Ermanno WOLF-FERRARI (1876 – 1948) I gioielli della Madonna - opera in three acts (1911)
Kyungho Kim (tenor) – Gennaro, blacksmith; Susanne Bernhard (mezzo) – Carmela, his mother; Natalia Ushakova (soprano) – Maliella; Daniel Čapkovič (baritone) – Rafaele, head of the Camorra; Igor Pasek (buffo-tenor) – Biaso, a scribe; Peter Malı (tenor) – Ciccillo, Camorrista; František Ďuriač (bass) – Rocco, Camorrista; and several others
Bratislava Boys Choir, Pressburg Singers, Slovak National Theatre Opera Chorus
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Friedrich Haider
rec. Great Concert Hall, Slovak Radio, Bratislava, Slovakia, 29 November and 2 December 2015.
Detailed synopsis but no libretto. NAXOS 8.660386-87 [48:14 + 74:37]
Some years ago I reviewed a recording of another Wolf-Ferrari opera, La vedova scaltra, commenting that ‘It is not every year, probably not even every decade, that we get an opportunity to see or hear an opera by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari.’; see also. Here now comes another, and since the previous review was published in November 2008 it is by some margin, within a decade from La vedova scaltra. Whether this signals that a Wolf-Ferrari renaissance is under way is hard to foretell. The short one act intermezzo Il segreto di Susanna from 1909 has been played fairly regularly and recorded a number of times. A search on Operabase for the period 1 January 2014 to 31 December 2018 revealed that no fewer than seven different operas by Wolf-Ferrari were and will be played worldwide. So maybe, after all, he is making a comeback.
Does he deserve it? Well, he is without doubt a professional and handles the orchestra extremely well, but he is also an eclectic and it is difficult to identify a true personality. On the other hand we can’t expect every composer, old or new, to stand out from the rest of his generation. He was a bit younger than the fellow-Italians in the verismo generation, but that’s where he by and large belongs. How many distinct personalities were there in that group – besides Puccini?
Most of his operas were comedies and in that respect he stands out from the verismo, but in I gioielli della Madonna he steps into that domain and does so at least partly with great success. Several of his other operas were based on the plays of 18th century playwright Goldoni, but the libretto for The Jewels of the Madonna by Carlo Zangarini and Enrico Golisciani was based on news accounts of a real event; vaguely similar to Leoncavallo’s and Mascagni’s seminal works in the genre. The story takes place in Naples around the time of the opera’s coming into being, 1911. Large crowds are celebrating the festival of the Madonna but the blacksmith Gennaro doesn’t take part in the festivities; he prays to the Madonna to liberate him from his unhappy love to Maliella, an orphan girl who has been brought up as his stepsister. She wants to throw herself into the joyous life in the city. The leader of the Camorrists – a Mafia-like organisation – Rafaele, courts Maliella and explains that he would even be prepared to steal the jewels from the Madonna, who at that moment is brought past in procession.
In the second act Maliella tells Gennaro that she is going to leave home. Gennaro tells her that he loves her but Maliella answers that she could only love a man who shows her real affection and courage – for instance stealing the jewels of the Madonna. Gennaro locks the gate and leaves the house. While he is away Rafaele arrives and sings a serenade to Maliella. She promises to come to his hiding-place the next day. Then Gennaro comes back – with the jewels of the Madonna – and Maliella embraces him.
The third act takes place in the headquarters of the Camorra. Rafaele brags about his latest conquest, the virginal Maliella. When Maliella appears with the jewels of the Madonna and shouts that she has given herself up to Gennaro, Rafaele is furious and rejects her. For him she is a plucked rose to be left to wither. He sees the jewels and accuses her of sacrilege. Gennaro arrives, half mad. Maliella throws the jewels before his feet and rushes off to drown herself. Gennaro collects the jewels and carries them to the statue of the Madonna, whereupon he stabs himself to death.
