A SPECIAL ALCHEMY
MONTEMEZZI'S greatest operatic hit
'The Greatest Italian tragic opera since Verdi's Otello'. 'Wot, no Puccini?', one is tempted to retort; but, this was the opinion of the American musicologist Donald Jay Grout, whose 'History of Western Music' is and has been required reading for generations of students. Quite how such a minor figure as Italo Montemezzi (1875-1952) came onto his radar screen may be a surprise, but this statement from his 1940's survey A History of Western Opera, a reference book reissued, yet again, this very year, is indicative of just how seriously this piece was taken in the early twentieth century.
Montemezzi's composing career was intermittent and fitful. Born in Vigasio, near Verona, he first trained as an engineer. His first opera, Giovanni Gallurese (1905), though not especially successful, got him noticed by the doyen of Italian music publishers, Tito Ricordi, who always seemed to be on the look out for a successor to Puccini. He commissioned Helléra, a subject that Puccini had rejected earlier, with a libretto by the very established Luigi Illica, co-writer of La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly, with whom unfortunately Montemezzi did not get along. With his next opera, L'amore dei tre re, a setting of a play by young writer Sem Benelli (1877-1949), he hit the jackpot. The work was a great success after it was premiered at La Scala in 1913 under the baton of Tullio Serafin, no less, garnering no fewer than six new productions there by 1953; but, it was America that took the piece to its heart, and, indeed, its composer, who lived there for ten years from 1939 onwards, returning to his home town only in his final years. It became a fixture at the Met, performed there 66 times from 1914 until 1949. The casts were truly mouth-watering: the Met premiere, conducted by Toscanini, featured Lucrezia Bori, Pasquale Amato and Adamo Didur as the blind king Archibaldo, which for a time became a benchmark role at that house for any aspiring bass. Fiora was later sung there by Claudia Muzio, Florence Easton, Rosa Ponselle, Florence Easton, Grace Moore and Dorothy Kirsten; and her lover, Avito, by Enrico Caruso, Giovanni Martinelli and Edward Johnston. Later Archibaldo's included Tancredi Pasero and Ezio Pinza, whose performance has been immortalized in a Met broadcast from 1941 (with Moore) available on CD, under the baton of Montemezzi himself, who was the last composer to conduct his own work at the Met until Tan Dun led his own The Last Emperor last season. Elsewhere in America, L'amore was a fixture at both San Francisco and Chicago, where Mary Garden was a leading exponent of the role of Fiora. Indeed, she loved it so much, that, according to her notoriously unreliable memoirs:
" ...in the last act I lay dead in the chapel. I was the only Fiora who ever lay there, because they usually put in a chorus girl or someone to play dead for the prima donna. But I wanted to do the whole opera. "
Testimony to her affection for the role is demonstrated by the fact that it was the only one she ever learned in Italian. Her few Italian roles, such as Tosca and Katiusha in Alfano's Risurrezione, were essayed in French translation.
After World War Two, performances of the opera declined. As one Francis D.Perkins, reviewing a Met revival in the 1940's, wrote somewhat presciently:
"For one hearer, this music drama has not survived the passage of time entirely unscathed. Its occasional derivations may be discounted; likewise the parallels to Tristan in the second act. But, with some memorable exceptions, its basic musical ideas seemed less individual, less readily grasped than they had been; the romanticism seemed to be of a kind that may not necessarily survive".
