Friday 15 July 2016

On disc at last - Wolf-Ferrari's I gioielli della Madonna

I gioielli della Madonna
Wolf-Ferrari I gioielli della Madonna; Kyungho Kim, Susanne Bernhard, Natalia Ushakova, Daniel Capkovic, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Friedrich Haider; Naxos
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 12 2016
Star rating: 3.5

The first commercial recording of Wolf-Ferrari's shocker teems with vibrant life if variable performances

If Carlisle Floyd's Wuthering Heights has had to wait 58 years before appearing on disc (see my review), Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's opera I gioielli della Madonna has had to wait over 100 years for its first commercial recording. Finally bringing the opera to disc on Naxos is conductor Friedrich Haider with Slovak forces including Natalia Ushakova as Maliella, Kyungho Kim as Gennaro, Daniel Capkovic as Rafaele, Susanne Bernhard as Carmel, the Bratislava Boys Choir, the Pressburg Singers, the Slovak National Theatre Opera Chorus and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra. Though the recording was made at concert performances at Slovak Radio, the performers are all from the Slovak National Theatre's production of the opera which premiered in May 2015 (see my review).

I gioielli della Madonna  was Wolf-Ferrari's fifth opera. The previous three had all been comedies written in a rather neo-classical style so this new opera was something of a departure. The plot owes something to Verismo, and Wolf-Ferrari is clearly interested in depicting the teeming street life of Naples. But he is also interested in what happens to his characters, the consequences of actions and the psychological issues, all handled in ways rather different from Verismo.

With 27 named roles and a large orchestra, the opera is a big undertaking but it repays attention with vibrant life. I have seen the piece twice on stage, once at Opera Holland Park in 2013 (see my review) and once at the Slovak National Theatre at the premiere of the the production on which this recording is based (see my review).

The plot is relatively straightforward, Gennaro (Kyungho Kim) is a young blacksmith who has three obsessions, his mother Carmela (Susanne Bernhard), the Madonna and his foster sister Maliella (Natalia Ushakova). This latter is rather wild, wanting to enjoy life but is kept confined by her family. She is being courted by Rafaele (Daniel Čapkovič) the head of the local Camorra. The first act centres on a celebration for the feast of Our Lady, with a gloriously chaotic series of processions and lots of street characters, including an appearance from the statue of the jewelled Madonna.

Act two is a series of interactions, between Gennaro and Carmela, Gennaro and Maliella, Maliella and Rafaele. we learn that Carmela's protective mothering of Gennaro arose because she nearly lost him as a child, and the fostering of Maliella was the result of a vow to the virgin if Gennaro survived. Gennaro tells Maliella of his obsession and she laughs at him, he vows to steal the jewels of the Madonna for her. Later Rafaele comes courting and the two have a love scene through the grill locking Maliella in. Finally Gennaro reappears with the jewels and the act closes with Gennaro covering Maliella with jewels before claiming her virginity.

Act three is Rafaele's gang's hangout; an orgy in progress is interrupted first by the arrival of Maliella, traumatised by Gennaro's taking of her virginity, and then by Gennaro with the jewels themselves. Though the gang have been having an orgy beneath an image of the Madonna, they are shocked by Gennaro's sacrilege. But Wolf-Ferrari knew Jung and was interested in the madonna/mother/whore parallels, and it is clear that for Rafaele, Gennaro has stolen the jewels (virginity) of his madonna (Maliella), and Rafaele loses interest in Maliella.

The advantage of this recording is that it is based on stage performances and so the whole comes vibrantly to life. Many of the smaller roles have brief moments of glory then retreat back into the general ensemble. In Act One, Wolf-Ferrari is constantly moving the focus sometimes taking in the whole crowd, sometimes a small detail. The result is an impressive spectacle, and the performers never lose focus so you do not feel some of the details are lacking, though not every voice is superb.

The role of Maliella is a big role, requiring a soprano with spinto qualities and some stamina. In the theatre, I enjoyed Natalia Ushakova's performance, but without the benefit of her stage personality her recorded performance is more variable. Her Act One solo is rather serious and careful, though she produces some thrilling passion in the second and third acts, giving a vibrant performance which underlines Maliella's passionate nature. But Ushakova's voice has a rather distinctive edge to it which the recording catches, highlighting a tendency to spread unpleasantly under pressure.

Gennaro is a rather difficult character to love, and Kyungho Kim makes him a strong, rather sober and intense character. Kim has a firm and admirably focussed tenor voice which he produces in a tireless stream. The recording catches a tendency to hardness, but his performance is striking and not unsympathetic.

Daniel Capkovic makes a roguishly suave Raffaele, singing with a powerful burnished tone. He really convinces in his wooing of Maliella, and sounds attractive, though the nasty side comes out too, especially in the last scenes. Susanne Bernhard makes a strong Carmela, bringing character and intensity to her smothering love for Gennaro.

The series of duets in the second act come across well, as the singers really bring out the sense of the characters' interactions from Carmela's smothering love for Gennaro to his disturbing obsession with Maliella. The final scene of the opera sees Wolf-Ferrari clothing the action in some striking music, clearly influenced by contemporaries, and in fact at the end of the opera he pushes the tonality to breaking point.

The smaller roles are all decently sung but with only a detailed synopsis rather than a libretto, it is sometimes tricky to work out who is whom. The orchestra plays an equally large role, with a pair of intermezzos and plenty of descriptive orchestral interludes, but without stage action the famous orgy in the third act starts to sound a bit tame (and which orchestral orgy doesn't). Friedrich Haider draws a fine, detailed performance from the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra. This is a score he feels passionately about and he brings out the best in his cast.

The recording really captures the sense of occasion that the performance of this large opera engendered in Bratislava. At its best it captures the vibrancy of the stage performance and the teeming life of this opera. The lack of full libretto makes the disc tricky to follow at times and may put people off. The cast is creditable rather than ideal and I understand that CPO are planning recording of the piece. And before the Bratislava performances I heard a copy of an off-air recording with Pauline Tinsley as Maliella that might repay cleaning up and re-issuing.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948) - I gioielli della Madonna (1911) [122.51]
Gennaro - Kyungho Kim (tenor)
Carmela - Susanne Bernhard (mezzo-soprano)
Maliella - Natalia Ushakova (soprano)
Rafaele - Danel Capkovic
Bratislava Boys Choir
Pressburg Singers
Slovak National Theatre Opera Chours
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Friedrich Haider (conductor)
NAXOS 8.660386-87 2CDs [48.14, 74.37]
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