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Italo Montemezzi and the Conquest of America

In 1949 Opera News devoted a special issue to Italo Montemezzi’s 1913 masterpiece, L’Amore dei Tre Re (‘The Love of Three Kings’). Among several appreciative essays was one by Jane Phillips, who concluded her account with the verdict:

America's Darling: Cartoon of Montemezzi, Musical America, 7 October 1916 (click on image for full size)
It [L’Amore dei Tre Re] is intense tragedy, worthy of any stage in the world, and as such it takes its place in tragedy’s highest ranks. It is the best, not only of opera, but of drama and poetry, not only for today but for people in all time. Every scene conveys a lifetime of experience; and further than that it is not possible to go.

It was perhaps the highest praise Montemezzi’s opera ever received. Nevertheless, from the moment L’Amore dei Tre Re was first heard at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, on 2 January 1914, under Toscanini’s baton, many American critics placed it in a class of its own among twentieth-century Italian operas. A contemporary writer for Current Opinion noted with wonder that while Der Rosenkavalier had met with ‘a frigid reception’ (it did later become a favourite), yet the ‘hitherto unknown Italian was received open-armed and hailed as a master by the New York critics … the genius of the young Italian came to them as a revelation.’ It was no temporary fad, either; for three decades L’Amore dei Tre Re was a standard part of the Met’s repertoire, and it was soon being played in all the major operatic centres across North America. Donald Jay Grout was simply repeating what many American critics had already maintained when, in his classic Short History of Opera (1947), he described Montemezzi’s work as ‘without doubt the greatest Italian tragic opera since Verdi’s Otello’.
 
Montemezzi’s extraordinary popularity in America, reinforced as it was by his many visits there and marriage (in 1921) to an American heiress, is a remarkable phenomenon that has never been properly studied. In itself, it justifies some re-evaluation of the composer and his work in 2013, the centenary of his greatest triumph. Were the many American critics who raved about the greatness of L’Amore dei Tre Re wrong? Were the many singers who testified to its greatness wrong? Mary Garden, for one, considered it second only to Pelléas et Mélisande among twentieth century operas: ‘How I loved that opera [L’Amore dei Tre Re]! I sang it in the original Italian, the only opera I ever sang in that language, and I adored every word of it.’ Or is today’s critical establishment wrong in either ignoring Montemezzi’s masterpiece or dismissing it to a comparatively lowly place in the operatic firmament?
 
Italo Montemezzi was born in Vigasio, a small town near Verona, on 4 August 1875. He was the only child of Bortolo Montemezzi (1836-1922), a prosperous clock and watch maker and repairer, and his young wife Elisa (1856-1935). His early life appears to have been quite unremarkable save for the deep love of Vigasio and its surroundings which he imbibed, and that would stay with him until his death in his childhood home in 1952. He was educated with a view to his becoming an engineer, but rebelled at the eleventh hour, and in 1894 decided to sit the entrance exam for the 10-year composition course at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Milan. He failed then, and failed again the following year. Now feeling ‘desperate’, Montemezzi revealed his true mettle for the first time. In the year 1895-96, he embarked on an intense course of private study with such positive results that in autumn 1896 he not only passed the Conservatory’s entrance exam but was judged good enough to skip the first three years of the composition programme (devoted to harmony) completely. Montemezzi then roared through the rest of the programme, graduating in June 1900. His diploma work, a Frammento del Cantico dei Cantici di Salomone (‘Fragment of The Song of Songs of Solomon’) for soprano, mezzo, choir and orchestra, was conducted by Toscanini on 21 June 1900, in a special concert.
 
