Love and Judgement

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    L’Amore dei Tre Re, Italo Montemezzi, Opera Holland Park, July 22nd – August 1st.

    In early 1939, with the threat of war intensifying, the Italian composer Italo Montemezzi (1875-1952) decided to move his family to America, eventually settling in Beverly Hills. He left behind two houses, one in Milan, the other in Vigasio, near Verona. During the war, both were occupied by German soldiers, plundered, damaged. This is something I have learnt in the course of researching a biography of the composer; I do not think it can have been known to anyone at Opera Holland Park, where Montemezzi’s masterpiece has just been revived, and it is not mentioned in Robert Thicknesse’s programme essay (which says virtually nothing about the composer). When known, however, it adds considerable resonance to Holland Park’s powerful World War II setting of L’Amore dei Tre Re (‘The Love of Three Kings’). This is, to the best of my knowledge, the first production of Montemezzi’s opera to move it from its original Dark Ages setting, and although (inevitably) not all the details gel, enough do to make it a powerful take on Italy’s sufferings at the hands of her former Axis partner in the latter stages of the war.

    Montemezzi New York 1920 © David Chandler

    L’Amore dei Tre Re of 1913 is a Literaturoper, a spoken play shortened, but not otherwise adapted, and set to music (think of the near-contemporary Salome and Pelléas et Mélisande). The playwright, the patriotic Sem Benelli, was studiously vague in his evocation of history; despite Thicknesse’s surprisingly confident, imaginatively limiting and undoubtedly wrong claim that Archibaldo was inspired by the tenth-century German king Otto I, all we actually know is that he is an invader from elsewhere, now established as the king of a certain imprecise area of Italy. He has married his son, Manfredo, to a high-born Italian woman, Fiora, in an effort to secure peace. Unfortunately she was, and still is, in love with her cousin, Avito, an Italian prince (the fact of his being her cousin is not included in the opera). Everything that happens in play and opera develops, with ruthless logic, from this basic situation. In the Holland Park production, Archibaldo becomes a World War II German general and the gothic castle of the original story is replaced with an oppressive-looking concrete fortress. In a strictly literal interpretation, it is hard to believe the marriage of this general’s son to an Italian woman would do much to help the Nazi cause, but in a less literal, more imaginative response, the political issues connected to the romantic plot are clear, powerful and engaging.

    Archibaldo is blind (the play reveals he lost his sight around the time his son was born), a fact as pregnant with dramatic possibilities as with imaginative and psychological fascination. He depends a great deal on his Italian servant, Flaminio, who treacherously connives at, and even helps facilitate, the clandestine meetings of Avito and Fiora. In Benelli’s play, Flaminio’s treachery is discovered, he is summarily executed, and his body hung up over the castle drawbridge as a ‘flag of death’. That detail is not included in the opera, and the Holland Park production took advantage of the fact in a remarkable way. Here, Flaminio is part of the Italian resistance, and after Fiora, Avito and Manfredo have all died as a result of Archibaldo’s direct or indirect violence, it is he who leads in a group of angry Italian partisans and he who dispatches the blind king with a pistol shot in the back of the head. It is not at all the ending imagined by Benelli or Montemezzi, but it is a stunning and effective coup de théâtre. Italy, it would seem, is finally liberated – but only after a great deal of blood has been spilt.

    Opera Holland Park has achieved something exceptional with this production, first aired in 2007 and revived this summer: they have made British audiences take L’Amore dei Tre Re seriously. This had scarcely happened before. When the opera was first performed in London, in 1914, it had already enjoyed a major success in Italy, proved a sensational triumph in New York and Boston, and won significant critical acclaim in Paris. Yet the British critics seemed determined to dislike it. H. C. Colles of The Times can be taken as typical: he made fun of the story, judged that neither the characters nor the place were properly individualized, and claimed to hear ‘one pumped-up climax of simulated emotion after another’ – the general impression being that his was the voice of calm Anglo-Saxon reason firmly rebutting overheated Italian passion for everyone’s good. In almost every point, the British critics disagreed with their American counterparts. It was only the more strictly popular response in London that came remotely close to the enthusiasm of New York and Boston. For example, ‘R. C.’ of the Daily Mail wrote:

    Large share in the new opera’s virtues must be allotted to the poet, and to the composer’s taste in choosing this moving tragedy. We are far here from the gross or sentimental melodrama of Puccini and the police-court anecdotes of so many of the new Italian operas.

