I masnadieri, Opera by G. Verdi
Part of the joy of being an opera enthusiast is discovering a favourite composer’s lesser-known works. Giuseppe Verdi’s I masnadieri (The Bandits) may not be as familiar to many as Rigoletto or La Traviata, but that does not mean we should dispense with it in favour of the tried and tested.
Premiered on 22 July 1847 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, and now this season in performance at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome, I masnadieri is perhaps the most contemporary in feel of Verdi’s theatrical works. An adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s play, Die Räuber, its main theme – a family torn apart by two warring siblings – could easily provide the plot for any gritty, twenty-first-century melodrama. And what befalls its central characters is just as devastating.
Carlo regrets the turn of events that have led him to a life of brigandry. He wants nothing more than to return home, but his letter of appeal to his father, Massimiliano, is intercepted by his jealous brother, Francesco. Carlo then receives a message, fabricated by Francesco, that his father wants nothing more to do with him.
In the middle of the conflict is Amalia, the brothers’ cousin. She adores Carlo, but is coveted by Francesco. When Arminio, a family servant following Francesco’s instructions, brings Massimiliano the false news that Carlo is dead, the brothers’ father falls into a faint. Pretending he is dead, Francesco locks Massimiliano up, hiding him from public view.
Amalia, escaping a banquet Francesco has organised to celebrate his inheritance, unexpectedly meets Carlo who is on the run, having just set Prague on fire in order to save one of his associates. Overjoyed to find one another, Carlo hesitates to tell Amalia the truth of what he has become. Already incensed, finding his father in a dreadful state albeit still alive, doubles Carlo’s resolve to confront his brother. Yet, in one of those hallmark Verdian twists of fate, it is not Francesco who is put to the sword.
I masnadieri, as in so much of Verdi’s work, saw the composer determined not to sacrifice dramatic impact for the sake of operatic convention. Before him, operas would typically start and finish with the chorus in full flow. By highlighting the principals, I masnadieri intensifies the drama: Carlo in the opera’s opening scene in an introspective mood of self-recrimination; Amalia, Massimiliano, and Carlo again in its last, as the prodigal son makes his final, tragic decision.