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L’amore dei tre Re at Opera Holland Park:
23 Jul 2015

Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re

Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high. 

Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: L’amore dei tre Re at Opera Holland Park:


In Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges the King of Clubs, the ruler of an imaginary kingdom, tries to cure his son’s hypochondria with laughter.  In Montemezzi’s vicious melodrama a blind king, Archibaldo menacingly guards his son’s wife from her former lover: there is none of Prokofiev’s colour, fairy-tale and satire, just abundant black fiendishness and slaughter.

Written in 1913, L’amore dei tre Re is a rich amalgam of musical influences: Wagner, Debussy, Puccini and Strauss — and the soaring melodic lines also recall the bel canto idiom of the early nineteenth century.  The libretto (by Sam Benelli, based on his play of the same title) bears the heavy imprint of both Pelléas and Mélisande andTristan und Isolde, with, in the closing moments, a dash of Romeo and Juliet thrown in.  But, Montemezzi whips up a psychological maelstrom more than equal to any of his operatic predecessors — and, in a matter of only 95 minutes.  It’s surging, heady stuff — but not without musical sophistication, as Opera Holland Park confirmed in this splendid revival of Martin Lloyd-Evans’s 2007 staging.

The action takes place in the blind King Archibaldo’s castle following his occupation of the kingdom of Altura.  (Archibaldo alludes to the figure of Otto the Great, who was Saxon King from 936 and Holy Roman Emperor from 962 until his death in 973, and who greatly extended his kingdom and power through foreign invasions and strategic marriages, conquering the Kingdom of Italy in 961.)

Princess Fiora of Altura has been forcibly wed to Archibaldo’s son, Manfredo; with the latter away at war, Archibaldothreatens and imprisons Fiora to prevent her meeting with her former betrothed, Avito.  Needless to say, love finds a way … and learning that Fiora has been unfaithful to Manfredo, the King demands the name of her lover.  When she refuses he strangles her and then orders her body to be borne to a tomb.  Convinced that the secret lover will be unable to resist bidding his beloved a final passionate farewell, Archibaldo laces Fiora’s lips with lethal venom.  True to form, Avito does return; but so does Manfredo, and both lover and husband succumb to the poison’s virulent potency.

This neo-medieval verismo, in which the distance of the Dark Ages shrouds the violence in patina of mystery, reaches extremes of psychological melodrama and emotional tension.   Director Martin Lloyd-Evans and designer Jamie Vartan make the sensible decision to ignore the medievalism and minimise the set.  They place an imposing constructivist concrete block centre-stage, with sloping ramps spanning the wide platform, and perilous stairways creating upper levels.  The latter are sensibly used to raise the singers above the enlarged, resplendent and myriad-voiced forces of the City of London Sinfonia who project the relentless score (an almost unalleviated forte or louder) with power and passion.  The effect is a visual echo of the monochrome, gravity-defying stairways of Escher’s lithographs, where those who live among each other occupy different planes of existence.

There are few gimmicks but many nice details, as when Archibaldo’s attire becomes increasingly more military as if to demonstrate the growing strength of his dictatorial grip and his monomaniacal ruthlessness.  The grey is relieved only occasionally; but tellingly, when Fiora’s white silk veil — which Manfredo has asked her to wave as a sign of her love as he departs — billows from the height of the staircase and is embraced by Avito on the ground below.  After Fiora’s death this veil becomes a ribbon of black.  The reference to Mélisande’s luxurious hair in which Pélleas is enveloped is obvious, but deft.  And, to keep the historical context in our minds — both that of the medieval past and the era of post-unification Italy when the opera was composed — two chorus members daub the castle walls with name of the 1920s anti-fascist resistance movement: ‘Giustizia e Libertà’.

It was only at the end of the opera as the chorus stirred themselves to revolutionary action and Fiora lay on a hospital trolley draped with the tricolour bandiera d’Italia that the focus seemed to turn a little too far from the private towards the political.  I wasn’t sure, either, whether in the closing moments it was necessary for the masses, led by Archibaldo’s Italian guard Flaminio, to actually pull the trigger on their oppressor: we are left with the echo of gun-shot rather than the pathos of a blind tyrant with a pistol poised at the back of his head.  Moreover, Archibaldo’s assassination is a directorial addition.  In the libretto, Archibaldo enters the tomb and, finding Manfredodesperately kissing the infected lips of Fiora, assumes that he has trapped the guilty lover.  When he discovers the truth, he wraps his arms about the body of his dying son, and it is the sightless old King’s lament with which the opera ends: ‘Ah! Manfredo! Manfredo! Anehe tu, dunque, Senza rimedio sei con me nell’ombra! Manfredo!  Manfredo!’  (Ah! Manfredo!  You too, then, with no hope of remedy, are with me in the shadows!).