At this stage in his career, Montemezzi appears to have shown no pronounced inclination toward the stage. However in 1901 he entered and - as the only entrant - won a Conservatory competition for a one-act opera to a libretto entitled Bianca by Giuseppe Zuppone Strani. Bianca was not performed, but the manuscript full score survives, and I am hoping the work will be heard soon. Encouraged, Montemezzi decided to enter the International Sonzogno Competition announced in December 1901, which offered a mouth-watering 50,000 lire for an opera by a composer who had not previously had an opera professionally performed. Mascagni, who won the 1890 Sonzogno competition with Cavalleria Rusticana, took home prize money of just 3,000 lire. Montemezzi gave up a position of teacher at harmony at the Conservatory, and moved back to Vigasio, where he wrote the one-act Giovanni Gallurese to a libretto by the obscure Francesco D’Angelantonio. Montemezzi’s was one of 237 entries in the competition, and did not place. He believed this an injustice, and after the results were announced in January 1904, quickly set about re-working Giovanni Gallurese as a three act opera, with D’Angelantonio’s cooperation. This was completed by early autumn, and after a public appeal in Verona had raised funds for its performance, it was put on in Turin in January 1905. Giovanni Gallurese offered good tunes, a distinctive and refined orchestration, and an exciting plot with lots of violent action: it was an immediate popular success, running for sixteen performances, and critics marked Montemezzi a very promising young composer. Several other productions followed in the next few years.
 
Most importantly, Montemezzi had seriously impressed Giulio Ricordi, the powerful publisher, who was looking for a composer who could be groomed as Puccini’s successor. Ricordi bought Giovanni Gallurese, placed Montemezzi on a monthly stipend and organized a collaboration between him and Luigi Illica, the librettist who had worked on Puccini’s great successes. Things did not go well. Illica resented having to work with a young composer who had strong opinions of his own, and it took months for them to agree on a subject. Eventually they settled on Benjamin Constant’s classic novel Adolphe (1816), which Illica adapted as Héllera and Montemezzi began composing in 1906. The collaboration continued to be fraught, and when Héllera was finally produced in Turin in March 1909, it was at best a lukewarm success, with just three performances. This may have had something to do, as Montemezzi suspected, with its being put on in the immediate aftermath of the Messina earthquake at a time when most opera houses in Italy were closed. Critics found Héllera insufficiently dramatic, and though most of the blame was laid at Illica’s feet, Montemezzi’s music was judged to be lacking in character, and a disappointment after Giovanni Gallurese. The negative reception led Illica and Montemezzi to make some alterations to their opera, and this necessitated the production of a revised vocal score - something that did not please Casa Ricordi. Remarkably, this revised version has never been staged, though a studio performance was broadcast on Italian radio in 1938. Montemezzi could neither understand nor accept this failure, and in later life sometimes spoke of Héllera as his favourite among his operas. It is his most romantic score, full of beautiful melody, and it is difficult to see now why it was considered dramatically lacking. Héllera needs to be given a second chance by some enterprising company.
 
After the disappointment of Héllera, Montemezzi entered the darkest period of his career. In 1909 he made an agreement with Sem Benelli, suddenly famous as the author of La Cena Delle Beffe (‘The Supper of the Jests’, usually known in English as The Jest), to write an opera on Benelli’s next, as yet unwritten play, L’Amore dei Tre Re. His publisher was initially enthusiastic about the project, high hopes having been engendered by the sensational popularity of La Cena. When L’Amore dei Tre Re failed as a spoken play in 1910, and when Montemezzi seemed to be taking an inordinately long time to compose it, Casa Ricordi, now headed by the abrasive Tito Ricordi, began to have serious doubts. In December 1911 Montemezzi’s monthly stipend was withdrawn, the firm having decided that they would never recoup their investment in him. In 1912, when Montemezzi finally submitted the score, Tito demanded large cuts, and clearly failed to recognize that he was handling his firm’s next big hit. Montemezzi pushed on with his opera despite these discouragements, enthralled by Benelli’s poetry, and confident that he was producing a masterpiece. At the same time he knew, as he wrote in a letter at the time, that he was ‘playing [his] final card’: if L’Amore dei Tre Re was a flop, his career would effectively be over. The final setback came when La Scala scheduled the opera at the very end of the season, the premiere taking place on 10 April 1913, allowing time for just four performances. Montemezzi had pleaded that it be put on earlier, so as to have more chance of establishing itself; the delay, he feared, might be ‘completely ruinous’.
 
