MONTEMEZZI: L’Incantesimo / Denia Mazzola Gavazzeni, sop (Giselda); Armando Likaj, bar (Folco); Giuseppe Veneziano, ten (Rinaldo); Fulvio Ottelli, bass (Salomone) / DEBUSSY: L’Enfant Prodigue. Cantique de Jean Racine / Denia Mazzola Gavazzeni, sop (Lia); Giuseppe Veneziano, ten (Azaël); Armando Likaj, bar (Simeone); La Camerata di Cremona Chorus; Orchestra Filarmonica Italiana; Marco Fracassi, cond / Bongiovanni GB2498/99-2 (live: Milan, October 26, 2018)
This unusual 2-CD set is a release of a double bill given at the Sala Verdi of the Milan Conservatory on October 26, 2018. Both are rare works, seldom performed and recorded, but the Montemezzi work is far rarer than the Debussy.
Written to a libretto by playwright Sem Benelli, who had provided the text for his much better-known L’Amore Dei Tre Re, Montemezzi’s L’Incantesimo is even more of an Impressionistic opera that its predecessor, albeit Impressionist with Italian lyricism. The story, set in the Middle Ages, concerns Folco, a boastful and possessive Lord, and his wife Giselda, who had been in love with Folco’s good friend Rinaldo before marrying him. Folco explains that he has sent for Rinaldo to come and visit him because he is bringing a magician who he hopes can explain a strange event to him. After they arrive, Folco relates how he was chasing a wolf in the woods when he came across a white doe whose face was that of Giselda. Baffled, he stabbed the doe whose eyes begged for mercy before running off into the forest. Salomone, the magician explains that Folco must return to the forest, find this doe, and carry it lovingly back to his castle as if it were Giselda herself.
While Folco is gone, Rinaldo puts the make on Giselda and tells her he still loves her. She rebuffs his advances, but Rinaldo tells her that love can do anything. She says she might believe him if he can turn the cold, snowy landscape into a spring day. Salomone adds, “If you love, you will see the spring.” Folco returns, puzzled, because he could not find the body of the doe, and now he can’t see his wife Giselda either. Instead, he sees the body of the doe where she stands. The garden suddenly blossoms into spring as Giselda’s voice is heard, singing ecstatically of its beauty and giving in to Rinaldo’s love.
Unwilling to have the work performed in Fascist Italy, Montemezzi came to America and gave the premiere on NBC radio on October 9, 1943. (The stage premiere wasn’t given until November 1952, a few months after Montemezzi’s death.) He himself conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra with a cast of Alexander Sved (Folco), Vivian Della Chiesa (Giselda), Mario Berini (Rinaldo) and Virgilio Lazzari (Salomone). This performance was issued by IRCC as part of the album Souvenirs from Verismo Operas Volume 4, and has since been reissued on House of Opera CD7808. It is also available for free streaming on YouTube. The singing is excellent from start to finish, particularly Sved whose huge voice could sometimes spread under pressure but does not do so here. With Montemezzi conducting, the orchestra plays with assurance and a fine understanding of the musical style, but this is a typical Studio 8-H broadcast of the time, which means that all those opaque string passages sound like mud and the brass sounds raspy.
In this new recording, conductor Marco Fracassi does a magnificent job with the orchestral part of the performance. The strings shimmer, the muted brass sounds magnificent, and his pacing and shaping of the score is excellent. The problem is in the singing. Soprano Denia Mazzola Gavazzeni, the widow of famed conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni, is nearly two decades past her expiration date. A pupil of Leyla Gencer, she had her heyday between 1990 and 2000, but then gave up the stage because of vocal deterioration. According to Wikipedia, “She is still singing in minor events and recitals organized by her foundation,” so apparently this is one of them.
But she is not the only problem singer here. Baritone Armando Likaj, in the important role of Folco, has a very likable timbre but a fluttery voice not properly supported on the breath, and tenor Giuseppe Veneziano squeals and squawks his way through the role of Rinaldo. Fifteen minutes into the opera and all you want to do is turn it off.
Ah, but we have a third alternative! A live performance was given in Riga, Latvia on February 21, 2019, and this performance has also been uploaded on YouTube (click HERE). The cast is as follows:
Folco – Vladislav Sulimsky, baritone
Giselda – Dana Bramane, soprano
Rinaldo – Irakli Kakhidze, tenor
Salomone – Romāns Poļisadovs, bass
A servant – Rihards Millers, baritone
Latvian National Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Music Director and Conductor – Jānis Liepiņš
Liepiņš’ conducting is a bit faster and “hotter” in feeling than either Montemezzi or Fracassi, but not so much as to ruin the music. In fact, I somewhat prefer his approach to Fracassi’s because it is more Italianate, and if you watch the video I think you will be very impressed with the modern but not perverted stage production, far more intelligent than the Regietheater crap we get almost everywhere nowadays. Only the bass singing Salomone is not particularly good-sounding, but it’s not a huge part and he gets by. Georgian Irakli Kakhidze, like so many Eastern European tenors, has a brassy, somewhat tight-sounding voice, but his tone is firm, he’s on key and he sings with great passion as well as first-class musicianship. Soprano Dana Bramans has a lovely tone with a little bit of a flutter, but the voice does not spread.
More importantly, this Latvian performance returns the role of Folco, who really dominates the opera, to a large, dark-sounding baritone, which Likaj is not. For those of you who are into Historically Informed Performances, this is crucial. In my experience, HIP conductors pay absolutely no attention to casting older operas with the kind of voices preferred by the composers in those days, and really, you need to pay attention to that as much if not more than ruining the orchestra (and sometimes the chorus as well) with straight tone.
But I can see why this opera has not held the stage. The soprano gets but one “aria,” and it’s not a Tune That Everyone Can Hum; it’s more of a strophic aria that advances the plot and is musically interesting. Unfortunately, most opera lovers have no interest in music as such and especially not in drama expressed in music. They want Tunes That Everyone Can Hum, with High Notes That Can Be Held. The role of Rinaldo has high notes galore, but they go by quickly and are wedded into the musical line. No fun! Just music!
Towards the end of the opera, as the now-ghostly Giselda is praising spring and love, the chorus suddenly enters to support some of her closing lines. It’s an impressive effect, and to a certain extent both the words and the music here seem to echo the final scene of Strauss’ Daphne.
Fracassi also conducts a lovely, delicate performance of Debussy’s early scène lyrique, which sounds very little like Debussy but which won him the Prix de Rome. Alas, he has the same singers to work with, and if anything Mazzola-Gavazzeni sounds even worse here than in Montemezzi’s opera. If you want to hear it really sung well, go to YouTube and dial up the 1981 performance by the late, lamented Jessye Norman, tenor José Carreras and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, conducted quite well by Gary Bertini. You’ll be glad you did.
As for this release, I’m really glad that it brought L’Incantesimo to my attention. It’s a major work that is shamefully neglected, as I think most musically-inclined operagoers will discover listening to and watching the Latvian performance. But there’s really no way you can recommend the singing here in either work, despite Fracassi’s outstanding conducting.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)