his most famous, were all premiered in Germany: Le donne curiose, I quattro rusteghi, Il segreto di Susanna (Munich 1903, 1906 and 1909, respectively), I gioelli della Madonna (Berlin, 1911) and finally L'amore medico (Dresden 1913). The first world war, with his two countries on opposite sides of some of the fiercest fighting encountered until then was a traumatic experience for him, and he fled to Zurich, where he was busy composing another comedy, Gli amanti sposi. This was to be his second work for Italy (Venice, 1925). Another work for Munich followed, then Sly, and finally four more operas--three for major Italian houses, and one for Hanover.
It is interesting to note that I gioelli della Madonna had its Italian premiere in Chicago, and that it was probably much more successful in the United States than in any other country. Thus, it appears that the only two major Italian theatres to have performed the work are the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa and the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome. The reason for its' success in the U.S. is that it entered into the repertory of two major touring companies--first the Chicago company, which gave it 41 times in Chicago alone, over 11 seasons; These 41 performances make it the ninth most popular opera in the Chicago by the resident company between 1910 and 1929, more even than Verdi's Il trovatore. Then, in 1917, the San Carlo company started to include it in its annual tours, giving it for seven seasons between that year and 1937. Unfortunately, the activities of the San Carlo have not been adequately documented, but they are known to have given the work in at least twenty cities in the United States and Canada. It was also given by the Metropolitan Opera in the 1925-26 and 1926-27 seasons.
We can return to Sly after a few introductiry comments about Italian operatic practices: During the nineteenth century, the opera houses in Northern Italy tended to have separate winter, spring, summer and autumn seasons. But this slowly changed after the turn of the century. As early as 1913-14, the autumn, winter and spring seasons were frequently combined into one, at least at La Scala. Thus, the 1927-28 season opened Nov. 16 and lasted well into May, but the "Sera di San Stefano" (Dec. 26) which opened the Carnival portion was still considered to be of the greatest importance. The management wanted a major world premiere for the occasion, and selected Wolf-Ferrari's Sly with a stellar cast, including the Irish prima donna Margaret Sheridan and one of Italy's greatest tenors, Aureliano Pertile. But it was not to be. Sheridan had been ill much of the year, seemed to have recovered sufficiently to sign a contract with La Scala, but became ill again just days before the performance. A replacement (in the person of Mercedes Llopart) had to be found, and it was necessary to postpone the opening until Dec. 29, 1927. The work was successful, being given six times by Jan. 15, and twice more in April (with Lina Bruna-Rasa replacing Llopart, and Victor Damiani replacing Luigi Rossi-Morelli as the earl). It had four more performances in autumn 1928, with essentially the same cast.
Turin heard Sly in February 1928, before the run at La Scala was finished, with the great Nino Piccaluga in the title role and Valeria Manna as Dolly. Dresden and Hannover were the first German cities to hear it, during the autumn, while Nino Piccaluga and Gina Cigna sang it in Trieste. During 1929 the work spread to Venice and Naples, with Carmelo Alabiso and Giuseppe Taccani respectively in the title role. The work started to dissappear from Italian stages, but was widely performed in Germany and neighboring countries. Its' German version remained in the repertory until the start of the second world war, being heard somewhere or other practically every year until then. Outside Germany and Italy it was also given in Antwerp, the Hague, Budapest and Riga. It more or less disappeared for some years, but had a spate of revivals in Germany in the 1950s culminating with a performance in Hanover in 1982, which was repeated next year. Its' first modern performance in Italian took place in Zurich, a city and theatre that have recently become famous for their wonderful productions and performances of adventurous repertory. This performance was issued on CD by Legato. Sly's United States premiere took place at The Washington Opera in spring 1999, again with Jose Carreras. It would not be at all surprising if other U.S. cities were to want it as well, a production at the Metropolitan Opera house already scheduled. In the meantime, the Teatre del Liceu has already given it in June 2000.
The libretto of Sly had a long and slightly complicated history. Based on an episode in Shakespeare's the Taming of the Shrew, the librettist Giovacchino Forzano supposedly first offered it to Giacomo Puccini, who was interested for some time, but then turned it down. In 1921, Alberto Franchetti agreed to set it to music, but returned it four years later, to be given in turn to Wolf-Ferrari. In the meantime, Forzano made it into a stage play.
Musically, Sly is generally considered as being fairly eclectic, especially in the first act, where the tragedy has not yet begun to unfold. The act is essentially quite gay, many people revelling and arguing in a London tavern. Its' highlight is actually a "set number": Sly's song of the dancing bear, a theme that recurs throughout the opera. There are reminiscences of Kurt Weill, Wolf-Ferrari's earlier comedies and many other composers, including Leoncavallo. But, as the second act unfolds, some of the verismo aspects begin to become paramount, especially in the musical writing of the first duet between Sly and Dolly. Beginning at the point at the end of Act II where Sly realizes that it has been a game, the opera is pure verismo, especially in Sly's highly dramatic "No, io non sono un buffone", to the end where Sly, having just slashed his wrists, finds out that he had killed himself too soon (shades of Roméo et Juliette), and that Dolly truly loves him. While this is not made clear in the libretto, it is safe to assume that the joke ends up badly for all concerned: Sly dies, Dolly loses her beloved, and the Earl will undoubtedly lose his mistress, although there can be little doubt that he will find another one.
The creators of the main roles, including Aureliano Pertile, never recorded anything from the opera, although Ernesto Badini (the first John Plake) and Palmiro Domenichetti recorded the "duetto dei beoni". The "Canzone dell'orso" was done by Nino Piccaluga, who sang the work in Turin and Trieste, while both that and "No, non sono un buffone" was recorded by several other singers including Francesco Merli and Alessandro Valente. The entire production from Hanover (in German) exists on both LP and CD, making the Legato recording the first ever complete recording in Italian.