    … One cannot see in him [Montemezzi] a great power or strong originality, but here decidedly is some new fineness of feeling and a rejection of the coarse proceedings of the ‘verists’. The degree of accomplishment is high.

    L’amore dei tre Re – Italo Montemezzi – Opera Holland Park © Robert Workman

    This was something, but far short of the acclaim given the opera in America, where many critics stated categorically that L’Amore dei Tre Re was the finest Italian opera since Verdi stopped composing and far better than anything Puccini or Mascagni had produced. So drastically different were the verdicts that Montemezzi’s opera could be advanced as evidence that judgements concerning the value of art never can be objective. Perhaps that is true to an extent, but I believe the British response was quite deliberately at odds with the more honest American one, and that Montemezzi’s opera became part of a larger cultural conflict centred on Richard Strauss. Strauss’s operas had been condemned in America in no uncertain terms and the London critics had then delighted in demonstrating their superior perspicuity and openness to the new by praising those same operas and deploring American backwardness. The fact that a good many American critics outspokenly judged L’Amore dei Tre Re greatly superior to Der Rosenkavalier meant that the London critics, by condemning the former opera, could extend their campaign against their American rivals.

    The general pattern continued. By the time L’Amore dei Tre Re returned to London in 1930, with Montemezzi in attendance, it had become virtually an annual fixture in New York and Chicago, in addition to having been performed in most significant opera houses around the world. But the London critics still sniffed. ‘The revival of L’Amore dei tre re now would be surprising … but for the fact that it has since [1914] gained some acceptance in America’, claimed The Times. Ernest Newman, perhaps the most distinguished critic to review the production, offered very grudging admiration: ‘There is hardly a single page of his [Montemezzi’s] score that, as music, is fit to line Puccini’s or the early Verdi’s waste-paper basket; but almost all of it “comes off” on the stage.’ Yet it was touch and go in 1930. The public, to use that partial abstraction, was a lot more enthusiastic than the critics. Among them was the popular novelist Ida Cook (1904-86), a great opera-lover, who two decades later wrote a deeply-felt account of the experience of seeing Montemezzi’s masterpiece:

    That [1930] season ended with what I have always regarded as one of the half-dozen supreme performances I have been privileged to hear: L’Amore dei Tre Re with Ponselle [Fiora] and Pinza [Archibaldo], absolutely at the top of their form …

    The ‘curtain’ of the second act that night was something which must be indelibly impressed on the minds of all who saw it. After the old blind King, wild with anger and suspicion against his daughter-in-law, has strangled her, the stage directions simply say that he is to carry her slowly from the stage. By what he afterwards told us was an acrobatic trick, Pinza used to lift Ponselle and throw her over his shoulder – not in an ungraceful ‘fireman’s lift’ but so that she was actually lying on her back. Both of them were tall and splendid figures, and the pity and terror of that wordless scene as Pinza drew himself to his full height and then groped his way blindly from the stage, the bending horizontals of Ponselle’s figure making a strange and terrible contrast to the rigid perpendicular of his, is something that remains with me to this day.

    (My eight-year-old daughter and I were very curious as to how this celebrated moment in the opera’s dramaturgy would be handled in the Holland Park production. It was actually ducked. Fiora’s body was simply left lying on the floor, to be discovered by Flaminio and claimed by members of the resistance. This created something of a plot hole, for it seemed impossible for Archibaldo to have subsequently smeared a powerful poison on the corpse’s lips, as the plot demands. But let that pass.)

