WOLF-FERRARI: I Gioelli della Madonna / Natalia Ushakova, sop (Maliella); Kyungho Kim, ten (Gennaro); Daniel Čapkovič, bar (Rafaele); Susanne Bernhard, mezzo (Carmela); Peter Malý, ten (Ciccillo, Camorrista); František Ďuriač, bass (Rocco, Camorrista); Bratislava Boys’ Choir; Pressburg Singers; Slovak National Theater Opera Chorus; Slovak Radio Symphony Orch.; Friedrich Haider, cond / Naxos 8.660386-87, also available for free streaming on Spotify
I was going to review a new recording of Grétry’s once-famous opera, Richard Cœur de Lion, but after ten minutes of listening to the music I realized that it was absolute rubbish, so bad that it didn’t even sound like pop music of the time; it sounded like commercial jingles of the time.
But then, someone suggested that I look up this opera, which we had both read about in the old Victor Book of the Opera. For those of you who have never seen or heard of it, the Victor Book was published in various editions between 1919 (when Caruso was still alive and singing at the Metropolitan!) and 1968 before disappearing for good. In addition to covering many major operas with which we are all familiar, the various editions also covered operas no longer performed or even recorded, among them Franco Leoni’s L’Oracolo (a showpiece for famed Italian baritone Antonio Scotti, who performed it into the late 1920s) and this opera.
So I set out to discover a recording of it and, lo and behold, this one turned up on the Naxos Music Library. It is taken from live performances with this cast in November and December of 2015, and Naxos boasts that it is a “World Premiere Recording,” but that, it turns out, is not so. Back in the 1970s a similarly live performance from the BBC, conducted by Alberto Erede and starring soprano Pauline Tinsley, tenor André Turp and baritone Peter Glossop, was issued on BellaVoce LPs. Fortunately, this performance is available for free streaming on YouTube.
A review of this recording on MusicWeb International by Göran Forsling fails to understand Wolf-Ferrari’s music almost entirely because it lacks Puccini or Mascagni-like melodies, and its orchestration is far more advanced than the work of other verismo composers. But I actually found it more melodic than Wolf-Ferrari’s other well-known opera, The Secret of Susanna, though I like that opera a bit better because it is more modern and, to my ears, more original. Before his death in 1948, Wolf-Ferrari also wrote an exceptionally fine violin concerto for the ill-fated American violinist Guila Bustabo.
The plot is your typical verismo potboiler. In Naples, the leader of the Camorra (Neapolitan Mafia), Raffaele, tells Maliella that he loves her so much that he’d dare to steal the jewels from the statue of the Madonna. Gennaro, the local blacksmith who is also in love with Maliella (what else is new?), overhears this conversation and commits the theft himself. Maliella accepts Gennaro and his stolen swag, but when she tells this to Raffaele he rejects her, so she throws the jewels at Gennaro’s feet and drowns herself in the river. Gennaro brings the jewels back to the Madonna’s statue and stabs himself. Everyone dies happily ever after.
The opening music, bright and festive, reminded me of some other Italian operas, including one passage for the women of the chorus that sounded suspiciously like a passage from Verdi’s Otello, before moving off in different directions. Yet since this was Wolf-Ferrari’s one and only excursion into verismo, there’s just something about it that sounds like a pastiche. There is a slow waltz song for the male chorus set to mandolins that sounds very Puccini-ish indeed, among other things. Not too surprisingly, when one gets into the main body of the plot, Wolf-Ferrari’s music is more continuous, combining melodic lines with “conversational” music, shifting the rhythms more often than Puccini would have done while still leaning towards Italian folk songs and dances as his inspiration without actually quoting any real folk tunes. This style is closer to Giordano’s great Andrea Chenier than, say, to Tosca or Madama Butterfly. At one point in Act I, Maliella sings an original tarantella melody.
My general impression, then, is that the opera is very cleverly constructed but perhaps too cleverly. Wolf-Ferrari makes it sound as if he wanted to out-verismo all the other verismo operas written up to that time (1911). Parts of it are quite good, even fun to listen to, while other parts just sound as if he were making up tunes to please the audience without advancing the plot any. Thus, in the end, I would assess this as a work geared towards popular consumption without any attempt to create a true dramatic work. For all its flaws, and there are several, Puccini’s Butterfly hits closer to the mark of real music drama than I Gioelli della Madonna. There are a few flashes of Wolf-Ferrari’s true genius in this work here and there, but only a few.
In his quest to produce a “hit opera”—which, for about 15 years, it was—Wolf-Ferrari accomplished his goal but overwrote this score. The plot really doesn’t need or call for two hours’ worth of music. This is the kind of opera that could have had its say in 45-50 minutes and been a stronger piece for that. Think, for instance, of Puccini’s Il Tabarro, the one really dark, dramatic piece he ever wrote. Would you want to hear Il Tabarro dragged out to 123 minutes? I don’t think so.
Aside from the vast improvement in sound quality, there are some distinct differences in the performing style. Erede, a veteran Italian opera conductor who was particularly known for his work in verismo, conducts the music a wee bit brisker and gives it strong Italian accents whereas Haider, a German conductor known particularly for Strauss, gives the music more of a legato flow. There is no question that the little-known Kyungho Kim is a far superior tenor to the pinched tones of Canadian André Turp: his rich, warm voice sounds shockingly Italianate, with absolutely no hint of an Asian sound to his timbre. This is a good quality voice, with excellent breath support and not a hint of vocal defects, though to my ears he just misses that extra touch of greatness.
Pauline Tinsley, who sang Maliella on the Erede performance, had a firm but exceptionally ugly soprano voice. Her one and only good role was Lady Macbeth, because she always sounded like one no matter what she was singing. Natalia Ushakova, our Maliella here, has a lovelier tone but tends towards a loose vibrato. A few (but not many) of her sustained high notes also sound a bit pinched.
So that’s my assessment of Gioelli and specifically of this recording. Get ‘em if you like ‘em.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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