Montemezzi need not have worried. The initial critical reception was mixed, but generally positive, and at times really enthusiastic. The Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, found the new opera beautiful, assured, full of ‘dramatic feeling’, as well as unique in style: ‘it reposes in an atmosphere independent of schools and periods, following its own principles of beauty. … L’Amore dei Tre Re does not have predecessors, nor [will it have] successors.’ When L’Amore dei Tre Re received its international premiere in New York the following January, most of the American critics reviewed it in ecstatic terms, as noted above. Toscanini, who conducted the Met production, reported that ‘L’Amore dei Tre Re has been dazzlingly successful with the public and press. Like no other opera of any other modern composer.’ Montemezzi’s American triumph led to L’Amore dei Tre Re being widely scheduled in opera houses both in Italy and abroad, and for three decades it had the status of a standard repertoire work. In most countries it was received enthusiastically, though when it was put on in London in 1915 the British critics were cool. Altogether, though, L’Amore dei Tre Re was the most successful Italian opera of the decade and put Montemezzi on completely new terms with the Italian public and Casa Ricordi. 
 
L’Amore dei Tre Re has a simple plot revolving round an intense love triangle set in the Italian dark ages. Archibaldo, a now blind barbarian king, has conquered the Italian kingdom of Altura and married his son, Manfredo, to Fiora, a native princess. She, however, is still in love with her former lover, Avito, a prince of Altura, who pays her clandestine visits. Archibaldo is suspicious of Fiora, and eventually she defies him, proudly admitting she has a lover: at which point, in a fit of rage, Archibaldo strangles her. In a grisly conclusion, he smears a powerful poison on her lips: this proves a fatal snare to Avito, as he plans, but also to Manfredo. All three acts take place in Archibaldo’s castle, the first in a great hall overlooking the mountains, the second high on the castle walls, the third down in the crypt, where Fiora’s body has been laid out. The opera is superbly atmospheric and concentrated, every detail being powerfully connected to the main dramatic action. The title has often proved puzzling, but Montemezzi was quite convinced that Fiora is indeed loved by Archibaldo as well as Avito and Manfredo, telling an interviewer in 1941:
 
‘When the old king catches Fiora on the terrace after her night with Avito and questions her, she denies everything. He lays hands on her and demands, ‘Perchè tremi, se dici il vero?’ (‘Why do you tremble, if you are telling the truth?’), to which she answers boldly, ‘Ed anche voi tremate … e non mentite’ (You’re trembling, too … and you’re not lying’). In short, Archibaldo has a repressed, gnawing love for his daughter-in-law, and she knows it.’
 
In the submerged political allegory, Fiora is simply Italy itself. The music of L’Amore dei Tre Re has provoked two main reactions: the recognition, as by the Corriere della Sera reviewer, that it sounds like nothing else; and, paradoxically, a determination to ‘explain’ it in terms of sources. The formula most often cited is that it is Wagner mixed with Debussy, and if one has to reduce it to a formula that will do; but the score has a rich, wild magic of its own, and every opera lover should hear it at least once.
 
L’Amore dei Tre Re was a Literaturoper like Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande: a setting of a shortened version of a spoken play without conventional adaptation into a libretto. In 1915 Montemezzi commenced work on a second Literaturoper, this time setting a shortened version of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s nationalist drama La Nave (‘The Ship’) concerned with the foundation of Venice. Tito Ricordi himself undertook the drastic abridgement of D’Annunzio’s text, but unlike L’Amore dei Tre Re, La Nave did not abridge well. The sprawling, ‘epic’ plot of the opera involves many minor characters and much of the action comes across as confusing and under-motivated. Montemezzi composed it in the course of World War I, writing in a spirit of fervent nationalism; he had studied Mussorgsky, and at its best La Nave is a choral opera representing the destiny of a people, like the Russian composer’s masterpieces. Musically speaking, indeed, La Nave represents an advance on L’Amore dei Tre Re most obviously in its thorough integration of choral elements. It has a massive, monumental quality which is often musically exciting and that rewards repeated listening; on the other hand, there is much less of the radiant lyricism that suffuses the earlier opera. Montemezzi would subsequently always state that La Nave was his masterpiece, but the critics did not agree. First performed at La Scala on 3 November 1918, and therefore coinciding exactly with the successful conclusion to Italy’s war, La Nave captured the spirit of the moment sufficiently to run for an impressive ten performances. Most of the Italian critics had serious reservations about Montemezzi’s choice of text, the very Wagnerian sound of an overtly nationalistic Italian tragedy, and the lack of melody. It was over four years before a second production was mounted in Italy.
 