As the focus for the violent passion of the ‘three kings’ — Avito, Manfredo and Archibaldo — and the catalyst of the triple tragedy, Fiora is also the opera’s single female role.  Natalya Romaniw was more than up to the challenges and walked off with the vocal honours, though there was strong competition.  The smooth arches of Montemezzi’s languorous melodic lines were excellently projected with no sign of a lessening of stamina.  Romaniw’s tone was thrilling and radiant: but she was able to capture both Fiora’s sensuousness and her more ethereal delicacy — for upon her death the male chorus ask: ‘Who makes the lily, which has now come fall!  The spring was killed among the flowers!’ (‘Chi ci rende il giglio, che venuto è ormai l'autunno! La primavera fu uccisa tra i fiori!’)

Initially I was not entire convinced by the supposedly all-consuming desire of Fiora and Avito, despite the erotic embraces on stage.  Joel Montero’s characterisation of Avito was slightly one-dimensional to begin with but he found a true Italianate sound of great sweetness in the Act 2 duet and later a heroic, noble ring.  His closing monologue — ‘Fiora, Fiora. È silenzio: siamo soli.’ (Fiora, Fiora. All is silent, we are alone.) — was captivating.  Overcome by emotion, this Avito seemed genuinely close to death when he staggered from the bitter Manfredo and asked, ‘What do you want? … Can you not see that I can scarcely speak?’ (‘Che vuoi tu?  Ma non vedi ch'io non posso quasi parlare?’)

Simon Thorpe used his lyrical baritone particularly well in the calamitous final scene; his tone was well-focused, revealing Manfredo’s humanity.  As the blind patriarch, the American-Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov, reprised his role from 2007.  This was a terrifying, threatening but mesmerising portrait: Mussolini meets a demented Arkel.  In Act 1, Svetlov’s generous, dark-toned voice was occasionally covered at the bottom by the orchestra — one of perils of an open pit — but whenever on stage Svetlov was never less than utterly commanding.  His convincing depiction of a blind man showed real dramatic intelligence: his infirmity added poignancy but also malignancy to his assertions of power.  He paced the portrayal well too: we can see from the start that Archibaldo is insanely fanatical, but Svetlov slowly released his repressed, self-destructive desire for Fiora.  This toxic lust culminated in a chilling and ferocious throttling: Archibaldo slumped over Fiora’s body in post-coital exhaustion, then — when discovered by Manfredo — brusquely kicked her dead body aside.  Aled Hall also recreated his 2007 role and was excellent as Flaminio, pushing what is a fairly minor role to the centre of the drama.

Under Peter Robinson’s baton, the City of London Sinfonia surged with turbo-thrust towards a perennial precipice, much like the protagonists’ pulsing heartbeats.  The score stabbed like a sword, and the outré harmonies swerved unpredictably.  But, despite the orchestral extravagance and extroversion, the details didn’t get lost in the impassioned outbursts.

L’amore dei tre Re is melodramatic and certainly not subtle.  It wouldn’t take much for a staging to slip into the realms of caricature and farce, but this OHP production never strays near parody and as the sun set over South Kensington we were all enveloped by the growing darkness.  It’s compelling stuff.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Fiora:  Natalya Romaniw, Avito:  Joel Montero, Manfredo:  Simon Thorpe, Archibaldo:  Mikhail Svetlov, Flaminio:  Aled Hall, An Old Woman:  Lindsay Bramley, Ancella:  Jessica Eccleston, Una Giovanetta:  Abigail Sudbury, Un Giovanetto:  Timothy Langston, Una Vecchia:  Lindsay Bramley, Voce Interna:  Naomi Kilby; Conductor:  Peter Robinson, Director:  Martin Lloyd-Evans, Associate Director:  Rodula Gaitanou, Designer:  Jamie Vartan, Chorus Master:  John Andrews. Opera Holland Park, Wednesday 22nd July 2013.

L’amore dei tre Re will be performed on 25, 28 and 30 July, and 1 August.

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