Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Great sets, shame about the opera - Montemezzi's Nave

Guido Marussig's set design for the 3rd Episode of La Nave for the premiere at La Scala in 1918
Guido Marussig's set design for the 3rd Episode of Nave
for the premiere at La Scala in 1918
Italo Montemezzi's opera Nave premiered in 1918 at La Scala, Milan. It was meant to cement his reputation following the success of L'Amore di Tre Re in 1913. His publishers, Ricordi, had high hopes that he would be a talent to replace Puccini and it was Tito Ricordi who adapted Gabriele D'Annunzio's play La Nave for Montemezzi. No expense was spared, the sets by Guido Marussig were highly realistic and included a complete ship, built as an independent structure, which was the focal point of the final scene as it was launched, with the heroine Basiliola strapped to the bow as the figure head! (see photo of the original sets at the bottom of this article). The plot was gruesome and the adaptation cut out a lot of D'Annunzio's poetry. Rather than being a success, critics complained and Montemezzi never wrote another full scale opera.

David Chandler has produced a book compiling all the major original sources (press articles and reviews) for the opera's first four production. The premiere which was conducted by Tullio Serafin and starred his wife in the role of Basiliola, where the critics complained about the lack of singable tunes and the way the play had been treated; the 1919 Chicago production which starred Rosa Raisa but was scuppered by controversial sets by Norman Bel Geddes; the 1923 Verona one and the 1938 Rome production which was moderate success, but the sets and performing materials were destroyed in Allied action during the Second World War. My review of the book is on the Opera Today website.

Interest in the opera has risen partly because Teatro Graciela in New York gave a concert performance of the opera last year (you can read reviews of this on their website).

In case you are thinking that the set was realised by simply building a large painted flat, here is a rather grainy photograph of La Scala actually building the ship.

Building the ship for the set for Italo Montemezzi's Nave at La Scala, 1918 Set design Guido Marussig
Building the ship for the set for Nave at La Scala, 1918
They don't make sets like that any more! The set designer Marussig incidentally also designed the 1921 film of the play, which starred Ida Rubinstein. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can see a clip from the film on YouTube.

 For the Chicago performances Norman Bel Geddes sets were equally elaborate. It was performed twice in Chicago and, because of the controversy, the planned New York performances did not happen so that Bel Geddes's sets were only used for two performances!

Norman Bel Geddes set design for the 3rd Episode of Nave
for the premiere at Chicago Lyric Opera in 1919


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