Wednesday 24 July 2013

I gioielli della Madonna - Opera Holland Park

Opera Holland Park - I gioielli della Madonna
If you have heard the name Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari at all it is probably because of his comic opera Susanna's Secret or his comic operas based on Goldoni plays. The intermezzo from the third act of his opera I gioielli della Madonna (The Jewels of the Madonna) was once a popular concert piece and listening to it, you might think that this opera was also a comedy, until you read the plot that is. The story of I gioielli della Madonna owes a lot to Italian verismo, but Wolf-Ferrari's opera doesn't really fit into that category either. Now, in what must be their biggest production to date, Opera Holland Park have given the work its UK premiere and given us all a chance to hear for ourselves. Martin Lloyd-Evans production opened on 23 July 2013 with a cast including Natalya Romaniw, Joel Montero, Olafur Sigudarson and Diana Montague, with the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by Peter Robinson and designed by Jamie Vartan.

The plot has a lot in common with the grim slices of 'real life' beloved of the verismo school, though Tim Ashley's article in the Opera Holland Park programme book points out that many other influences went into the story.

[As the opera isn't well known, I include below a substantial plot summary, I've put it in italics for those who want to skip over it.]

The action takes place against the background of a festival in Naples celebrating a feast of the Madonna. Gennaro (Joel Montero) is a blacksmith, making a candelabrum in the Madonna's honour. His adopted sister Maliella (Natalya Romaniw) is kept closed up in their house and garden, she chafes at the confinement and longs to be free, on her first entrance she escapes in to the street and sings a wild song.. Gennaro's mother Carmela (Diana Montague) explains how she came to adopt Maliella in response to a vow made to the Madonna when Gennaro was sick. Maliella comes to the notice of the local Camorra boss, Rafaello (Olafur Sigurdarson) and as the procession with the Madonna's statue appears, her promises to steal the Madonna's jewels if Maliella will kiss him.

Act two takes place in the garden of Carmela's house. Gennaro reproves Maliella for her behaviour but she taunts him, threatening to leave. He admits that he loves her and she tells him of Rafaello's offer to get the jewels from the statue of the Madonna  When she retires, Gennaro leaves to get the jewels himself.

Rafaello and his men appear on the street and Rafaello serenades Maliella, she is locked in the garden and they have a love scene through the fence. Maliella promises to come to him the following day. Gennaro returns with the jewels. Maliella puts them on, they still smell of incense and as she dreams of Rafaello, Gennaro has his way with her.

Act three takes place in the Camorra hideout, they are partying and Rafaello brags about his new girl and how he will be the first man to take her. There is an orgy (with their statue of the virgin duly covered up). Maliella appears, distressed and dishevelled, at first confused she confesses that Gennaro has raped her. Rafaello is horrified and rejects her as soiled, Maliella drops the jewels. Rafaello and the Camorra are shocked, highly conventional despite their posturing. Rafaello. Gennaro appears begging Maliella. Rafaello insists that Gennaro is tainted and that the Camorra must leave or they will be accused of sacrilege. Maliella rounds on Rafaello but he answers that by wearing the jewels she too is tainted.  Maliella runs away and Gennaro is left alone. He has a vision of the Madonna as he kills himself.

A rather gruesome plot, which manages to bring in incest, sacrilege, and orgy, plus implicit criticism of the church as well as a wealth of local colour.

But whilst it might read like a plot for a verismo opera, it doesn't sound like one. For a start, Wolf-Ferrari's opera lacks the vein of sentimentality which runs through verismo, and for all its grandiose use of large forces it has an economy of structure. Wolf-Ferrari does not linger, he keeps things moving. There is around two hours of music in the three acts.

Also, structurally it is far more complex than the average Italian opera of the period. it is here that Wolf Ferrari's dual heritage tells, he was born in Venice to an Italian mother and German father (Wolf was his father's name and Ferrari his mother's) and he studied composition in Munich with Josef Rheinberger. Throughout his life, Wolf-Ferrari would be balancing his dual Italian/German heritage. In I gioielli della Madonna he combines German harmonic complexity with an Italian gift for melody. (The opera sounds like nothing else and the only comparison I can come up with is Feruccio Busoni, another composer whose work spanned both Italian and German heritages.)

The opera's opening scene was a case in point. There was no overture, instead the street life of Naples burst onto the stage with incredible energy and Wolf-Ferrari built his long opening scene by weaving together a number of vignettes into a single multi-layered whole. Throughout the opera, he rarely did the obvious thing and his music kept you guessing. There were some amazing moments in the huge orchestra (triple woodwind, four horns, on-stage band, plus accordion, mandolin, guitar and two pianos); fascinating orchestra effects abounded, the work was very richly orchestrated. Perhaps my favourite moment was in act one when the accompaniment seemed to mainly consist of farts from the tuba. And when the Camoristi are shocked at Maliella's sacrilege in act three, we get some imaginative choral effects.

But Wolf-Ferrari's score is melodic too, granted you might not come out humming many of the tunes, but he put his melodic gift to good use, giving us some vibrantly passioante melodic moments. But melody was used for dramatic purposes, in act three the chorus gave an ironic reprise of the love music from act two  when they joke about Rafaello's new woman.

