28 July 2013

CD REVIEW: Italo Montemezzi—L’AMORE DEI TRE RE (N. Didenko, S. Jakubiak, E. Barry, D. Pershall; Polskie Radio PRCD 1562-1563)

Italo Montemezzi - L'AMORE DEI TRE RE (Polskie Radio PRCD 1562-1563)

ITALO MONTEMEZZI (1875 – 1952): L’amore dei tre re—N. Didenko (Archibaldo), S. Jakubiak (Fiora), E. Barry (Avito), D. Pershall (Manfredo), J. Prego (Flaminio), J. Gontarz (Handmaiden), M. Dobrowolska (Young Woman), A. Fijałkowska (Old Woman), T. Warmijak (Youth), P. Ronek (Offstage Voice); Chór Filharmonii Narodowej; Polska Orkiestra Radiowa; Łukasz Borowicz [Recorded ‘live’ during a concert performance in the Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall on 2 April 2013; Polskie Radio PRCD 1562-1563; 2CD, 94:38]

In the thirty-five years immediately following its American première at the Metropolitan Opera in 1914, Italo Montemezzi’s ‘Tragic Poem in Three Acts’ L’amore dei tre re was performed in New York on sixty-six occasions.  The first performance, conducted by Arturo Toscanini and featuring Lucrezia Bori as Fiora, was acclaimed by both audience and critics, the opera widely acknowledged as an important addition to the MET’s repertory.  Subsequent seasons found Toscanini and Bori returning to the piece, along with performances conducted by Tullio Serafin with Rosa Ponselle as Fiora and Ezio Pinza as Archibaldo.  The opera was selected to open the MET’s forty-fourth season in 1928, and the composer himself conducted the score in New York in 1941, when the glamorous Grace Moore brought her Fiora to the MET.  Fiora was sung by the marvelous but too-little-remembered Dorothy Kirsten in the 1948 – 49 season, and thereafter L’amore dei tre re disappeared from the MET stage.  Sixty-four years later, the opera still awaits its sixty-seventh performance at the MET.

One of the underappreciated gems of contemporary European music is Warsaw’s Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival, an ambitious project that has granted welcome focus to underappreciated operas.  A particular highlight of previous Festivals was a concert performance—also recorded and commercially released by Polish Radio—of Donizetti’s rarely-heard Maria Padilla with Nelly Miricioiu, and the centerpiece of the 2012 Festival was Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re.  Musically, the quality of Montemezzi’s score offers unique rewards to dedicated performers, its combination of elements of Italian verismo with Wagnerian influences creating an unique sound that is duplicated in the music of no other composer.  Precisely why popularity has eluded L’amore dei tre re since the middle of the 20th Century is an enigma.  The opera has virtually every quality that endears a score to audiences: brevity, passion, betrayal, violence, and music that challenges all of the principal singers.  What the opera might be said to lack is true melodic distinction, but the repertories of many of the world’s important opera companies include frequently-performed works without a single melody—or any of originality or true quality—to be heard.  L’amore dei tre re, regarded a century ago as one of the finest operas of its generation, deserves reassessment, and a more compelling argument in its favor than this performance by Maestro Łukasz Borowicz and a distinguished cast can hardly be imagined.

Since the erosion of Communism throughout Eastern Europe, the musical world has been greatly enriched by the emergence of excellent artists and institutions whose work was largely hidden from the West by the Iron Curtain.  The history of the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra began before World War II, but the devastation suffered by Poland during the War and five subsequent decades of Communist rule sadly limited the Orchestra’s reach beyond Poland’s borders.  The fall of Communism in Poland in 1989 opened the way for Polish artists to share their cultural wealth with the wider world, and the launching of the Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival in 1997 brought together many of Poland’s finest artists for a musical celebration of the resilience and artistic survival of the Polish people.  The Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra has been central to the success of the Ludwig van Beethoven Eastern Festival, and the Orchestra’s playing in this performance of L’amore dei tre re confirms the extraordinary quality of the ensemble.  Montemezzi’s score presents many challenges to all sections of the orchestra, and the brass players offer performances that rival the best playing of their colleagues in Berlin and Vienna.  String tone is consistently robust and beautifully-sustained, the players’ intonation never faltering.  The singers of the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir, prepared by Henryk Wojnarowski, perform with laudable fervor, their singing contributing effectively to the mystery and menace of the opera’s final Act.  The efforts of both Choir and Orchestra are aided immeasurably by the assured, idiomatic conducting of Łukasz Borowicz, principal conductor of the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra since 2007.  Maestro Borowicz has vast experience in conducting opera, but his work in this performance surpasses the efforts of many of the most famous conductors active today.  It seems that Italian opera, encompassing styles as divergent as bel canto and verismo, is in his blood.  In terms of pacing the performance and highlighting phrasing in dramatically-crucial passages, Maestro Borowicz’s approach resembles that of the opera’s composer as preserved in the 1941 MET radio broadcast.  In a score in which many conductors would be lured into frenetic pursuit of melodrama, Maestro Borowicz allows climaxes to occur naturally, as the composer intended.  The inventiveness and marvelous spookiness of the score are manifested without being unduly emphasized, and the soloists receive the support needed to deliver their parts with maximum musical integrity and emotional impact.  Worries about the survival of opera in general would be far fewer if more performances benefited from the immediacy and commitment brought to this performance by Maestro Borowicz and the choristers and orchestral players over whom he presides.

