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Natalia Ushakova as Maliella and Ivan Ožvát as Biaso [Photo courtesy of Slovenské národné divadlo]
31 May 2015

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: The Jewels of the Madonna

With 27 named roles and a large orchestra (including instruments such as mandolins), Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s 1911 opera, I gioielli della Madonna (The Jewels of the Madonna) might seem a surprising choice for a relatively small opera house like the Slovak National Theatre / Slovenské národné divadlo (SND) in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: The Jewels of the Madonna

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Natalia Ushakova as Maliella and Ivan Ožvát as Biaso

Photos courtesy of Slovenské národné divadlo

 

But the company’s music director and opera director is the Austrian conductor Friedrich Haider, who is something of a Wolf-Ferrari expert having recorded Wolf-Ferrari’s opera Il segreto di Susanna (Susanna’s secret) and the violin concerto, and the house has a large permanent ensemble with a big choir from whom it was possible to cast the large number of important comprimario roles.

Rather impressively the opera was double case and we saw the premiere at SND’s New Building on Friday 29 May 2015 with Kyungho Kim as Gennaro, Denisa Šlepkovská as Carmela, Natalia Ushakova as Maliella and Daniel Čapkovič as Rafaele, conducted by Friedrich Haider, directed by Manfred Schweigkofler with sets designed by Michele Olcese and costumes by Concetta Nappi. The SND Orchestra and Chorus, was joined by the Bratislava Boys Choir, and the Pressburg Singers.

Jewels_03.pngKyungho Kim as Gennaro

The plot is relatively straightforward, Gennaro (Kyungho Kim) is a young blacksmith who has three obsessions, his mother Carmela (Denisa Šlepkovská), the Madonna and his foster sister Maliella (Denisa Šlepkovská). This latter is rather wild, wanting to enjoy life but is kept confined by her family. She is being courted by Rafaele (Daniel Čapkovič) the head of the local Camorra.

The first act centres on a celebration for the feast of Our Lady, with a gloriously chaotic series of processions and lots of street characters, including an appearance from the statue of the jewelled Madonna. Act two is in the courtyard of Gennaro’s home and is a series of interactions, between Gennaro and Carmela, Gennaro and Maliella, Maliella and Rafaele. we learn that Carmela’s protective mothering of Gennaro arose because she nearly lost him as a child, and the fostering of Maliella was the result of a vow to the virgin if Gennaro survived. Gennaro tells Maliella of his obsession and she laughs at him, he vows to steal the jewels of the Madonna for her. Later Rafaele comes courting and the two have a love scene through the grill locking Maliella in. Finally Gennaro reappears with the jewels and the act closes with Gennaro covering Maliella with jewels before claiming her virginity. Act three is Rafaele’s gang’s hangout; an orgy in progress is interrupted first by the arrival of Maliella, traumatised by Gennaro’s taking of her virginity, and then by Gennaro with the jewels themselves. Though the gang has been having an orgy beneath an image of the Madonna, they are shocked by Gennaro’s sacrilege. But Wolf-Ferrari knew Jung and was cleaarly interested in the madonna/mother/whore parallels, and it is clear that for Rafaele, Gennaro has stolen the jewels (virginity) of his madonna (Maliella), and Rafaele loses interest in Maliella.

Though I gioielli della Madonna is commonly linked to the later Verismo school, the opera has both dramatic and musical differences. True the story has the dramatic shock value of a Verismo opera, but Wolf-Ferrari is like Verdi in being interested in the consequences of actions. Operas like Pagliacci end with the major dramatic coup, in I gioielli della Madonna Wolf-Ferrari continues into the remarkable third act where we explore the tragic consequences of actions and it ends in a mysterious and unnerving manner with Maliella’s disappearance (and presumed death) and Gennaro’s suicide; no big climactic moment. Musically there are similar differences, and certainly none of the driving passion and big, throbbing, orchestra supported tunes from Verismo.

Jewels_04.pngFrantišek Ďuriač as Rocco, Natalia Ushakova as Maliella and Peter Maly as Ciccillo

Wolf-Ferrari was of mixed Italian and German heritage, and German trained in Munich under Rheinberger. His eclectic style is allied to a complexity in the orchestration and structure which makes for richness (when premiered the opera was far more popular in Germany than in Italy). There are tunes a-plenty including popular ones echoing the street celebrations, but all are melded into a remarkable synthesis ranging from Saint-Saens to Richard Strauss, with pre-echoes of Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Rather imaginatively, the Camorra are not depicted by dark music but they make their entrance to a jolly tune on the mandolins, though this can turn threatening when the knives come out.