    When Holland Park first produced L’Amore dei Tre Re in 2007, there was a definite advance on 1914 and 1930. Far more of the criticism was positive; a significant part was enthusiastic. The ghosts of the past had not completely vanished, of course. The critical economy of opera turns so much on the repetition of stock judgements that some reviewers simply cannot accept an opera as a masterpiece if they have never heard of it, or its composer. Rupert Christensen of the Telegraph essentially repeated the terms of Newman’s 1930 ‘analysis’ (if such it can be called), calling his review ‘Old tosh that can still grip’. He would not, one presumes, refer to Tosca or Elektra as ‘Old tosh’, and if pushed on the matter would probably fall back on a sweeping, utterly unsupportable assertion like Newman’s, or some sort of platitude about certain works passing the ‘test of time’. But the ‘test of time’ is a complicated thing. People go to see a Puccini or Strauss opera already convinced that these composers are great masters of their art and that the opera they are about to see is a canonical masterpiece. The court of judgement is hardly neutral. In 2007, and again this year, thousands of Londoners, and visitors to London, have been thrilled, amazed and moved by L’Amore dei Tre Re even though they may not have heard of this century-old opera or its composer before. They were responding directly to an opera, not to ideas about opera, and I doubt very much that they felt they had been ‘gripped’ by ‘Old tosh’. They felt ‘gripped’, rather, by something of extraordinary beauty and tragic power. It is a shame that Thicknesse’s programme essay, rather than championing the opera, leans heavily toward the Christensen position.

    A good part of the greatness of L’Amore dei Tre Re lies in its perfect dramatic pace. The three acts add up to less than 100 minutes of music and the drama unfolds with a classical purity of form, never seeming hurried and yet doing perfect justice to the vast emotional reaches of the plot. There are very, very few operas so completely free of padding and yet so charged with music. The conclusion of Ethel Peyser and Marion Bauer in their How Opera Grew of 1956, that L’Amore dei Tre Re is the first Italian opera to fully realize the original aesthetic ideals of Italian opera, though it may initially seem impossibly pat, or awkwardly unconventional, actually deserves to be taken seriously: Montemezzi’s is a true ‘drama in music’. The economical urgency of the work was strongly emphasized in the Holland Park production, presented without intervals and with only the slightest pause between acts. Joel Montero as Avito and Simon Thorpe as Manfredo seemed slightly uncomfortable with the stern simplicity of the production and resorted to a certain amount of traditional operatic posturing, better suited to Handel. On the other hand, Mikhail Svetlov as Archibaldo (returning to the role he sung in 2007), Natalya Romaniw as Fiora and Aled Hall as a Flaminio now promoted into a major character, all fitted perfectly into the overall design, every look and gesture made to tell, though rooted in a naturalistic conception of acting that perfectly matched the bleak set. Some of it was almost Pinteresque.

    Montemezzi employed a large Wagnerian orchestra in L’Amore dei Tre Re and his score requires singers with powerful voices as well as stamina if the intended sound, heroic and romantic, is to be achieved. The acoustics at Holland Park, where the orchestra can be really deafening, appreciably increases the challenge. Yet it was only in rare moments that the singers were drowned out by the orchestra, and though a certain amount of the score’s delicate poetry was lost, its exhilarating dramatic power was wonderfully brought out and – for anyone who still doubted – vindicated. Indeed, having been chosen to close the Holland Park season on 1 August, L’Amore dei Tre Re stood as a first class vindication of the power of opera in general and the importance, in the overall operatic economy, of having companies who won’t just keep regurgitating The Barber of Seville, La Traviata and La bohème. The relevance of this became clear after the last performance, as the Holland Park staff gathered and a series of speeches were made, amid loud acclaim, about the company’s advanced plans to become independent of The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. May fortune favour the brave and may the tidy conclusions of musical history go on being challenged.

    By David Chandler