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Eve Queler
09 May 2006

MONTEMEZZI: L’amore dei tre re

What happened to Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re? After the opera’s triumphant premiere at La Scala in 1913, Montemezzi was vaulted into the international limelight, and his creation enjoyed regular performances throughout the world until his death in 1952.

Since then, the opera’s popularity has eroded severely, and now it lingers on the outermost fringes of the canon, emerging from time to time like an elderly lion to remind us that it, too, once held audiences in thrall with its roar. One of the surest signs of L’amore’s near-obsolescence is the simple fact that the Opera Orchestra of New York decided to conclude its 35th anniversary season at Carnegie Hall with a performance of the work. Eve Queler’s organization has made its name over the years by reviving neglected operatic scores, and its concert presentation of L’amore on 4 May was no exception.

The reason for the opera’s fall from grace cannot have much to do with its actual merits. By any standard, this is a powerful and well-crafted work, both musically and dramatically. Sem Benelli’s libretto is a naked melodrama of raw emotion elevated and concentrated by its archaic setting in 10th-century Italy. The barbarian king Archibaldo is suspicious of his son Manfredo’s new bride, Fiora. The suspicion is justified: Fiora has been secretly trysting with fellow Italian Avito, the man she was supposed to marry before the barbarians conquered their homeland. Archibaldo’s blindness prevents him from discovering Fiora in flagrante delicto, but when she finally admits her transgression to him and refuses to reveal her lover’s identity, the king strangles her. In the opera’s final act, Avito kisses Fiora’s corpse, but he dies from the poison the barbarians have placed on her lips. Manfredo, unable to master his grief, cannot restrain himself from kissing Fiora as well, and the opera concludes with Archibaldo holding his dying son in his arms.

Montemezzi’s music fills out this tale of betrayal and passion with all the high-stakes energy it can bear, yet the score never devolves into hysterics. Although it clearly lives within the borders of verismo, the opera owes more than a little to Wagner and Debussy. There is a distinctly Wagnerian swagger to the end of Act One, for example, as Manfredo takes Fiora to bed and Archibaldo laments his son’s ignorance. And when Fiora defiantly confesses her guilt to Archibaldo at the heart of Act Two (“Allora...Allora...Quello ch’io baciavo”), it is hard not to think of the similarly electric moment in the second act of Parsifal when Kundry drops her seductress routine and finally confronts Parsifal with the truth about her identity. Meanwhile, the evocative orchestral atmospherics of the opera call Pelléas to mind, and certainly Benelli’s storyline and dramatis personae refer back to Maeterlinck’s drama. Nevertheless, the opera is quintessentially Italian in its approach. All the characters are fully aware of their motivations, and as they maneuver toward their aims, their emotions surge directly to the surface, finding expression in line after line of wide-ranging, ardent melody. Today, with our predilection for late Wagner and Pelléas, we expect a story like this to receive an elusive, psychologically layered musical treatment. Perhaps this tacit assumption can help to explain why Montemezzi’s opera has not managed to retain its allure over the past half-century. In any case, it certainly deserves attention on its own terms.

Even if the opera’s overall quality was in doubt, no greater excuse could be proffered for its revival than to give Samuel Ramey the opportunity to sing the role of Archibaldo. Ramey’s performance on Thursday night was strong and self-assured, and yet there was room in his interpretation of Archibaldo for hints of the self-pity and despair that sap the soul of this blind and aging king. Ramey’s voice, on the other hand, seems not to have aged much, at least not on this occasion. His bass sound, rich and unforced, filled the hall throughout the evening, and the climax of his first-act aria (“Italia! Italia!...è tutto il mio ricordo!”) was thrilling. As Fiora, the soprano Fabiana Bravo seemed content at first to indulge in histrionics rather than tap into the considerable resources of her instrument. Her weak Callas impersonation, peppered with the usual gasps, sobs and wails, was applied just as assiduously to her love duet with Avito in Act One as it was to her dissimulating dialogue with Manfredo at the beginning of Act Two. As the second act progressed, however, Bravo let her voice do the work, and it soared. The iron core of her middle range communicated Fiora’s resolute pride, while the glitter of her high notes made us understand what attracted these men to her in the first place. Fernando de la Mora (Avito) was the only principal who sang his role from memory, and the deeper level of dramatic commitment on his part was evident and much appreciated. Unfortunately, his quintessential lyric tenor voice, naturally honeyed and supple, was pushed beyond its limits in many places, and the result was diffuse and flat. Much the same could be said of baritone Pavel Baransky in the role of Manfredo.

It’s hard to blame these singers for overexerting themselves, however, since Maestro Queler never accommodated them by limiting the sound of her orchestra. Concert presentations of opera always come up against the problem of balance, but for this performance Queler seems to have ignored the problem altogether. Still, the orchestra made its way through the score without too much calamity, and some of the players memorably rose to the occasion in featured moments (the flute solo in Act One, the viola solos in Act Three, the offstage trumpets throughout). Let’s hope that this performance inspires a few opera companies to assemble a fully-staged production in the near future.

Benjamin Binder

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