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Sly, ovvero La leggenda del dormiente risvegliato (English: Sly, or The Legend of the Sleeper Awoken) is an opera in three acts by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari to an Italian libretto by Giovacchino Forzano, based on the Prologue to William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Unlike most of Wolf-Ferrari's other operas, this is a tragedy.

Sly as verismo

Many musicologists regard Wolf-Ferrari as having written only one verismo opera (I gioielli della Madonna, Berlin, 1911). There are reasons to disagree, and to consider Sly (La Scalamarker, 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 the 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 I gioielli 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.

A few introductory comments about Italian operatic practices might be of interest at this point. 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 Scalamarker. 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.

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.

Performance history

Sly was first performed at La Scalamarker in Milanmarker on December 29, 1927 with Aureliano Pertile and Mercedes Llopart. The latter was a last minute replacement for Margaret Sheridan who became ill days before the performance. 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 disappear 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. The Zurich cast was headed by tenor José Carreras. Sly's United States premiere took place at The Washington Opera in spring 1999, again with Jose Carreras. There was also a production at the Metropolitan Opera, New Yorkmarker in April 2002 and another one at the Gran Teatre del Liceumarker in Barcelonamarker.

Roles and role creators

Role Voice type Premiere Cast, December 29, 1927
(Conductor: Ettore Panizza)
Sly tenor Aureliano Pertile
Dolly soprano Mercedes Llopart
Count of Westmoreland baritone Luigi Rossi-Morelli
John Plake bass Ernesto Badini
Pageboy soprano Cesira Ferrani
Rosalina soprano Ida Conti and Iris Adami-Corradetti
Landlady mezzo-soprano Ida Mannarini
Country judge tenor Palmiro Domenichetti
Servant boy tenor Luigi Nardi
First nobleman/Moor tenor Giovanni Azzimonti
Second nobleman/Indian tenor Emilio Venturini
Third nobleman/old servant tenor Nello Palai
Fourth nobleman/Chinese man bass-baritone Aristide Baracchi
Fifth nobleman/doctor baritone Giuseppe Nessi
Sixth nobleman bass Antonio Laffi
Seventh nobleman bass Giacomo Carboni
Eighth nobleman bass Salvatore Baccaloni
First maid mezzo-soprano Maria Neveso
Second maid mezzo-soprano Gina Pedroni
Third maid mezzo-soprano Olga De Franco-Arduini
Snare/first servant bass Luigi Spartaco Marchi
Soldier/second servant bass Giuseppe Menni
Cook/third servant bass Amleto Galli


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.


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