Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook
For the final masterpiece, Hugo Wolf looked south – to Italy – and produced a collection of tiny jewel-like songs that paint a kaleidoscopic portrait of village life. He thought these 46 glistening miniatures were the 'most original and artistically perfect' of all his works – and history has tended to agree.
He found the words in a compilation of anonymous Italian folk verse, collected and translated into German by Paul Heyse. The music was composed in two manic-creative bursts of activity, with a four-year hiatus between them (in which Wolf laboured over his opera Der Corregidor). The songs that resulted are a fascinating synthesis of two traditions. Or, to put it Wolf's way, 'Their hearts beat in German but the sun shines on them in Italian’.
The characters are familiar from any small community (or soap opera or sit-com). You've met them all before. They fall in and out of love, with squabbles and petty jealousies heard alongside serenades and love songs of great beauty. And above all, there is humour – because Wolf knows that the best way to break your heart is to make you smile first.
Taking inspiration from the world of Così fan tutte, our version recreates this vibrant village community with four singers – friends and rivals in love and life – presided over by a Don Alfonso-like figure who has 'seen it all’ but maybe still has much to learn...
It falls into three acts. The first could be called ‘Aspects of Love’ if that title hadn’t been snaffled. The second is about loving from a distance. And in the third, the young lovers are deep in it, sometimes up to their necks. In the end, four lovers ascend to heaven in glory – with one man left out for ever.
Wolf 's genius is to create characters that are astonishingly precise, vivid and detailed, but also somehow universal. Little things – the Italian Songbook teaches us - mean a lot. And Wolf’s tiny scenes of village life paint a bigger picture - a whole world of human frailty, passion and pain.
Christopher Glynn and Jeremy Sams