L’amore dei tre Re – opera in three acts
Archibaldo – Sesto Bruscantini
Fiora – Clara Petrella
Manfredo – Renato Capecchi
Avito – Amedeo Berdini
Flaminio; Un giovanetto – Aldo Bertocci
Un’ancella – Enza Bertini
Una giovinetta – Gilda Capozzi
Una vecchia – Ebe Ticozzi
Orchestra Lirica e Coro di Milano della RAI conducted by Arturo Basile
Reviewed by: Tim Ashley
Reviewed: March 2002
CD No: CETRA
8573 87487-2 (2 CDs)
Critical opinions differ sharply about Italo Montemezzi (1875-1952). Historically, he was a younger contemporary of Puccini, with whom he is often compared and with whom he shares certain preoccupations. The relationships between love, sex and power,and issues surrounding imperialism, domination, submission and control are themes consistently explored in the works of both composers.
It’s here, however, that the comparison ends. Puccini may be broadly, if not always accurately, classified as a ’verist’, a term which doesn’t apply to Montemezzi, whom one is frequently tempted to identify as a ’symbolist’ or a ’decadent’. Powerful psychological differences also make their approachesantithetical. Puccini has been described as ’feminine’, and his recurrent emphasis on the spectacle of female suffering at the hands of unreliable or brutal men remains a continuing source of comment and debate. Montemezzi, however, examines masculine anxieties in the face of assertive, essentiallyfeminist heroines, secure in their sexuality and bent on determining their own emotional destinies.
These were very much the preoccupations of the Italian symbolist movement which gathered impetus in the last years of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth centuries and centred largely on the still controversial writer GabrieleD’Annunzio, a figure who looms large in Montemezzi’s career. The libretto of L’Amore dei tre re is by the playwright Sem Benelli, who, at the time, was one of D’Annunzio’s keenest followers. Montemezzi himself turned D’Annunzio’s play, La Nave, into an opera in 1918. The Italian Symbolists were eclectic andessentially cosmopolitan in their choice of influences, though Wagner loomed large. D’Annunzio’s prose is saturated with Wagnerian imagery and leitmotivic linguistic repetitions. Tristan und Isolde lurks behind both Benelli’s text for L’Amore dei tre re and Montemezzi’s score, structured round a vast central scenefor a pair of adulterous lovers, rapturous yet guilty, whose sexual yearnings strive for fulfilment in annihilation.
Another powerful and important influence was Debussy, with whom, it should be remembered, D’Annunzio collaborated on Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien. The similarities between L’Amore de tre re and Pelleas et Melisande have often been pointed out.
Montemezzi’s Altura resembles Debussy’s Allemonde and his translucent orchestration and harmonic structures, with their slow, hovering chromatic suspensions, are frequently closer to Debussy than to Wagner. The terrifying character of the blind king Archibaldo is derived in part from Arkel, and like Pelleas, L’Amore dei tre re deals with the catastrophic effect of female sexuality on an enclosed community of men.
Unlike Pelleas, however, the implications are political as well as personal. Images of foreign domination and Italian political unity thread their way through the work. Archibaldo is an invader from a northern country (unnamed, though Austria is implied) who has forced Italy into subjugation and attempted to maintain peace by marrying his son Manfredo to the Italian princess Fiora. She, however, is sexually involved with Avito, deposed heir to the Italian throne, whom she meets in secret when her husband is away on military campaigns.
Much of the opera’s nerve-racking tension derives from the fact that the blind Archibaldo can hear and sense the presence in the castle of an intruder whom he can neither see nor identify, thus arousing his suspicions of Fiora’s adultery. In a startling dramatic coup, Montemezzi and Benelli kill their heroine off roughly two thirds of the way through the piece, though her death spells psychological destruction and tragedy for the three men in their turn.
The opera was first performed under Toscanini at La Scala, Milan, in April 1913, though it was the New York Met premiere a year later, also under Toscanini, that really put both it and Montemezzi on the map. The American press hailed it as “the greatest Italian tragic opera since Verdi’s Otello,” and its popularity in the United States soon outstripped its success in Europe, where Montemezzi never produced anything of its quality again.
The United States was to prove a safe haven for the composer. The Italian Symbolists eventually became identified with the pre-fascist far right. Benelli briefly held office in Mussolini’s government, though after the assassination of the socialist leader Matteotti in 1924, he resigned and went into exile in Switzerland. Montemezzi went into a long compositional silence after 1918 andspent as much of his time away from Italy as he could, eventually settling in the States in 1939. He returned to his native Verona in 1949 and died in 1952, aged 76.
