The Resurrection of Italo Montemezzi’s Epic La Nave

Critics who wrote about La Nave in the past were given to playing
on the title (La Nave = The Ship), and talked of launchings, sailings,
dockings, calm seas, anxious sailors, and so forth. Extending that tradition,
Hurricane Sandy almost left La Nave high and dry, for Teatro
Grattacielo’s performance scheduled for Monday 29 October had to be cancelled
on account of squalls, and only some heroic behind-the-scenes efforts allowed
it to be put on two days later instead. It was not undamaged by the weather,
for the chorus was slightly below strength and the Rose Theater full of empty
seats reserved by those who sadly couldn’t make it. But those who could gave
every sign of feeling very fortunate to be there.

Montemezzi (1875-1952) has gone down in operatic history as the ultimate
“one work” composer, that work being L’Amore dei Tre Re (The
Love of Three Kings) of 1913, an opera which enjoyed enormous international
success and acclaim for about three decades after its premiere. As Alan Mallach
found occasion to state in The Autumn of Italian Opera: From Verismo to
, 1890-1915 (2007), “While even moderately serious opera buffs
know of Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz and Iris or
Leoncavallo’s Zaz‡, it is hard to imagine anyone but a true
specialist who can name another Montemezzi opera, or proffer even the most
minimal information that might illuminate who he was, and how this shadowy
figure came to write this one notable opera.” Yet Montemezzi himself
considered La Nave of 1918 to be his masterpiece, and his close friend
Tullio Serafin, who conducted the premieres of both operas, agreed. Montemezzi
wrote in 1931, “La Nave … is my major work. I insist: my major
work. I shout it to the rooftops so that I may be heard.” It was a source of
great frustration to him that he continued to be associated almost wholly with
the earlier opera.

When La Nave was premiered at La Scala in 1918, the Italian critics
had a number of reservations. They found Montemezzi’s choice of a play by
Gabriele D’Annunzio, Italy’s most famous and notorious living writer, both
unsuited to operatic treatment and (in many cases) not very well handled. And
they found the music too heavily Germanic, too saturated with Wagner and
Strauss — the First World War had, unsurprisingly, hardened attitudes to
German music in Italy — and insufficiently tuneful. By 1938, when there was a
very important revival of La Nave at the Teatro Reale dell’Opera in
Rome, Mussolini’s showpiece opera house, the force of these criticisms had
abated considerably, and the general attitude was surprise that such an
obviously major opera had been neglected for so long. But in 1943 all the
performance materials were destroyed by allied bombing, putting an end to the
opera’s stage career. The manuscript full score survived, however, and from
this new parts have been generated which allowed the historic revival of La
on 31 October. The opera is now generally available for hire

Teatro Grattacielo put on concert performances, which have the benefit of
focussing attention firmly on the music, though in this case the ballet
sequence in the second “Episode” was enacted by the I Giullari di Piazza
Dancers, which brought some curious visual diversion half way through. How well
La Nave would stand up dramatically today it is hard to say: it is a
strange story concerned with the foundation, or rather the promise of the
foundation, of Venice as a great maritime power; the plot is permeated with
Italian nationalism, and contains a good deal of obscure motivation. But the
music is magnificent from start to finish, and the opera certainly deserves to
be staged, so the full grandeur of Montemezzi’s conception can be
appreciated. Almost all the critics of the opera in the past agreed, whatever
their other objections, that Montemezzi’s orchestration and treatment of the
choir were extraordinarily impressive, and the New York performance showed they
were right. The orchestration, clearly akin to that of L’Amore dei Tre
, is Wagnerian, yet the Wagnerianism is refracted through an Italian
sensibility, with a gripping nobility, sweeping, cinematic quality, lyrical
voluptuousness, and restless play of instrumental textures. The sheer lushness
of the score was beautifully brought out by Israel Gursky’s passionate
conducting of the Teatro Grattacielo orchestra, and his timing seemed to me
faultless — he let the music breathe, but also drove it along with
irresistible momentum. The opera was shorter than I had expected, the Prologue
and three “Episodes” adding up to a little over two and a quarter hours of
music. Perhaps Montemezzi had learned from Mascagni the danger of making epic
operas too long.