Secondary characters in L’amore dei tre re are given limited opportunities to make impressions, but each of the singers engaged for this performance makes the most of every bar of his or her part.  In the rôles of a handmaiden, a young girl, and an old woman, sopranos Joanna Gontarz and Magdalena Dobrowolska and mezzo-soprano Anna Fijałkowska offer voices of greater quality than their parts require, each lady singing excellently.  Also impressive is treble Tomasz Warmijak in the few lines of a youth.

Spanish tenor Jorge Prego sings Flaminio with vocal freshness and genuine emotional involvement.  His voice has a lovely timbre, and only a pair of his highest notes are slightly troublesome.  It is to Flaminio that the unenviable task of attempting to preserve semblances of honor and order falls, and the anguish with which Mr. Prego sings as he guides the blinded Archibaldo—knowing well that the old king eerily perceives what he cannot see—is touching.  Mr. Prego delivers the texts that he sings with the insightfulness of an accomplished Lieder singer, and a sense of Flaminio’s symbolic service as Archibaldo’s eyes is aptly conveyed by Mr. Prego’s performance.

Avito, to whom the beautiful Fiora was betrothed before the kingdom of Altura was conquered by Archibaldo, is sung by Spanish-American tenor Eric Barry, an engaging young singer who has been acclaimed in rôles as varied as Arbace in Rossini’s Ciro in Babilonia and Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème.  Lyricism never persists for more than a few bars in the tense world of L’amore dei tre re, but Mr. Barry’s fluid lyric tenor fills his musical lines expressively.  The voice is perhaps somewhat small for a rôle sung at the MET by Enrico Caruso and Giovanni Martinelli and recorded by Plácido Domingo, but the appeal of Mr. Barry’s voice in Avito’s music is undeniable.  Ascents into the upper register are not always completely comfortable, with occasional pinching of the tone intruding into the singer’s otherwise unimpeachable command of line, but he avoids forcing the voice even in moments of greatest passion.  Lyric tenors with voices of quality who do not squander their gifts in pursuit of major careers are rare: this performance increases the hope that Mr. Barry will achieve the prominence that his talent deserves without being tempted to damage the voice.

American baritone David Pershall discloses a vibrant, ringing voice in his performance as Manfredo, Archibaldo’s son and Fiora’s husband.  Considering that, for all of its composer’s musical inventiveness, L’amore dei tre re is an Italian opera and that Fiora’s hand was formerly promised to Avito, it likely does not need to be stated that Manfredo’s deep love for his wife is unrequited.  Perhaps the most dramatically significant element of the opera’s plot is Manfredo’s near-success in inspiring his wife to an act of affection towards him: touched by his sincerity and obvious devotion, she agrees to wave goodbye to him as he departs for battle but is ultimately intercepted and convinced to abandon her goodwill mission by Avito.  Concerned by Fiora’s failure to appear upon the parapet, Manfredo returns to the castle to find that in the interim his father has discovered his wife with her lover and strangled her.  Dutiful husbands rarely receive the most glorious music in an opera, but Montemezzi gave Manfredo impassioned, pained music that demands both nobility and raw emotion.  The rôle receives from Mr. Pershall a performance of tremendous strength.  Mr. Pershall’s voice is a beautiful, well-knit instrument that sounds particularly impressive in moments of repose.  The subtlety of Mr. Pershall’s performance suggests that suspicion does not come naturally to Manfredo, making the character’s plight all the more wrenching.  Mr. Pershall’s diction is very good, with vowels attractively on the breath, and the allure of his tone in Manfredo’s exchanges with Fiora make the character far more than a dullard from whom any wife might seek refuge.  The manly high spirits with which he greets his father and the tenderness with which he returns to his wife’s side, failing to notice the coldness of her welcome that is so obvious to his blind father, are eloquently conveyed by Mr. Pershall’s singing.  His most impressive singing, both musically and dramatically, is accomplished in the scene in which, having confronted his dead wife’s lover, he purposefully kisses Fiora’s poisoned lips in order to join her in death.  Not unlike Mr. Barry, Mr. Pershall may not possess the sheer weight of tone brought to Manfredo’s music by his illustrious predecessors in the part, who include Carlo Galeffi, Pasquale Amato, and Lawrence Tibbett: on his own terms, however, he is a thrilling Manfredo who inspires great sympathy.