As with most Italian operas written in the wake of Verdi, L'amore dei tre re is usually perceived as a late example of verismo--literally - ‘truth‘. This label originated in opera with Mascagni's epoch making Cavalleria rusticana (1890), implying a proletarian setting and sensational events. Most post-Verdi Italian operas have this misleading label randomly applied to them. Puccini, the major figure of this period, was a far more diverse dramatist than this would suggest; and his lesser contemporaries attempted to forge different paths, in part to escape Puccini’s all-consuming shadow, and to shore up the declining Italian operatic tradition. Montemezzi's work is rather an example of the symbolist genre that reached its high watermark in Italian opera around 1913-14, on the cusp of World War I, when Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini and Mascagni's Parisina, along with L’amore dei tre re, were all premiered in adjacent seasons. They can also be classed as Literaturopern--operas based on existing plays that set the play texts verbatim, without the intercession of a librettist to versify or to take account of musical conventions - Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), based on Maurice Maeterlinck, and Strauss's setting of Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1905) were hugely influential in this respect. The Zandonai and Mascagni works were based on plays by Gabrielle D'Annunzio (1863-1938), a dramatist at the very centre of the Italian symbolist movement. A controversial figure, world famous in his time, he was a novelist, poet, politician, and soldier; and his encrusted, ornate literary style rehashed the more macabre elements of Keats, Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe and the Pre-Raphaelites, in which images of death, decay and necrophilia abound. Musically, the symbolists idolized Wagner; whose crepuscular world chimed more with their sensibilities, than the more humanist, rational Verdi. D'Annunzio's novel, Trionfo della morte (The Triumph of Death), is full of references to Tristan and Isolde, with its equation of orgasm and death. As a playwright, D'Annunzio was not successful despite stellar advocacy. His long term mistress, doyenne of Italian actresses, Eleonora Duse, attempted to establish his plays on her tours, but they were simply too verbose and broken backed dramatically to succeed. Significantly, Puccini shied away from collaborating with this most illustrious figure, finding his sense of theatre deplorable. Sem Benelli (1877-1949), who wrote the play upon which L'amore dei tre re is based, was a figure in D'Annunzio's circle. He achieved real theatrical success with La cena delle beffe (known in English as The Jest)—a popular vehicle for John and Lionel Barrymore in 1920's New York; and it was later turned into an opera by Giordano. Benelli’s style lacked the oracular genius of D’Annunzio’s, but mined the same patch as with significantly more economy and theatrical flair; his plays were more manageable as source material for operas.
The Italian symbolists were more politically aware than their counterparts in France and Britain; national identity was more of an issue in the aftermath of the 1870 unification of Italy, and indeed, D'Annunzio, a pilot and decorated hero of World War 1, formed a private army in 1919, which included Benelli, to retake the port of Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia) that had not been ceded to Italy by the Treaty of Versailles. Mussolini approved of this illegal occupancy; and Benelli served briefly in Mussolini's government, resigning in protest at the assassination in 1924 of the socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti. He did return, though, to serve in Mussolini’s Abyssinian campaign, only disassociating himself from the Fascists just before World War Two by going into exile in Switzerland. Montemezzi’s magnum opus, La Nave, a setting of D’Annunzio’s rabidly nationalist play, was premiered just before the Fiume occupation; and the first night (November 3rd, 1918) was interrupted by news of the expulsion of Austro-German troops from Trieste. This rather bloated piece, which failed spectacularly the following year in Chicago in the presence of the composer, ushered in a long period of compositional silence in which, it seems, Montemezzi tried to distance himself from the symbolists’ relationship with the fascists. Towards the end of his life, he composed a symphonic poem for the NBC with an anti-fascist message, Italia mia! Nulla fermera il tuo canto! (My Italy! No one will silence your song!) in support of the Allied war effort.
Thus, the soil from which L‘amore dei tre re springs, is a mixture of the decadent and politically allegorical. In contrast to so many of the contemporary Italian operas, where local colour is applied with detail and realism, the milieu is vague, with overt echoes of Debussy and Maeterlinck's world in Pelléas et Mélisande. The setting is Italy, King Archibaldo’s castle, in the 10th century. Forty years before the action begins, Archibaldo invaded from the north and proclaimed himself King of Altura, brokering a peace by marrying his son, Manfredo, to Princess Fiora, betrothed to the rightful heir of Altura, Avito. Now Archibaldo is blind and Fiora has not renounced Avito, indulging in an intensely sexual affair while her husband Manfredo is away at war to the north. The outer acts take place at night, the blind king, Archibaldo, whose nocturnal stumbling is so memorably and almost cinematically evoked in Montemezzi's score, senses Fiora's transgression and the presence of an intruder in the castle, but is unable to prove it. The tremendous second act, a daylit inversion of Tristan und Isolde, equates the snuffing out of Fiora's passion and life with the coming of night. The archetypical characters are well contrasted, with the eternal operatic triangle enhanced by transformation into a quadrilateral. Fiora’s abandoned passion for her lover is tellingly contrasted with her coldness towards her husband, Manfredo, whose gentleness is unexpected (shades of King Mark in Tristan und Isolde). Rather than avenging Fiora’s murder by his father, he only marvels at her extreme passion that had been denied him. The chorus appears only at the beginning of the short final act, as mourners around Fiora’s bier; and though a feeling of oppression and potential vengeance is implied, it is non-specific. Altura is close to Maeterlinck’s Allemonde. Fiora, a most un-manipulated, un-Puccinian heroine, is marked throughout by fixity of purpose, relishing her erotic fulfillment; and finally, tiring of deception, she defiantly - the stage directions instruct her to ‘rear, like a serpent’- admits her adultery to Archibaldo. Her words stop short of naming Avito to her father-in-law, instead she refers to her lover with a most D‘Annunzian sobriquet, ‘dolce morte‘ (‘Sweet Death‘). It seems that even in death she is in control. Archibaldo’s plan, poisoning her lips to ensure her lover’s death after a final kiss, backfires. Rather, his own son kisses her as well; and it is his body, not Avito’s, that Archibaldo identifies at the final curtain, which makes for an enigmatic conclusion. Archibaldo’s power is as nothing to the implacable Fiora - an allegory here, to be sure.
