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Ermanno WOLF-FERRARI (18761948)
I gioielli della Madonna, Opera in Three Acts on Neapolitan Life
Kyungho Kim (tenor) – Gennaro; Natalia Ushakova (soprano) – Maliella; Daniel Čapkovič (baritone) – Rafaele; Susanne Bernhard (mezzo-soprano) – Carmela; Igor Pasek (tenor) – Biaso; Peter Malı (tenor) – Ciccillo; František Ďuriač (bass) – Rocco; Maksym Kutsenko (tenor) – Totonno
Bratislava Boys Choir, Pressburg Singers, Slovak National Theatre Opera Chorus, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Friedrich Haider
rec. live, Great Concert Hall of Slovak Radio, Bratislava, 29 November and 2 December 2015.
Detailed synopsis but no libretto
NAXOS 8.660386-87 [48:14 + 74:37]

The Austrian conductor and pianist Friedrich Haider has in recent years devoted much of his time to Wolf-Ferrari, whose works he clearly loves and whose reputation he is keen to rehabilitate. Beyond question he was the inspiration and driving force behind this new recording of I gioielli della Madonna, based on the concert performances that accompanied a successful run of the opera at the Slovak National Theatre in 2015. Naxos claim that this is the work’s first ever recording, though Göran Forsling, in his parallel MWI review of this set, makes reference also to a 1967 performance under Alberto Erede. What is beyond doubt, however, is that the opera is very seldom heard: following its triumphant first performance in Berlin in 1911 it was taken on a world tour, but thereafter failed to hold the stage; it only received its Italian premiere in 1953, some six years after Wolf-Ferrari’s death; the 2015 performances on which Haider’s discs are based were the first ever in Slovakia; and productions in Great Britain are nowadays almost unknown – with the exception of a generally well-received staging at Opera Holland Park in 2013.

Nevertheless I gioielli is unquestionably a fine work. One wonders if its neglect is due less to any intrinsic weaknesses it possesses than to the general eclipse of Wolf-Ferrari’s reputation in the last half-century or so and, not least, to the extreme difficulty of staging it: in spite of significant doubling, the cast list above names thirty soloists, to say nothing of three choirs and a very large orchestra – including such ‘folk’ instruments as guitars, mandolins and accordions. It is also very much a one-off: unique in Wolf-Ferrari’s operatic oeuvre, which is dominated by comedies, and unique also in combining a number of elements which are not usually found together in the same work. Haider himself, in his excellent booklet note, delineates these as follows: “Italian lyricism, the dramatic realism of verismo [see the work’s subtitle, N. H.], the rich orchestral textures of the German tradition, and folk dances and melodies”. This is a potent combination, but far from a conventional or comfortable one, and it seems to have gone down much better in the German-speaking lands than in Italy. Haider implies that contemporary and later Italian audiences might have been put off in particular by I gioelli’s strong indebtedness to verismo (seen, already by 1911, as “a tradition in decline”) and by “the inclusion of folk instruments, which was felt to contribute to a heavily clichéd depiction of Italy.” Maybe, then, Wolf-Ferrari’s vision of Italy – rather, perhaps, like Ravel’s of Spain – remained to a certain degree that of an outsider, and as such was always destined to be more successful outside the peninsula than within it.

According to Naxos, Wolf-Ferrari, whilst not one of the librettists, was nonetheless responsible for the opera’s ‘plot’. That plot is in essence a simple one, based on a love triangle between the spirited, passionate and frankly rather naughty Mariella, her adoring adoptive brother Gennaro, and Rafaele, leader of the local Camorra, with whom Mariella is mutually in love – or, more accurately, lust. The core of the action happens in the intensely dramatic, but also very beautiful, second act – set, like the rest of the opera, amidst the festivities of Lady Day. It begins with Gennaro confessing his guilty, quasi-incestuous love for Mariella, who rejects him absolutely. In shock, Gennaro resolves immediately to steal the eponymous, and magnificent, jewels just worn by the statue of the Madonna in the Lady Day parade, and which – as he knows – Rafaele has teasingly offered to steal for Maliella at the end of Act One. During Gennaro’s larcenous absence, Rafaele and Maliella enjoy a positively steamy encounter shot through with sexual tension, which is still very much in the air when Gennaro returns with the jewels. Before long, Maliella is transfixed by the latter and by a vision of Rafaele, Gennaro is similarly lost in his passion for her, and the orchestra makes clear that a bizarre form of semi-conscious, semi-incestuous intercourse takes place between them. In Act Three, inevitably, tragedy ensues. When full consciousness returns, Maliella flies to Rafaele, only to be cruelly rejected by him now that she has lost the ‘flower’ of her virginity. She runs off to commit suicide, and a guilt-ridden Gennaro stabs himself.

So far, so verismo. But Wolf-Ferrari was an avid reader of Jung, and his work also explores the psychological, indeed psychoanalytical implications of its characters’ actions to a considerably greater degree than one would find in, say, an opera by Mascagni. In particular, the jewels of the Madonna are an all too obvious symbol of Mariella’s virginity; beyond that, especially in three scenes which depict pseudo-mystical experiences, there is an intense awareness of the often complex and confused relationship between religious and erotic experience; and, presiding over everything, there is the ever-resonant figure of the Madonna, as woman, mother, seductress and matriarchal archetype. And all this is regularly either depicted or hinted at in the music – not least, in the best Wagnerian tradition, that given to the orchestra.

Haider’s handling of the score is masterly. He clearly believes in the piece deeply, he is in full control of its complex texture, and his sense of pace and style inspires confidence throughout. His orchestra is excellent, his choirs – not helped by a rather distant recording balance – rather less so. The stand-out vocal performance, for my money, is that of Kyungho Kim as Gennaro. His voice is, or is at least on the verge of becoming, a genuine tenore robusto, with a richly baritonal colouring but also plenty of tenorial heft. Arguably his sound is too noble for the basically seedy Gennaro, but he hints at an interesting element of idealism in that seediness, and he uses words well. Göran Forsling was worried by the “heavy vibrato” of Daniel Čapkovič’s Rafaele; in truth, I am not, but I do feel that his voice is perhaps a size too small for the role, and that his characterization of the nasty Mafioso lacks an arguably necessary dimension of predatory menace. The vibrato I do struggle with is that of Natalia Ushakova; but she seems to me to improve vocally in Acts Two and Three, and her characterization is, as Forsling says, “quite a feat”. Her Maliella is deeply passionate and sensual, in many ways decidedly unpleasant; but, especially in Act Three, she also becomes a genuinely tragic and, if not sympathetic, then at least believably human figure. Susanne Bernhard, as Gennaro and Maliella’s mother, is agreeably warm both of voice and of character; and, amidst the many small roles, I took pleasure in the heady tenor tone of Maksym Kutsenko as Totonno. Some of the others, inevitably, are taken with rather less distinction.

Overall, then, Haider, Kim and arguably Ushakova apart, this is a good rather than an outstanding performance; and it is well rather than sumptuously recorded. The opera itself is also far from perfect: quite a lot of Act I, for example, which essentially depicts the Lady Day celebrations, is sprawling, confusing and very loud; and, for all their many beauties, few if any of Wolf-Ferrari’s tunes are as obstinately memorable as, say, Puccini’s. But I gioielli does have many unusual and interesting qualities, not least considerable subtlety and psychological acuity; and, both in its intellectual content and in some of its harmonies, it is more forward-looking than Wolf-Ferrari’s current reputation might lead us to expect. At Naxos price, it is an eminently worthwhile addition to anyone’s collection.

Nigel Harris

Previous review: Göran Forsling



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