No, it’s not quite the neglected masterpiece that some pundits would have us believe, but Montemezzi’s only major work for the operatic stage has many rewards, both for audience and singers alike. The steamy libretto by Sem Benelli (taking more than a few pages from D’Annunzio’s scandalous oeuvre) reeks of an Italianate take on Wagner’s Tristan. Indeed, some of the over-pungent imagery, including such lines as “Into the rosebush I have thrust my head” and “I want to plunge my life into the fire there to find death and your mouth!”, are perhaps best left untranslated! Wagner’s obsession with the erotic charge of the night set against the steely pain and sensual deprivation of day is echoed frequently in Benelli’s libretto too. Indeed, Avito and Fiora’s secret love comes disastrously unravelled when they dare to bring it into the light of day.
The score sweeps the listener along with great waves of sound and, at least at the time, allows them to overlook Montemezzi’s wholesale plundering of a bewildering array of sources. Puccini, Verdi, Wagner and Strauss all get a note-check but also, more surprisingly, Stravinsky and Brahms! I don’t know whether Montemezzi heard Gurrelieder (premiered the same year as L’amore dei tre re) but there were several moments which reminded me strongly of Schönberg’s dramatic cantata. Set against this magpie approach to composing, however, one must admit that that Montemezzi provides four cracking roles for singer-actors, some rewarding comprimario parts and interesting chorus work (though, for some reason, limited to the last act). The work was hugely successful in the years following the premiere at La Scala in 1913 and was championed by Toscanini, but has fallen into neglect with occasional revivals usually linked to a star bass in the pivotal role of Archibaldo. There are several live/pirated recordings including one with Pinza in magisterial form, despite dreadful sound. There is a single commercial recording which is worth acquiring for a vibrant Cesare Siepi, Plácido Domingo and the underrated Pablo Elvira. Unfortunately the recording is disfigured by Anna Moffo caught in truly execrable voice near the end of her career. Such a pity Scotto or Price were not available.
Montemezzi calls for a massive, viscerally exciting orchestra, including a platoon of offstage trumpets. Coupled with the availability of one of the best casts I’ve seen at this address, it’s easy to see why Opera Holland Park’s enterprising management would choose to revive their successful 2007 production. The auditorium was not full on opening night but I would hope that word will spread – this show deserves to be sold out.
Martin Lloyd-Evans’ highly effective production makes the most of the dramatic riches and makes clever use of Jamie Vartan’s stark single set which easily doubles for the castle battlements and the chapel of the last act. Even for a work which relies so much on shadows there were moments which seemed underlit but this may have been the result of singers missing their marks. Lloyd-Evans’ only major miscalculation was to make the character of Archibaldo almost wholly unsympathetic. Montemezzi and Benelli clearly intended a level of pathos and nobility in the character. The old, blind man is motivated by his desperation to see his line continued through his son and Fiora is vital to that plan. It is only when that dream is snatched away from him that he is driven to murder. By choosing to ignore the element of sympathy the production team actually remove several layers of depth from the character.
The other miscalculation is the hideously rushed popular uprising at the climax of the opera. Montemezzi hints at such an event to come in the scene in the church, with the simmering anger of the chorus surrounding the murdered Fiora’s bier. But his intentions for the end of the work are clear – Archibaldo is left alone in despair, having caused his own son’s death. By changing this and adding the assassination of Archibaldo by a vengeful Flaminio, Lloyd-Evans fatally reduces the effectiveness of the climax – clearly many of the audience were nonplussed as to what had happened.
But, these misgivings aside, this was a distinguished evening and another strong achievement from OHP following on from the superb new production of Flight and their very effective Lakmé.
Peter Robinson has made a specialty of these massive verismo scores at OHP. He led the previous outing of L’amore dei tre re and also helmed the even more overwhelming I gioielli della Madonna two years ago. He, and the excellent City of London Sinfonia, revelled in the huge score and made a potent case for the work. If the pit occasionally swamped voices at climaxes that is probably as much to be laid at Montemezzi’s door as Robinson’s and will, no doubt, settle as the run progresses.
As previously noted, Montemezzi gives outstanding opportunities to his four principals. He also tests their resilience and range to the limits. The big moments in the score, most notably the love duets, Manfredo’s second act scene with Fiora and the climax of Act III are underpinned with scoring that is both dense and often hair-raisingly loud. So it was fortunate that OHP had cast these parts from strength.
The part of Archibaldo has proved a magnet to high basses as diverse as Ezio Pinza, Sesto Bruscantini and Samuel Ramey. The part has been essayed in 2000 by Kurt Rydl and one hopes that Rene Pape or Georg Zeppenfeld might have a go at the role someday. OHP were fortunate to secure Mikhail Svetlov, who played the role in the 2007 run. The role rises to the top of the bass range as well as occasionally plumbing the depths but Svetlov’s penetrating voice encompasses all the demands without strain. His Act I aria “Italia, Italia è tutto il mio ricordo!” was one of the highlights of the performance. He played the director’s concept of the role to the hilt and was particularly repulsive in the scenes with Fiora. My doubts regarding the reductive vision of the part remain but Svetlov almost convinced me of the rightness of the concept.
The part of Fiora is not overtly sympathetic and her cynical gulling of the old King is an uncomfortable scene. Only in the regretful relationship with her unfortunate husband do we see through the carapace to the girl she might have been had she not become a pawn in the power games of kings. She is also murdered at the end of Act II, which can hardly have endeared Montemezzi to the prima donne of the day. Furthermore, the part requires a budding Turandot to ride the orchestra in the love duets. Fortunately OHP had Natalya Romaniw on hand. After her previous OHP triumph in I gioielli della Madonna, Romaniw was the natural choice for Fiora and she certainly doesn’t disappoint. Her huge voice easily cuts through the orchestra and sails up to the top of the range. She is also a compelling actress and didn’t shirk the unsympathetic aspects of the character. Can we hope that she will play Lisa in next season’s Pique Dame?
The tenor role of Avito is drastically underwritten by Benelli but Joel Montero (another graduate from Gioielli) makes the most of the little dramatic meat given him. He sings the endless climaxes of the two scenes with Fiora unstintingly and really comes into his own in the scene in the chapel. Only occasionally does one wish the voice opened out a touch more above the stave. His second act costume did him no favours but otherwise he looked every bit the passionate lover.
Montemezzi is even more merciless in his demands on his baritone, with the part frequently ascending to G and even A but still requiring a Verdian heft. Simon Thorpe is a name new to me but I hope to hear much more of him. His is a really impressive voice and he is an excellent actor. He brought depth and pathos to the only fully sympathetic character in the work and his embracing of death by poison from his dead wife’s lips was truly moving.
Aled Hall made much of the important comprimario role of the embittered servant, Flaminio. He could do with reigning in his voice, however, as several moments felt relentlessly oversung.
Doubts about the tone of parts of the production aside, this is a wholly recommendable evening and another feather in OHP’s strong 2015 season.
(Photos : Robert Workman)