Happy endings are not made to last. Unfreeze the frame at the conclusion of a comedy, and you'll find that the sad, shelving descent towards tragedy has begun.
This is what happens to one of Shakespeare's most sottishly buoyant comic characters in Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's Sly, which the Metropolitan Opera in New York has staged for Placido Domingo. At the beginning of The Taming of the Shrew, the boozy braggart Christopher Sly is duped into thinking that he is an aristocrat. Once he has been transferred from his tavern to a palace to watch the play about the shrew, Shakespeare forgets about him; but Wolf-Ferrari - the hyphenated offspring of a transalpine marriage who composed his opera for La Scala in 1927 - remembered Sly, and wondered about his afterlife. To Wolf-Ferrari, the play's crude practical joke was a symptom of society's venal contempt for the artist, whose yearnings for the ideal can never be satisfied. A sadistic nobleman tantalises the operatic Sly with honour, wealth and the slavering attentions of seductive women (which, as Freud argued, are the ingredients of all aesthetic wish-fulfilment fantasies), then cruelly disillusions him. Hauled off to prison, he dies in despair, having slashed his veins with a broken bottle. His corpse is a rebuke to the engineered felicity of comedy, which requires the destruction of such inconvenient, maladjusted dreamers.
"Procure me music," insists the Lord in The Taming of the Shrew, sarcastically commanding Apollo to serenade Sly, with 20 caged nightingales as chorus. The music procured by Wolf-Ferrari lacks this seraphic Renaissance grace. His score, as if bestraddling the Alps, combines tracts of German symphonic eloquence with spasms of anguished Italian verismo. Baleful, battering explosions accompany the arrival of the policeman who wants to arrest Sly for debt, and he is carried off unconscious to the sound of a funeral march. There are eerie, elegiac passages of chamber music to transcribe his drunken visions, which lapse into a depressive gloom that sounds, once or twice, like Mahler.
The Lord in Shakespeare's play also procures a wife for Sly, who happens to be an adolescent boy in drag. The opera naturally has to match its agonised tenor with a commiserating soprano; Wolf-Ferrari's librettist Giovacchino Forzano therefore invented a courtesan called Dolly, who goes slumming to hear "the music of the people" and is conscripted to charm and then deride Sly. Although he remains a passive victim, she is allowed to change, which makes her the more interesting character. She enters the tavern yelling an order to stop a brawl, like Puccini's Minnie firing off her pistols as she strides into the pub in La Fanciulla del West - or perhaps she deputises for Kate the shrew, otherwise absent from the opera, as she raises her voice to bully all those childish men into submission. She ends, during a repentant visit to Sly's cell, as a kind of etherealised Isolde, making love to a drained, anaemic corpse. But instead of a sublimated Liebestod, she reacts to his death with a loudly expressionistic shriek of protest.
The Met's Dolly is Maria Guleghina, whose voice these days is something of a blunt instrument. Domingo also blusters and hectors, and his crazed schedule - he still sings all over the world, runs opera companies in Washington and Los Angeles, and after the matinee of Sly that I attended he stayed on at the Met to conduct Rigoletto in the evening - has reduced his acting to a series of formulaic stances, applicable to any role.
The sound is drier and narrower than it used to be. Still, if you believe the reference books that give the year of his birth as 1934 (a date indignantly but inconclusively disputed by the man himself), he is a marvel of vocal longevity and shrewd self-renewal. Luciano Pavarotti made his unofficial Met farewell this month in a couple of sedentary, cushioned performances of Tosca; Jose Carreras, who rediscovered Sly and performed it for Domingo's company in Washington, confines himself to crossover concerts. Probably the oldest of the tenorial troika, Domingo is the only one still on active, honourable service.
Stars enjoy nepotic privileges, and the Met indulged him by engaging his wife Marta to direct Sly. Onstage, she did an efficient job in sets as gloomy as coal-holes; in the programme, she editorialised somewhat pretentiously about other downtrodden aesthetic addicts, listing Van Gogh, Modigliani, Toulouse-Lautrec, Baudelaire, Villon, Brecht and Kafka as colleagues for the hero. But when Domingo staggered in to sing his joylessly jaunty aria about a circus bear compelled to go on dancing in the streets, these irrelevant analogues were waved away, and the part became a touching epilogue to the singer's autobiography. Domingo himself, like that bear, is the ageing artist with an addiction to performance, whose stubbornly unkillable genius sends him out to rage, suffer and die in public to divert us.
Peter Conrad is the New Statesman classical music critic