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the robbers

18 august 2020

In 1782, the first audiences for Schiller's play Die Räuber must have thought they were finally getting to experience Shakespeare in the original German.

In many ways, The Robbers is a pretty bad play. The characters speak in garish rhodomontade (definitely there in the original German, and faithfully rendered by the unnamed translator of the iBooks version). The plot starts strong, with the unbearable villain Franz convincing his father and his older brother Karl that they hate each other – a dynamic borrowed from Edmund in King Lear. But Schiller gets sidetracked into various antics involving the title robbers. Karl, their leader, wants to turn them into a force for social justice, but between his violent tendencies and their lack of team spirit, they end up just rampaging around, and then everybody turns murderous or suicidal or both till Schiller despatches the entire cast, emulating the typical Shakespearean bloodbath but not the typical Shakespearean skill in story editing.

Of course, Schiller was all of 22 years old when Die Räuber premiered. And probably no admirer has ever claimed that the play exhibits tight dramatic construction. Like Schiller's later plays, The Robbers offers rhetoric in the service of Sturm und Drang. Despite the silliness, Karl's indictment of the corruption of early-modern society rings as powerfully today as it did 240 years ago. The Robbers provides a catalog of issues that a young idealist finds disappointing about the adult world: love, sex, money, family, loyalty. Or rather, issues where even a jaded adult needs to tap into the idealism of youth to try to keep some moral momentum going, or even to keep getting up in the morning.

Like most of Schiller's plays, The Robbers was adapted as an opera. Several operas, in fact, the most famous of which is Verdi's I Masnadieri (1847). I use "famous" cautiously, though. Last year, somebody told me they were going to see I Masnadieri at La Scala, and though I was in the middle of fairly intense study of Verdi at the time, I had never heard of I Masnadieri.

Not totally the fault of my ignorance, though. The 2019 production of I Masnadieri may have been the first at La Scala since 1862; the opera has never been sung at the Metropolitan. Consensus seems to have been that I Masnadieri isn't worth staging, though that's obviously changing. What I've read about the opera suggests that the libretto is the problem. But lots of operas have preposterous libretti, and I often think of John Mauceri's dictum that no opera gets into the repertoire for any reason other than its musical score. I suspect that musicians have not been all that thrilled with the score of I Masnadieri, either.

Or maybe inertia just takes over. The libretto of I Masnadieri is no sillier than that of Il Trovatore, after all, but while the score to I Masnadieri is quite nice to listen to, it lacks the familiar hooks and highlights of Il Trovatore. So if you're thinking of doing a Verdi opera about outlaws and anguish, you tend to opt for Il Trovatore, and a lot of singers learn the roles in Il Trovatore, and the more singers know certain roles, the more likely the opera is to get performed more often, and so it goes.

I Masnadieri is mostly, faithfully, Schiller's Robbers. Verdi and librettist Andrea Maffei preserved the ugly central family dynamic surrounding the father Massimiliano (bass), and the doomed love story (Carlo, tenor, and Francesco, baritone, are rivals for the hand of the beauteous soprano, Amalia). There is a chorus of robbers. There is a trusted servant, Arminio, who becomes disillusioned by trying to serve each brother when the two are at deadly odds. There's a priest who shows up in the fourth act to tell Francesco he's going straight to Hell even if he does mend his ways; that scene comes from Schiller.

But I Masnadieri is The Robbers without the rhetorical panache. The robbers in the opera are just robbers, and Carlo gets more tired and more disgusted with them faster than Karl does in the play. Verdi's robbers have no ostensible social mission, so the libretto almost justifies Francesco's obsession with his declassé brother. These are grubby robbers, and they can't even come up with a good drinking song to justify the time we spend in their company.

But Verdi provides some nice moments as the family principals sing their way toward disaster. They were especially nice in the 2019 La Scala production, conducted by Michele Mariotti and staged by David McVicar. Lisette Oropesa was amazing as Amalia. Michele Pertusi as Massimiliano and Fabio Sartori as Carlo were just as good, though they presented the baffling spectacle of a 55-year-old father singing duets with his 48-year-old son. McVicar added some puzzling touches, including a group of robber supernumeraries daubed in fright makeup presumably left over from some Ken Russell production, and a silent character who spent a lot more time hugging Amalia than the tenor did. Most reviews concluded that the young man stood for Friedrich Schiller himself. It can't have been an easy role to play, requiring non-stop emoting without ever being able to open one's mouth.

I will confess that I saw the McVicar Masnadieri not in Milan but on a video stream from some shady Russian supplier. I didn't figure out the provenance till about an hour into the opera – it looked like a feed from RAI, and I suppose it is, just a pirated one – and at that point I figured there would be no great harm in continuing, though I must send La Scala a €20 note in expiation of my sins.

Schiller, Friedrich. The Robbers. [Die Räuber, 1781.] iBooks.