Coming to review these two books gave me cause for reflection. Note, I did not say read the books as it might give the idea that they were like a novel. In fact they are works involving research and scholarship in respect of the conclusions drawn. In introspective mode I reflected whether the enthusiasm for opera that emanates from every page of David Chandler’s summaries and conclusions, is like that of all hobbies? Infinite, like a length of string? New horizons constantly open. Opera has a long history, through the days from when it was popular entertainment for the masses, with every Italian town having several theatres vying for new productions and new composers. Those days have long gone; the present version of that variety is the massive availability via video or sound recording of opera’s huge historical diversity. For me this is a source of intellectual challenge as well as enjoyment, as all hobbies and interests perhaps should be.
OK, I get it in the neck from my wife from time to time that I do not read novels, even those she thinks I should, but there is only a maximum number of waking hours a day and to her chagrin I tend to use these either listening to or watching opera or reading about it. The reading bit of that triumvirate often features biographies or the background to opera houses and their history. Not often do many break new ground, or involve in-depth research as I practised from time to time during my professional career. David Chandler, the editor of these two books, is a man after my own heart. A Professor of English in Kyoto, Japan, most of his published work is concerned with his academic work on English Literature. Like me, he obviously relishes digressions, in his case into obscure corners of opera and composers of the genre. He does so again with this pair of books about the Italian composer Italo Montemezzi.
A couple of years back I reviewed David Chandler’s books on Alfredo Catalani (see review
). He was born in Lucca, the same town as Puccini who was a near contemporary. Catalani is largely known for his opera La Wally
. If life’s odds had not been heavily stacked against him, his qualities as a composer could well have been at least as great as his fellow citizen. Both had the great advantage of support from another illustrious Italian, Arturo Toscanini who, having noted that he named his daughter Wally, in a eulogy said of Catalani, “He was the most simpatico of the composers, refined – he wasn’t as crude as the others, Puccini, Mascagni, Giordano or even Franchetti.” In other words Toscanini believed that Catalani might have taken verismo
in a different direction had he enjoyed better health and lived longer.
It was a yearning for opera to evolve in post-Verdi Italy, and not in the style of Wagner, that seemed to embed itself into the Italian psyche. Many pretenders came and went with variable impact outside that country, until Montemezzi’s opera L’Amore Dei Tre Re
was premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on 2 January 1914. The cast list had Lucrezia Bori as Fiora and Pasquale Amato as Manfredo. Toscanini was on the rostrum. Based on a 1910 play by Benelli, the work had been premiered at La Scala, Milan on 10 April 1913. It was quickly seen in other Italian centres and by Toscanini who was becoming de facto
musical adviser at the Met. Influenced by its success in New York and elsewhere in America it became Montemezzi’s best known work. The extensive introductory essay on L’Amore Dei Tre Re by
David Chandler in the second, and most recently published of the two books, covers it in detail. He also gives some basic details of Montemezzi’s other operas. My main comments are in respect of that book.
In his introductory chapter Chandler notes the changing pattern of opera performances at the Met at the turn of the century. Early in the new decade Wagner had dominated the repertoire to the extent that ten of his operas were presented in the 1902-03 season compared with five by Verdi. Stimulated by the rise of Puccini, four of whose operas were given in 1907, this gradually fell with the addition of the likes of Caruso to the roster of artists. The trend accelerated after the arrival off Gatti Casazza from La Scala in 1908 as Intendant.
After its Met premiere, L’Amore Dei Tre Re
quickly spread to other American operatic centres and to South America. It was described by a critic (p. 47) as the second novelty of the season, the first being the Met premiere of Der Rosenkavalier
three weeks before. On the basis of detailed study of American criticism Chandler relates something of the out-and-out success of the work and its impact in America, and New York in particular. For his sources he has researched contemporary reviews, extending from the premiere to a review in the New York Times on 26 February 1962 of the TV performance transmitted by NBC Opera (pp.213-216). He includes a picture of Giorgio Tozzi as Archibaldo. Chandler admits to some prejudice in his choice of fifty reviews by thirty critics. He prefers the likes of Herbert Peyser of Musical America
, (pp.47-62), Henry Krehbiel, New York Tribune
(pp.63-74) and Richard Aldrich, New York Times
, to Ernest Newman.
Chandler extracts statistics, performances and performers to justify his contention, and that of others quoted, that L’Amore Dei Tre Re
was viewed, for nearly fifty years, as restoring the Grand Tradition of Italian opera (p.12). He quotes Peyser, writing in 1949 (p.203) as viewing it as his favourite opera after Otello and Aida. He called it “the greatest lyric drama that has come out of Italy since Verdi.” The statistics of performances in America, and at the Met in particular, support such a eulogy along with the names of the singers appearing many times at the Met. Writing in 1924, on the tenth anniversary of the premiere, the commentator noted that the work had appeared forty times in the last ten years. That evening’s cast included Gigli and Bori. Over the period of its appearances at the Met, other notable performers drawn to the drama and music include Maggie Teyte, Claudio Muzio, Rosa Ponselle and Mary Garden in the only role she sang in Italian. In the recording of the 1941 broadcast performance (see review
), Grace Moore, remembered perhaps from cinema films at the time, sang Fiori. The role of Avito drew Martinelli, regularly. It also attracted Caruso — perhaps the nearest he got to heldentenor
Part two of the book (pp.225-334) gives details of American performances of Montemezzi’s other operas, La Nave
, Giovanni Gallurese
, La Notte di Zoraima
There are no recorded performances of Montemezzi’s Hellera.
Appendices detail the plots of the composer’s operas seen in America (pp.335-341). Biographies of the composer’s American critics are also featured (pp. 342-365).
Both the books listed follow a similar pattern and are well illustrated. They are also works of considerable research and scholarship. Footnotes abound and give some insight into Chandler’s grasp and understanding of the composer and his music. The first titled above, and published, was more of a rush job as the author was stimulated by a New York production of La Nave,
by Teatro Grattacielo, whilst he was preparing a biography of Montemezzi. Whilst it concentrates on the first production of La Nave
at La Scala in November 1918, it extends to its second in Chicago and succeeding ones in Verona and Rome. As with all the reviews in both books, full casts and production details are given.
I concluded my review of Chandler’s books on Catalani by referring to my extensive music library — too extensive in terms of shelf space and weight or so my wife contends. I do the same now in noting that in none of the three weightiest tomes (Larousse Encyclopaedia of Music,
pub. Hamlyn, 1987, Opera, Composers, works and Performers
, Ed. Batta and Neff, pub. Konemnn, English version 2004 and The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Opera
, Ed. Stanley Sadie, pub. Flame Tree, 2004) does Montemezzi get a mention. He was still remembered in the 1979 edition of The Concise Dictionary of Opera
, pub. 1979 and The Encyclopaedia of Opera
, Ed. Orrey pub. Rambird 1976. Such are the vagaries of fashion as we discover earlier composers and forget the more recent. These two books should serve as a reminder of what we are missing in our current pursuit of early music, virtuous as some of those works are.
David Chandler’s research highlights a composer who was all the rage in America, and at the Metropolitan Opera in particular, for nearly fifty years. He is now largely forgotten, but, is perhaps, ripe for a renaissance, somewhat overdue.
Robert J Farr
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