L’Amore dei tre re remained a firm favourite in the States until the late fifties. No great bass could afford to be without Archibaldo in his repertoire, while glamorous singing actresses competed with each other as Fiora. Even though Montemezzi doesn’t give his heroine an aria, her music is shamelessly sexy, while the scenes between Fiora and Avito rank among the most erotic music ever penned. The opera’s subsequent neglect in the theatre isregrettable, though its discography – small if distinguished – should redress the balance.
This version represents arguably its finest outing on disc. It was made by Cetra in 1950 and issued a year later. The date – five years after the end of the war and the collapse of Mussolini’s regime – may have been significant since no other recording captures to this extent the atmosphere of jittery uncertaintythat pervades the work. The voltage is consistently high and the tension electrifying, while the conductor, Arturo Basile, adopting swift speeds throughout, steers the opera away from symbolist languor towards expressionistic fury. The combination of charnel-house violence and palpable eroticism is perfectly judged. The playing from the Milan RAI orchestra has moments of exciting rawness which suits Basile’s approach, though a cushion ofsensually smooth strings and some wonderfully rapt concertante solos accompany the love scenes. The Wagnerian and Debussyian influences are everywhere apparent without once sounding derivative; Basile also detects echoes of RichardStrauss in the leaping string music that heralds Manfredo’s utterances.
The casting is special, too. Sesto Bruscantini, later remembered for his buffo roles, was only 31 when he recorded Archibaldo. He’s shockingly good throughout, prurient in his musings on Fiora’s sexuality to the point where you wonder if he wants to bed her himself, savage in his verbal attacks on her, by turns bullyingand tender with Manfredo. The latter is sung by Renato Capecchi, another artist who later gravitated towards comedy. It’s a fiercely tricky role, marked by an implacably high tessitura. Wagner’s King Mark was in some respects the psychological model for the character. Faced with Fiora’s infidelity, he muses on the fact that she was capable of such great love for another man, rather than reacting with violence – and Capecchi invests him with astonishing nobility which more than compensates for the occasional moment of strain.
Basile’s Fiora is the great Clara Petrella, a singer whose achievement has been consistently undervalued. Part of the reason for her neglect lies in the fact that many of her recordings find her in less than ideal company. Few would give pride of place to a version of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (another Cetraperformance), for instance, in which she sings an affecting Manon with an indifferent conductor and a cast of belting unknowns. Astonishingly beautiful, she also had something of a sex-goddess reputation that earned her the nickname, “Lollobrigida with a voice,” though her appeal was by no means purely physical. The voluptuous glamour of her voice emerges here as overwhelming, as is her passionate, declamatory way with a text.
Her Avito, Amedeo Berdini, isn’t quite in her league, though together they generate a powerful charge in the love scenes. Berdini could be described as the Italian equivalent of a Heldentenor, which in some respects is appropriate for a post-Wagnerian work. There’s a clarion beefiness in the tone in passages where you want a bit more refinement, though some of his soft singing is exquisite.
This remains, in short, a formidable overall achievement, though the competition is stiff. The prime rivals are Nello Santi’s 1977 RCA recording and a Met bootleg from 1941 conducted by Montemezzi himself, now on the German label, Gerhardt. Both are substantially slower than Basile, with Montemezzi in particularallowing his own music to unfold with a measured gravitas that is both relentless and oppressive. Neither quite generates the same tension, however, while the casting in each case is uneven. Santi has Domingo as Avito, which will recommend it to many, though Cesare Siepi’s Archibaldo is captured too late in his career. Montemezzi’s Archibaldo, however, is Ezio Pinza, noble andconsciously tragic as opposed to Bruscantini’s ferocious monster. Both Manfredos – Pablo Elvira for Santi and Richard Bonelli for Montemezzi – find the tessitura easier than Capecchi, though both of them lack nobility and are ciphers by comparison. Neither Fiora – Anna Moffo (Santi) and Grace Moore (terriblydisappointing) – get anywhere near Petrella in the role.
Santi has evenly balanced sound, while Basile’s recording is very much of its time, with the voices placed far forward and the orchestra only allowed full prominence in the interludes. Even so, it gets to the heart of this extraordinary work more than any other version I know, and at the price it’s a tremendous bargain. Very highly recommended.