Opera Holland Park have carved out a valuable niche in reviving neglected examples of late-19th/early-20th century Italian repertoire; recent years have seen welcome stagings of, for example, Zandonai’s oddly beguiling Francesca di Rimini, Mascagni’s hugely likeable L’Amico Fritz and his equally forgettable Zanetto.
For this season, OHP have unearthed a rarer piece still – Ermanno Wolf-Ferarri’s I Gioielli della Madonna (The Jewels of the Madonna), first performed in Berlin in 1911. In all honesty, I’d never heard of it; a leaf through Grove wasn’t encouraging – it’s dismissed as essentially uncharacteristic of its composer’s modern-buffo style—but I had high hopes of this proving another forgotten gem (if you’ll pardon the expression). Perhaps I was still under the super-refined Straussian spell of the previous week’s Capriccio at ROH, but the newly unearthed I Gioielli proved to be, at best, a rough diamond.
The piece is set in a working class neighbourhood of Naples (here updated to the 1940s or 50s) and tells the story of young blacksmith Gennaro and his foster-sister Maliella, a fiery street urchin taken in by Gennaro’s mother when her prayers for her son’s recovery from a childhood illness were seemingly answered by the Blessed Virgin Mary.
By the time the opera begins on the Madonna’s Feast Day, the siblings have reached the awkward age; Maliella’s fantasies are of escape from a household where she’s kept banged up like Verdi’s Gilda – fantasies enflamed by a flirtation with Rafaele, the head of the local cammora (the Neopolitan mob). Genarro’s interests are closer to home – worryingly so: he’s got the hots for his sister.
This is the love triangle that the opera sets up and works out. It’s a bit like a verismo version of L’Elisir d’Amore, with Nemorino, Adina and Belcore recast as a pervert, a slut and a gangster respectively – an updating so sensationalist that it risks turning into a parody of the whole genre. And while Wagner might convince us that brother-sister incest is potentially a good idea through sheer force of musical argument, Wolf-Ferrari’s resolutely melodramatic approach leaves one feeling slightly queasy.
The titular jewels, if you’re wondering, precipitate the opera’s tragedy; decorating a statue of the BVM on her Feast Day, they are stolen by Gennaro to woo Maliella – Rafaele has boasted he would do the same to win her favours, but is shocked when his rival actually does so – and she wears them while he peels off her knickers at the end of the second act.
This True Crime story – whose mixture of the sacred and extremely profane saw it quickly banished from the Italian stage – was, Wolf-Ferrari claimed, ripped from the newspaper headlines; today’s tabloids would, of course, provide plenty of equally prurient material for operatic treatment (although, like Turnage’s equally lurid Anna Nicole, they’d probably now need to be filtered through the cult of celebrity for maximum impact).
Wolf-Ferrari – opportunistically or not – manages to pack nearly every verismo trope into this bizarre work – Latin religiosity, seething jealousy, sexual tension, simmering violence – and pump them all up like Cavalleria Rusticana on steroids. Musically speaking, he throws everything he’s got at it: offstage choruses, onstage marching bands, accordions and mandolins, bells and whistles (well, keening flutes). The result is a riot of unexpected colours and ear-pinging textures that nearly disguises the piece’s lack of truly memorable melodic lines, underpinned at times by Wagnerian harmonies that reveal the composer’s dual cultural heritage. It’s not, after all, cookie-cutter verismo, but it borders on total kitsch.
Martin Lloyd-Evans’s directorial approach was in a similar vein, crowding the long and shallow OHP stage with festive parades, ice cream bikes and mopeds. At times, especially during the frenetic Feast Day scenes of Act I, it looked and sounded like something teetering on the very edge of chaos – it’s very much to Lloyd-Evans’s credit that it never tipped over the edge (although there were moments during the final act where a little more clarity wouldn’t have gone amiss). Given all this, Jamie Vartan’s no-frills sets are a bit on the drab side – or perhaps not, one might argue, when everything else is so over the top.
The expanded City of London Sinfonia (all those bells and whistles) and OHP chorus were on sparkling form all evening, with conductor Peter Robinson bringing out every bizarre colouration with relish. The soloists at times struggled to be heard against the crashing, churning score, and Mexican tenor Joel Montero – who imparted genuine Italianate warmth to Gennaro’s illicit longings – started to sound a bit ragged during his farewell scene. Olafur Sigurdarson sang gangster Rafaele with considerable charm – perhaps a bit too much of it at times, as he seemed both too old and too amiable to light Maliella’s fire – more a slightly naughty uncle than a genuine bad boy. The fault lies with Wolf-Ferrari, who writes such jolly music for his cammoristi that you’d think they were nothing more than a bunch of loveable rogues; even the beating we see them dole out during one of the opera’s pretty intermezzi doesn’t really alter this impression, I’m afraid.
Young Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw (who took first prize at the Kathleen Ferrier Competition last year) made as much of Maliella as one can imagine any singer doing, playing her as a creature of flaming desires and wildly contradictory feelings but grounding all this emotional chaos in a confidently-sung, big-voiced performance that completely won over the audience, and deservedly so.
All in all, a memorably strange evening at Opera Holland Park, whose ambition and commitment to rarely performed repertoire is to be applauded once more. I’m not entirely convinced that I’d ever wish to sit through this bit of crazed verismo vulgarity again, but you should certainly go and see it. Who knows when you’ll get another opportunity?
By David Sutton
Photos: Opera Holland Park