Like many operatic heroines, Fiora is a complex woman, neither wholly condemnable nor free from blame for her actions.  The biting cruelty of her exchanges with Archibaldo portray her as a calculating vamp determined to enjoy her assignations with her lover at any cost, but the reluctant grace with which she agrees to grant her husband’s simple wish of waving goodbye as he returns to battle at least suggests that a certain softness resides in her heart.  Musically and dramatically, Fiora is a distant relative of both Debussy’s Mélisande and Puccini’s Tosca.  Ambiguity is her only consistent trait, and Montemezzi painted her musical portrait in muted tones occasionally splashed with explosions of color.  American soprano Sara Jakubiak, successful in an uncommonly eclectic repertory ranging from Mozart to Philip Glass, throws herself into Fiora’s music with abandon and gives a performance of spine-tingling power.  Montemezzi hinted that Archibaldo’s loathing of Fiora and tireless pursuit of proof of her infidelity were derived from the old king’s latent lust for his daughter-in-law.  Indeed, modern psychologists might suggest that Archibaldo’s very physical act of strangling Fiora is a manifestation of sexual sadism, his sole opportunity at possessing her body.  The disgust in Ms. Jakubiak’s voice in Fiora’s exchanges with Archibaldo suggests that she is all too aware of the intentions that lurk in the recesses of the blind king’s mind.  The deadened tone with which she sings in response to Manfredo depicts boredom and exasperation more than genuine hatred.  When in Avito’s company, however, Ms. Jakubiak’s tone expands gloriously, her blossoming femininity and eroticism bringing to mind Nedda’s meeting with Silvio in Pagliacci.  Ms. Jakubiak makes of Fiora’s defiance of Archibaldo as he closes in on her a scorching catharsis, her voice slashing through the orchestra.  When she sings that her lover’s name is ‘dolce morte’ (‘sweet death’), Ms. Jakubiak seems already in transition to another plane of existence.  The soprano’s wide-ranging musical experience notwithstanding, Fiora is a rôle that might have been composed specially for Ms. Jakubiak: she possesses the vocal opulence of Lucrezia Bori, the glamor of Grace Moore, and the earthy appeal of Dorothy Kirsten.  The genius of Montemezzi is revealed by the way in which he shaped a formidable operatic femme fatale with declamatory music that offers few opportunities for the sort of unfettered vocal display that makes so many Italian soprano rôles memorable.  The histrionic prowess of Ms. Jakubiak is confirmed by the fact that her Fiora is a portrayal that is not likely to be forgotten.

Archibaldo is a magnificently complicated amalgamation of several of opera’s flintiest bass rôles.  With Wagner’s Alberich, he shares unfulfilled carnal desires.  From Verdi’s Jacopo Fiesco, he takes a revisionist approach to his own history.  From Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, he receives the burden of being a troubled monarch whose past is almost certainly reflected in his present.  From Debussy’s Arkel, he inherits the curse of seeing more in blindness than in sight.  Musically, he is a sort of Wagnerian in translation, complete with his own Leitmotif, and like Wotan he is the master of a social order that is crumbling around him.  Into this microcosm of moral duality, Russian bass Nikolay Didenko enters with a dark, firm voice that moves through Montemezzi’s music with consummate ease.  A few of his lowest notes lack absolute authority, but Mr. Didenko produces stunning top notes.  The paternal warmth with which Mr. Didenko’s Archibaldo awaits his son’s return from battle is quite moving and superbly contrasted with the chilling nastiness with which he addresses Fiora.  Responding to Ms. Jakubiak, Mr. Didenko audibly portrays a man whose motives for violence are as much inspired by thwarted desires as by righteous indignation.  There is also an element of calmness in Mr. Didenko’s singing in scenes with Ms. Jakubiak that suggests that Archibaldo is aware of having found in Fiora a worthy adversary.  The basic timbre of Mr. Didenko’s voice is tinged with the black rotundity that is his legitimate heritage as a Russian bass, but his delivery of text is untroubled by any heaviness of approach.  He is, in fact, a more effective villain for displaying very welcome verbal and tonal dexterity.  He is occasionally inclined to shout at climaxes, but his understanding of his rôle is never in doubt.  If Mr. Didenko lacks the vocal charisma of an Ezio Pinza or Cesare Siepi, he carefully avoids making Archibaldo a base thug.  He portrays Archibaldo as a man whose own neurotic system of morality justifies his actions.  After so much rage and snarling violence, there is in Mr. Didenko’s singing in the final scene a true sense of heartbreak and regret: through the efforts of the singer, the character ultimately evokes empathy for his self-imposed tragedy.

This sensationally enjoyable recording of L’amore dei tre re offers the attentive listener several important lessons about both the art and the business of opera in the 21st Century.  There are in so many cities throughout the world, and especially in Eastern Europe, under-explored troves of outstanding musical talent.  In that vein, prohibitively expensive assemblages of ‘star’ singers are not necessary to reveal the finest qualities of a musical score.  There are in the cast of this deliciously persuasive performance of L’amore dei tre re no household names, but there are many moments in the ninety-four minutes of this recording that dazzle with star quality.  Good musicians have the ability to make even bad music sound appealing, but no apologies need to be made for the quality of Montemezzi’s music.  This recording is a demonstrable boon to those who treasure the opera despite its unmerited absence from the world’s stages, and little doubt can remain after hearing this performance that a fresh outing of L’amore dei tre re is inarguably preferable to another poorly-sung Bohème.

 

This recording of L’amore dei tre re is available from the online shop of Polish Radio.  Please click here to view the entry from the recording on the Polish Radio website.

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