In 1919 Montemezzi’s personal life changed dramatically. He was invited to America to conduct the international premiere of La Nave by the Chicago Grand Opera Company. It was the first time he had travelled outside Continental Europe; indeed he may not even have left Italy previously, and almost his entire life to date had been divided between Vigasio, Verona, and Milan. He had never conducted in public before. The previous two decades of his life had been almost wholly devoted to the composing of his operas, most of the work being done in his parental home. All this would now change. In America, where he received a hero’s welcome, he won acclaim as a conductor, and from this time on he would conduct reasonably often: generally productions of L’Amore dei Tre Re. More significantly, Montemezzi met and fell in love with Katherine Leith (1885-1966), an heiress from a wealthy East Coast Jewish family. They married in Paris in 1921, and from then on Montemezzi enjoyed a privileged and very international lifestyle, with regular trips to America, and long periods set aside each year for visits to Europe’s fashionable resorts. In 1926 Katherine gave birth to their only child, a son Marco, who would later become a university lecturer in mathematics.
 
While there is every reason to suppose that the 1920s was a happy time for Montemezzi personally, his career as a composer more or less collapsed in this decade. It is difficult to know what to blame the most: his difficulty finding suitable material for his next opera, the crisis of confidence caused by the comparative failure of La Nave, or the distractions provided by his new lifestyle. In 1919 Montemezzi announced that his next opera would be based on Edmond Rostand’s play La Princesse Lointaine. Some accounts state that he actually started work on this; I have found no evidence that he did so; though for years and years he talked of writing such an opera. By 1920 his immediate interest had moved to an opera on Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s classic sentimental novel, Paul et Virginie (1788). This was originally to have a libretto by Renato Simoni; later Simoni was joined by Giuseppe Adami, thus the partnership writing Turandot for Puccini was also working for Montemezzi. Montemezzi worked on this opera for some years in the mid-1920s, but eventually abandoned it, for reasons that are not clear, and reworked some of the music he had written as a symphonic poem. Remarkably, in the decade after La Nave not a single new Montemezzi composition was unveiled, and though there were important revivals of La Nave in Verona in 1923 and Giovanni Gallurese in New York in 1925, these were taken to prove rather than disprove the growing consensus that Montemezzi was a one-work composer. His symphonic poem Paolo e Virginia was finally premiered at the Teatro Augusteo, Rome, on 30 March 1930; it was respectfully received, but seemed rather insignificant after so many years of silence.
 
By this time, however, Montemezzi had found a new libretto which suited him, a one-act piece with an Inca setting by Mario Ghisalberti. He ‘determined to set this story’, he claimed, ‘because it contains dramatic elements used in operas of every period. These elements are fundamental, clear, obvious and accessible to all.’ What struck him as a virtue seemed to most critics a vice, however, and the operatic clichés combined with music too obviously derivative from that of L’Amore dei Tre Re and La Nave make La Notte di Zoraima (‘The Night of Zoraima’) the least interesting of Montemezzi’s operas. It was well received when premiered at La Scala on 31 January 1931, but when brought out at the Metropolitan, New York, on 2 December it was condemned by the same American critics who were devoted to L’Amore dei Tre Re. La Scala put it on again in 1932; after that La Notte di Zoraima disappeared without a trace.
 
