Wolf-Ferrari's Sly is a veritable treat. Although the composer originally gained fame for his successful comic operas, Sly is a different kind of story: after starting as a comedy, it transforms into a sorrowful tragedy based on the induction scenes in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew; the music, however, bears the hallmarks of his earlier verismo operas, with strong parallels to Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann as well.
This co-production by the Erkel Theatre and the National Theatre of Szeged was directed by Pál Göttinger.
At London's Falcon Tavern, life is noisy: the rowdy regulars, soldiers, (cheating) card-players, students and simple folk are carousing away the time when a few drunks cause the innkeeper's wife some great aggravation. Led by instigator John Plake, they extract from the cellar seven bottles of expensive and jealously guarded wine. The proprietress attempts to kick out the miscreants, and in the great dispute, the watering hole's population splits into two factions: one on the side of John Plake, the other supporting the innkeeper's wife. The enormous brouhaha is ended by the arrival of a distinguished guest: entering the pub is Dolly, wife of the earl of Westmoreland, attempting to escape from her suffocating aristocratic milieu and yearning for gaiety and true love. Everyone is amazed by her radiant beauty and singular nature. Presently, the annoyed count himself appears in order to bring his wife home. The pub's denizens watch riveted as the illustrious couple bicker and enthusiastically invite Dolly, longing for merriment, to wait for Sly to come. He will cheer her up! Soon enough, Sly arrives. He is a universally popular customer at the pub, who entertains the others with his songs and jokes; he is also frequently in danger of being sent to debtor's prison, and in spite of his great popularity, is a lonely man longing for true love. He begins to drink with abandon, guzzling so much that he collapses senseless on the floor in the middle of one of his songs and falls sound asleep. The earl finds the drunken Sly amusing and is struck by an idea: he can have the sleeping man brought to his mansion , dress him up in genteel garments and make him believe that he himself is the earl. Westmoreland enthusiastically plans the ruse, to the great delight of the others – only John Plake and a few drunks listen gloomily as the cruel trick is devised...
Dressed as an earl, Sly awakens in the mansion ; the inhabitants of the big house play their parts enthusiastically: they pull out all the stops to make Sly believe that he is the master of the house, who after ten years of madness has finally returned to his senses. Sly, for his part, does not quite believe the story. The final device in the earl's cruel game is Dolly herself, who pretends that she is Sly's loving wife who has been waiting steadfastly for ten years for her husband to come to. Shocked, Sly regards this woman who looks so familiar to him – the loving wife he had dreamed of so many times in his lonely unhappiness. He is desperately torn: should he believe this dazzling lie? Dolly is touched by Sly's sincere and pained words of love: two lonesome souls have found each other and fall in love. The earl puts an end to their intimate moment and has Sly locked up in the cellar.
The earl's servants mock Sly, who, locked in the basement, is completely shocked by the cruel joke and by the love that appeared and then vanished so suddenly. He cannot bear the thought of life without love and decides to end his life. Dolly secretly visits the dying prisoner in order to beg his forgiveness and confesses to him that she hadn't been acting – she loved him with a pure heart. Sly happily dies in his beloved's arms.