Using a huge chorus, director Martin Lloyd-Evans harnessed the energy of the piece to create, particularly in act one, a teeming mass of street life to animate Wolf-Ferrari's energetic score with organised confusion. Act one closed with a huge procession, complete with a Madonna, probably the largest number of people I have ever seen on the Opera Holland Park stage.

Jamie Vartan's set consisted of wooden screens which were scrawled with graffiti. These formed an effective backdrop to both the large-scale act one and the more private acts. Act two, with its locked gate and the scene between Maliella and Rafaello through the gate did rather bring back memories of Rigoletto. Costumes were roughly 1950's. Martin Lloyd-Evans handling of the opening of act three, with its orgy, was deft and not too embarrassing. As ever, Wolf-Ferrari's music for this scene was not the most lascivious you could imagine.

Reading about the opera beforehand, I gained the impression that the character of Maliella was troubled, with her obsessive sexuality. But Lloyd-Evans and Romaniw gave us another view, Maliella was simply a wild child. Romaniw energised the stage from the first moment she entered in act one singing her lovely Song of Cantarella.

Vibrant, openly sexual and free, she was also very touching and the way she fell for Olfur Sigurdarson's Rafaello showed her fundamental naivety. Wolf-Ferrari's view of Maliella seems to have been quite sympathetic. At the end, she recovers and Romaniw rounded magnificently on the men in her life, in the sort of strong scene that few operatic heroines get to do. It is only when Rafaello brings up her wearing of the jewels that she finally collapses. In Martin Lloyd-Evans' production Maliella simply ran off stage at the end, though in the original I believe she is going to commit suicide.

Whatever you thought of I gioielli della Madonna as an opera, Romaniw's performance was outstanding, she lit up the stage and brought a vibrant energy to the whole piece.

It is Maliella's relations with the two men in her life, Gennaro and Rafaello, which forms the important axes of the piece.

Joel Montero has a robust, sturdy tenor voice and he gave Gennaro a sort of sober dignity and intensity of pain. His voice seemed to have only two settings, quiet and loud, he needed to bring more light and shade into the role. But he impressed with his sober commitment, Gennaro isn't really a likable character. And Montero gave a finely graded performance at the end of act two, when Maliella puts on the jewels and looking like the Madonna, Gennaro approaches her whilst she dreams of Rafaello. For such a lurid scene, Romaniw and Montero gave us something subtle and relatively understated.

Gennaro's scene at the end of the piece is perhaps the weakest part of the score, the energy and vibrancy of the early scenes replaced by a syrupy vision of heaven. But by then Montero had gained our sympathy and we empathised with his character as he ended his life.

It is clear to us from the beginning that Rafaello is only interested in one thing about Maliella, but it takes her until act three to find this out. As Rafaello, Olafur Sigurdarson was charismatic and a charming rogue, perhaps too charming, maybe more of an element of danger in the character? But we could see why he was attractive. Sigurdarson sang Rafaello robustly and with bravura, though like Montero there were moments when you wanted him to moderate the tone a bit.

I gioielli della Madonna is a company opera, Wolf-Ferrari filled it with smaller roles, each of whom has a moment in the spotlight. And even the choral numbers had their solo moments. This is an opera where people were very rarely alone. Act one used two adult choruses plus children's chorus and Rafaello had his band of henchmen.

Luis Gomes made a strong impression as Tontonno in act one, a local character and stray piece of local colour whilst Neal Cooper was Ciciollo who helped egg Maliella on. Rafaello's leading henchmen were Robert Burt and Barnaby Rea, whilst Erin Pritchard, Maria Fiselier and Kathryn McAdam were the lead floosies in the Camorra hideout. All were admirable, giving strongly characterised performances and creating a superb ensemble.

The Opera Holland Park chorus, far larger than usual, was in superb form. With a big role for them to play in acts one and three, they gave a highly energised performance which brought Wolf-Ferrari's teeming Naples streetscape to life.  The City of London Sinfonia were similarly on fine form, and there were far more of them too.

In the pit, Peter Robinson showed a deft skill at keeping his large forces on track whilst bringing out the passion and energy of Wolf-Ferrari's score.

It is difficult to understand why I gioielli della Madonna has been quite so neglected. Certainly it is not masterpiece, but it has a vibrant energy and sophistication which belies its subject matter. You suspect opera companies of reading the libretto rather than listening to the music. Thankfully Opera Holland Park took the chance on the huge undertaking. Personally I loved it, but whatever you think, the performance was a stupendous achievement from the whole company with an incandescent performance from Natalya Romaniw.
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  1. I'm amazed no-one has yet commented on I goielli. I knew it only from the sonically poor recording made in the 1970s with Pauline Tinsley as Maliella, and so looked forward to this new production. I was not disappointed. Yes, it has imperfections; but what en experience!

    I once tried lobbying ENO to consider a production, only to be dismissed with sniffs. On the basis of HPO's production it would have been a sell-out hit.

    Ecclesiastical disapproval for fairly obvious reasons ensured it has hardly been seen in Italy; elsewhere in Europe it was frequently staged until WWII; then apparently forgotten. It deserves better; and in Holland Park, it got it!

  2. Not quite the UK premiere as it received a semi-professional production at University College London in 2000.


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