The plot really requires the opera to be set in the correct period and location, intense devotion to the Madonna is a core component. Director Manfred Schweigkofler and designers Michele Olcese and Concetta Nappi moved the time forward to the 1950’s but wisely kept the basic structures, with Michele Olcese’s sets being formed of panels depicting scenes from Naples thus evoking the characteristic look and feel of the city. The production captured the liveliness and shabbyness of the street-life, but act one is not just about vibrant street life and processions, and Manfred Schweigkofler’s handling of the crowds enabled us to appreciate the quieter moments. He drew strong performances from his cast in all he more intimate moments. The large chorus threw themselves into the action with a will, and sang strongly. Perhaps there was a certain staidness in their manner, but this fitted in with the 1950’s setting, and the orgy was very effectively done yet firmly in period. The statue of the Madonna was a remarkable structure seemingly made of light, the design references became clear in act two when Maliella, covered with diamonds, began to resemble the twinkling brilliance of the statue.

Maliella is a big role, requiring a powerful lyric/dramatic voice. Natalia Ushakova’s repertoire stretches from Violetta through Tosca to Elsa and Salome. In the first act she brought out Maliella’s innate anger, even in the jollier moments such as her hymn to the joys of freedom, but she seemed a little careful and the rich orchestration threatened to overwhelm her. She seemed to relax somewhat in act two, in the series of powerful duets taunting Gennaro and flirting with Rafaele leading to an ecstatic duet with this latter. Natalia Ushakova seemed to throw caution to the winds and gave an incendiary account of her final scene.

Jewels_01.pngScéna

Kyungho Kim’s Gennaro was a sober, intense young man with a neatly observed obsessive nature. Kyungho Kim’s voice had a richly powerful dark timbre allied to an heroic steadiness which brought forth a finely consistent account of the taxing role. His final scene, being castigated for sacrilege by the Camorra was as powerful as it was harmonically innovative with Wolf-Ferrari stretching tonality to breaking point. Though Gennaro’s obsessions make him a rather difficult to love character, Kyungho Kim’s performance went a long way towards eliciting our sympathy.

Daniel Čapkovič was neatly suave as the oily Rafaele, but allied to a powerful voice with a fine burnished tone. But the role need intensity and power as well as suaveness and a sense of line, and Daniel Čapkovič had the necessary reserves, but he always sang with the required seductivness so that Rafaele was attractive and dangerous, rather than boorish. Denisa Šlepkovská was a strong Carmela, warmly sympathetic of voice and monstrous in the intensity of her smothering love for Gennaro and indifference to Maliella’s will for freedom.

The numerous smaller roles were strongly taken, with lots of cameos on the first act such as Igor Pasek’s dim Biaso, Maxim Kutsenko’s charming Totonno, the Rafaele’s rather scary lieutenants Ciccillo and Rocco played by Peter Maly and Frantisek Duriac, the three girls providing lively entertainment to the Camorra played by Jana Bernathova, Maria Rychlova and Katarina Florova and many, many more.

Just as important was the orchestra, under Friedrich Haider’s strongly inspiring direction. Throughout the orchestral playing had an impressive sense of flow, with details brought out and a lovely timbre to the playing. This did not sound like an unfamiliar score, and clearly there had been a lot of preparation which paid off.

The performances are being recorded with the hope of finding a record company to issue a recording, let us hope that they are successful.

Wisely the production chose not to indulge in too many modish modernism, in such a complex and unfamiliar opera conveying the music and drama’s essential purpose was clearly a priority, and this was certainly achieved. I was in a press party, and was the only member of the group to have seen the opera before (at Opera Holland Park in 2014), and all were impressed both by the quality of the work and the performance.

The performance by SND was an immense achievement for the whole ensemble, but more than that it was a vividly, vibrant piece of musical theatre and showed that Wolf-Ferrari’s opera might yet achieve its place.

Robert Hugill


Cast and production information:

Gennaro: Kyungho Kim, Carmela: Denisa Šlepkovská, Maliella: Natalia Ushakova , Rafele: Daniel Čapkovič, Biaso: Igor Pasek, Totonno: Maxim Kutsenko, Ciccillo: Peter Maly, Rocco: Frantisek Duriac, Stella: Jana Bernathova, Concetta: Maria Rychlova Serena: Katarina Florova. Conductor: Friedrich Haider, Director: Manfred Schweigkofler Sets: Michele Olcese Costumes: Concetta Nappi. The SND Orchestra and Chorus, the Bratislava Boys Choir, the Pressburg Singers. Slovak National Theatre, Bratislava, 29 May 2015.

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