Montemezzi's musical world is not one of Debussyian decadence that the libretto suggests. Though he was drawn to the symbolist aesthetic, his musical language is, in fact, more reactionary than his contemporary, Zandonai, and those of his older exemplars, Mascagni and Puccini. There is nothing to be found in his music to justify the oft-parroted moniker, 'The Italian Debussy'. Rather, it is the subject matter of L'amore dei tre re that has connections with Debussy or, to be more accurate, with Maeterlinck. Nowhere in Montemezzi can the fashionable French influence, from Massenet through Debussy, which forms the basis for Puccini's language, be found. Montemezzi’s palette, though chromatic, is much plainer and does not advance beyond the nineteenth century. Redolent of Wagner and the early Richard Strauss tone poems, his melodic style is forthright, more 'masculine' and, unlike Debussy, very goal based, relishing the impact of clearly marked cadence points, bringing it close to the world of late Verdi. Furthermore, Montemezzi has affinity with Antonio Smareglia, the Istrian composer who similarly fuses literary symbolism with Germanic musical processes, Alberto Franchetti, inheritor of Verdi's grand opera mantle with such works as Germania and Cristoforo Colombo, and Alfredo Catalani, whose La Wally occasional surfaces today. These composers looked across the Alps for subject matter and musical example. But, in L'amore dei tre re, Montemezzi's symphonic fluency is far more cogent, vital and inspired than his Italian elders and contemporaries--Mascagni included, leading us, in fact, to Korngold. The music of Montemezzi sounds purer than Puccini's, with no added note chords presaging the world of twentieth century popular music, though his Wagner-derived chromaticism is nuanced and individually sensuous. The post-coital first appearance of the lovers in Act 1 is a hybrid of the two great 19th century operatic masters: a less chaste version of the first act love duet in Verdi's Otello, tinged with Tristan-esque yearning. He is adept at taking almost cinematic musical gestures and transmuting these into revealing psychological states, notably the stumbling pizzicato motif depicting Archibaldo’s blindness, and the orchestral ritornelli in Act Two, where Fiora, high on the castle battlements, pityingly waving the veil after her departing husband, is depicted in a voluminous soundscape that integrates departing troops, rhythmical horses’ hooves and desperate yearning. The surface allure of the score fascinates; it is gorgeous, iridescent, propulsive and memorable.
None of Montemezzi's other operas, despite their consistency of language, attain the special alchemy of L'amore dei tre re. The Met featured two of Montemezzi's other operas, the early Giovanni Gallurese (1905) and La notte di Zoriama (1931), neither of which caught on; in fact, the latter was a notable flop, despite the presence of Ponselle in the cast. His largest work, La Nave (1918), is scuppered by D'Annunzio's overblown play. The score is twice as long as L'amore and the preposterously heroic characters do not admit the fascinating interplay of light and shade that is such a feature of the earlier opera. To be fair, there are some ecstatic pages; but, much descends into proto-fascist bombast. His last opera, L'incantesimo - a one act spring fable set to a Sem Benelli text, has a symbolist and musical language way beyond its sell by date for 1943. The NBC broadcast made of its premiere (available on CD) reveals that, though Montemezzi's language was content to remain in its fin de siecle late-romantic rut, it retains its individuality and fluency. It is surprising that his dates of residency in California (1939- 49) and his exposure in America did not lead to Hollywood. It does not take much of a stretch to hear L‘amore dei tre re and wonder if Korngold and Max Steiner could have been given a run for their money. It will be interesting to witness at Opera Holland Park this summer whether the unique flavour of this early twentieth century one-off can be decanted for audiences of the next fin-de-siecle.
© Julian Grant 2007. This article appeared in the June 2007 edition of OPERA magazine.