There is something fitting about I masnadieri being performed in German at the Volksoper. Not only was the opera Verdi’s first foreign commission – the opera premiered in London in 1847 under the composer’s baton – but the Andrea Maffei's libretto is based on a Schiller play, Die Räuber. The plot is full of intrigue, violence and – spoiler alert – does not end well. The first act is dedicated to laying out the four main characters: King Massimiliano (Kurt Rydl), his two problematic sons, Francesco (Boaz Daniel)and Carlo (Vincent Schirrmacher), and Amalia (Sofia Solovly), who is both Carlo’s love interest and cousin. Atypically for Verdi, the entire first act is exclusively aria and duet-centric, with brief interpolations from the bandit male chorus and supporting character Arminio (David Sitka), Francesco’s servant.

The Volksoper’s new production by Alexander Schulin focuses on the broken family dynamic, and the overture features a beautiful cello solo (Roland Lindenthal) played from the stage, with young versions of Carlo, Francesco and Amalia at his feet. It was one of the most effective visual moments in an otherwise minimalist stage design (Bettina Meyer).

The action opens on Carlo, who has made some poor life choices and fallen in with bandits. His father has threatened to disown him and Carlo is awaiting an answer to his letter of apology. In the second scene we meet Francesco, the family’s bad boy, whose schemes ruin his brother and aim to put their father into an early grave. Amalia and Massimiliano are introduced thereafter. Amalia is madly in love with Carlo, lusted after by Francesco, but also perfectly loyal to Massimiliano despite him having banished her love; just one the knots in a libretto for which a suspension of disbelief is key. Carlo and Massimiliano both end up duped by Francesco, who imprisons Massimiliano, declaring him dead and himself the new Count. By the end of the evening, Francesco’s tangled web has come undone and robbers led by Carlo revenge themselves on Francesco and release Massimiliano. Finally, because swearing an oath of loyalty to a band of robbers apparently trumps all other relationships and moral restrictions, Carlo acquiesces to Amalia’s request to kill her. The curtain closes on him running offstage to live what I like to assume is a full and unhappy life of murder and mayhem while Massimiliano is probably left contemplating where exactly he went wrong in his children’s upbringing.

Despite the weakness of the libretto, the twists, turns and juxtapositions of fate and love open the door for some fabulous dramatic and musical possibilities. Innovative instrumental moments are easy to spot in the various interludes, and the closing ensemble number, for example, is vintage Verdi. The orchestra sounded sprightly under Jac van Steen’s baton, and balance was appropriate thanks to the strength and focus of all lead voices as well as Verdi’s effective instrumentation. Amalia’s duet with harp in the second, underlining her angelic nature, is a beautiful moment, and her reunion with Carlo in the third act against the backdrop of the robbers juxtaposes fateful dotted motifs in the male chorus against a soaring love duet.

The soprano role was originally conceived and premiered by Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale”, and combines beautiful lyrical moments with cabaletta coloratura. Newcomer to the Volksoper Sofia Soloviy fared significantly better through the latter than the former. She is blessed with a gorgeous timbre and her soprano is well-modulated throughout her range, though the audience was thankful for subtitles (German diction is not yet one of her strengths). Vincent Schirrmacher can be applauded for his vocal energy, consistency and musicianship, and Kurt Rydl’s booming basso profundo and incorporation of the distraught father and flailing ruler was memorable.

The only real disappointment in this production is that Schulin's concept feels as empty as the minimalistic set. Despite Bettina Walter's rich, period costumes, the production is by no means lavish, and neither chorus nor soloists appeared to have been thoughtfully staged. The design features a box/room placed either facing the audience or away from it, and this simply limited how many of the plot details came across. While the concept did not completely lack clarity, it was underutilized and yielded few memorable moments. The opening scene with the children and the cello was later paralleled by the destruction of the room by the bandits, the cello displaced and covered by a red blanket. Other than that, the set was something characters moved in and out of without much apparent direction.

That aside, hearty congratulations to the Volksoper for staging this lesser known Verdi gem, and for daring to tackle the dramatic in a time otherwise dominated by musicals, operettas and ballet. In the city of Freud there is nothing like a bit of family drama to put one in the mood for a great season of opera!