The opera was premiered in Berlin in 1911 – then sung in German – and was seen in several opera houses around the world. It then just disappeared until its Italian premiere in 1953. After that there was only a handful of performances. In 2010 it was seen in New York, in 2013 at Holland Park in London and finally in May last year (2015) at the Slovak National Theatre in Bratislava. This recording was however made at concert performances at the Slovak Radio but with roughly the same singers. It is labelled "World Premiere Recording", but according to Wikipedia it was recorded in 1967, with Alberto Erede conducting. That version was also issued on CD. It is also available on Youtube.
It is a grand opera where the chorus is central and the full cast-list accounts for just over 40 roles. Most of these are small but important and I presume that many of them were taken by members of the chorus. We are thrown directly into one of the grandest openings of any opera, powerful, hectic even chaotic and with soloists en masse. It is rhythmic and vital, with lively dances. We hear phrases of Neapolitan folk songs, some quoted others being from Wolf-Ferrari’s own invention. In the midst of this we are treated to extremely beautiful music, for instance Benedicimi tu (CD 1 tr. 15) which is a duet between Gennaro and his mother Carmela. The mighty first act finale is really stunning.
The second act is smaller in scale and concentrates on the triangle Gennaro – Rafaele – Maliella. It opens with an orchestral intermezzo, which was once quite frequently heard as an independent piece in orchestral concerts. It is followed by an atmospheric chorus with soloists and a solo clarinet adding colour. There is also a beautiful Neapolitan chorus and a charming waltz (CD 2 trs. 7-8). The love scene with Rafaele and Maliella is another highlight.
In the third act we get the other intermezzo, just as attractive and well-orchestrated as the one in act II. The opening chorus is grandiose and the drama is intensified in the terrific scene in which Rafaele denounces Maliella and Gennaro’s theft of the jewels is revealed (CD 3 trs. 18 – 20). Then the Camorristi withdraw and Gennaro is left alone in his despair. There's no big theatrical climax at the end but the results remain psychologically credible.
In the production at the Slovak National Theatre the action was transported from pre-WW1 to the early 1950s. When just listening with the detailed synopsis in hand one can easily imagine the original setting. I must say that Friedrich Haider – who is a noted champion of Wolf-Ferrari’s music – and his Bratislava forces have managed to present the music in the best possible light. This is music that few if any of the participating musicians and singers could have been familiar with and it is far from uncomplicated. The many comprimario roles are well sung, maybe not world class in every department but the general standard is high. Kyungho Kim in the central role as Gennaro is sometimes rather strained but he sings heroically and with deep involvement. Daniel Čapkovič’s Rafaele is also vividly presented though his heavy vibrato is a liability. The two leading ladies are also well inside their roles and vocally top-notch. Susanne Bernhard, who didn’t sing in the staged performance, sports a dark-toned mezzo as Carmela – though curiously enough she is labelled soprano in the bio and on her website. She has been a successful Violetta, indeed a far cry from the mezzo Fach. Natalia Ushakova, whose portrait of Maliella is a real feat, also has Violetta in her repertoire.
You don’t stumble over a Wolf-Ferrari opera recording every day and this one is definitely worth the attention of every lover of Italian opera. He was no Verdi, no Puccini, but he was a true professional and he could write lovely melodies. He also had the measure of this bloodcurdling drama. Now, record companies, why not a recording of Sly from 1927, based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and onace available on Koch-Schwann and Arts?
Editor's Note: The distinguished conductor Friedrich Haider (b. 1961) is well worth recalling. He made a notable 3 CD set of Richard Strauss's complete orchestral songs for Nightingale (NC000072-2) as well as other Strauss orchestral discs. The songs are taken by a veritable pantheon of singers: Adrianne Pieczonka, Edita Gruberova, Judith Howarth, Petja Petrova, Peter Straka, Bo Skovhus and Kurt Moll. That set just disappeared in the early 2000s and really deserves a new lease of life. There's also a Wolf-Ferrari orchestral collection and Il Segreto di Susanna (with Judith Howarth) on PhiArtis and the Violin Concerto from Benjamin Schmid on Farao Classics. RB