The complete assimilation of the chorus into the structure of the opera was
Montemezzi’s major technical advance in La Nave. Apart from a
lengthy section in the first “Episode,” where the epic tone of the work is
relaxed, the chorus, representing the early Venetians, is almost constantly
involved in the unfolding story, shaping as well as responding to events.
Matteo Incagliati (reviewing it in 1938) was right to categorize La
as a “choral opera” and to see it as akin to Boris
. Montemezzi, like Mussorgsky, believed that he could distil the
longing, lyrical essence of his people in music, and the Teatro Grattacielo
chorus did full justice to his inspiration, singing with resounding force that
never turned harsh or descended into mere noise.

By far the biggest role in the opera is that of Basiliola, an alluring,
cruel, capricious and vengeful woman whom D’Annunzio originally imagined as
touched by madness and into whom he poured all his great love and hatred of
women. It is an incredibly demanding role, and Tiffany Abban told me afterwards
that it was the most difficult thing she had ever done: “as difficult as the
title role in Aida, but much more unrelenting.” Yet she made it look and
sound, if not easy, at least comfortable, and gave an assured, commanding
performance with a thrilling voice which seemed capable of anything. Her
Basiliola was more gentle and sympathetic then I had imagined the character
sounding, and perhaps that was, in part at least, because the nature of a
concert performance tends to limit the full expression of character — this
Basiliola did not need to kill people on stage! But clearly Montemezzi’s
musical portrayal of the character allows some freedom of interpretation, and
for anyone directing a stage performance one of the big questions would be how
sympathetically Basiliola should come across.

The next biggest role, again by a wide margin, is Marco Gratico, the tenor.
Robert Brubaker sung with exhilarating power, and made Marco sound thoroughly
heroic — whether the character should sound quite that heroic is another
interpretative issue a staged production would need to consider, for Marco, who
is incited by Basiliola to kill his brother, is a seriously flawed hero. From a
purely musical point of view, however, much could be said for Brubaker’s
decision to simply concentrate on bringing out the soaring beauty of
Montemezzi’s vocal writing. Most of the other solo roles are comparatively
small, though by no means easy, and were generally very ably filled, Ashraf
Sewailam, who sung the part of Orso Faledro, Basiliola’s blinded father, and
Kurt Dougherty, taking three of the minor roles, being particularly
outstanding. The only disappointment was Joseph Flaxman as Traba, the monk, a
character who appears to sternly denounce Basiliola’s immoral goings on in
the first “Episode.” He is a vital character in the opera, for he is the
only one who holds Basiliola’s behaviour up to something like objective
examination, and he reveals her infidelity to Marco. Yet Flaxman sang sweetly,
with no hint of moral outrage. Here, perhaps, the limitations of a concert
performance were most acutely felt.

Altogether Teatro Grattacielo made a triumphant case for an opera that must,
in any historical or artistic point of view, count as one of the major Italian
operas of the 1910s. All credit to them for their ambitiousness and ability to
instil enthusiasm in supporters and performers that makes such projects
possible. If there were a prize for the operatic revival of the year La
would be a strong contender. Let’s hope that other companies will
now take it up.

David Chandler

David Chandler has edited a book of Essays on the Montemezzi-D’Annunzio “Nave” (Durrant Publishing, 2012).

Cast and Production:

Basiliola: Tiffany Abban; Marco Gratico: Robert Brubaker; Sergio Gratico:
Daniel Ihn-Kyu Lee; OrsoFaledro: Ashraf Sewailam; The Monk Traba: Joseph
Flaxman; The Stonecutter Gauro / The Miller / The Survivor: Kurt Dougherty. The
Teatro Grattacielo orchestra and men’s chorus with the Dessoff Symphonic
Choir. Conductor: Israel Gursky. Production Director: Duane D. Printz. Rose
Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall, New York, 31
October 2012.

image_description=A Cartoon of Italo Montemezzi
product_title=The Resurrection of Italo Montemezzi’s Epic La Nave
product_by=A review by David Chandler
product_id=Above: A Cartoon of Italo Montemezzi