Fortunately, Montemezzi’s career as an opera composer did not end here. He started work on his final opera, L’Incantesimo (‘The Spell’), in 1933. This one-act work had a text by Sem Benelli, the author of L’Amore dei Tre Re, and in many ways represents a return to the world of the earlier opera, being set in a medieval castle in the Alps. I read it as Benelli’s poetic protest at Mussolini’s Fascist rule of Italy. Montemezzi found it difficult to compose, perhaps - though this is not clear - because he himself was increasingly disillusioned with the state of Italy. A spectacular and generally well-received revival of La Nave at the Teatro Reale dell’Opera, Rome, in December 1938, was probably the professional highlight of this decade for Montemezzi. It was a production he had been petitioning for for years, but faced with Mussolini’s new anti-Semitism and the threat of war looming, it was not enough to keep him in Italy, and in 1939 he and Katherine moved to America. After spending a few months in New York, they settled in Beverly Hills. Here Montemezzi found the peace and inspiration to settle down to serious work on L’Incantesimo, which was soon finished. He was interested in radio as a medium that could take opera to a very large audience, and offered L’Incantesimo to NBC as a potential radio opera. NBC were enthusiastic, and with Montemezzi himself conducting a distinguished cast the opera was broadcast on 9 October 1943. 
L’Incantesimo was well received, though as a radio opera broadcast amid all the distractions of World War II it attracted less attention than it might otherwise have done. It was not staged until 1952. Several critics remarked that it seemed particularly suited to the radio medium, and in some ways it does indeed come across more as a musical story than a work in need of staging. The music, though very obviously old-fashioned for the 1940s, is consistently beautiful, and it builds towards an ecstatically happy conclusion, very much at odds with the tragic endings of Montemezzi’s other operas. Although there cannot be much doubt that, as Montemezzi himself claimed, his important music is to be found in the trilogy of Héllera, L’Amore dei Tre Re and La Nave, L’Incantesimo represents an exquisite epilogue to his career, and one that, by picking up dramatic motifs from L’Amore dei Tre Re, brings an attractive sense of closure. 
 
There was only one more significant composition, a second symphonic poem, Italia mia! Nulla fermerà il tuo canto (‘My Italy! Nothing will silence your song’), performed at the Hollywood Bowl in 1946 and then quickly forgotten.
 
In his final years, Montemezzi appears to have taken things easily. Though continuing to live in California, from 1948 he began making regular trips to Italy. His first return to his childhood home in 1948 was a major event in Vigasio, and a moving demonstration of just how much local pride he had inspired. On a later visit to Vigasio in 1952 Montemezzi suddenly fell ill after a busy day and died the same night, 15 May. By this time L’Amore dei Tre Re was losing its place in the international repertoire, and as Montemezzi had not written a major opera since the 1910s, his passing was only faintly registered by the wider operatic world. Tullio Serafin, however, an old friend who had conducted the premieres of all Montemezzi’s operas apart from L’Incantesimo, wrote a handsome ‘Appreciation’ piece for Opera News in which he hailed Montemezzi as the ‘Greatest of contemporary Italian composers’.
 
Recordings of Montemezzi’s Music 
A good deal of Montemezzi’s music is available on YouTube, and for anyone wanting to experience it, that is now the obvious place to start. There have been several commercial recordings of L’Amore dei Tre Re: the ones I recommend are the 1977 RCA version with Anna Moffo as Fiora, Placido Domingo as Avito and Cesare Siepi as Archibaldo, with Nello Santi conducting the London Symphony Orchestra; and the re-mastered Guild Historical recording of Montemezzi himself conducting the opera at the Met in 1941, with Grace Moore as Fiora, Charles Kullman as Avito and Ezio Pinza as Archibaldo. The only other Montemezzi opera to have been officially released complete on record is L’Incantesimo, from the 1943 broadcast under Montemezzi’s baton: this can be found on Souvenirs from Verismo Operas - Volume 4 released by the International Record Collectors’ Club. La Nave was revived in a concert performance by Teatro Grattacielo of New York in 2012, and bootleg recordings of that are not difficult to find. Three extracts from Giovanni Gallurese were included on a privately-issued ‘Golden Age of Opera’ LP in the 1970s. In the early 2000s a series of three CDs of the orchestral music were released by the Comune di Vigasio. It is Héllera that remains the great unexplored work.
 
David Chandler
Doshisha University, Kyoto
 
David Chandler is the editor of Essays on the Montemezzi-D’Annunzio ‘Nave’ (Durrant Publishing, 2012), and is working on a biography of Italo Montemezzi. 


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