Essays on Italo Montemezzi – D’Annunzio: Nave

This book is especially welcome after the first performance of Montemezzi’s Nave since 1938. This is a link to the review. If Italo Montemezzi (1875 – 1952) is known at all, it is for his opera L’Amore di Tre Re, based on the play by Sem Benelli, which premiered in 1913. Montemezzi was part of the constellation of Italian composers from whom it was hoped would come a successor to Puccini. In fact, five years after L’Amore di Tre Re, Montemezzi’s next opera Nave would receive such a critical response that the composer did not write another large scale opera, despite living another 30 years or so. David Chandler, who is working on a book on Montemezzi, has gathered together the press coverage for Montemezzi’s opera from the first staging in Milan, through to the fourth production in Rome, thus enabling us to get to grips first hand with this puzzling episode in Montemezzi’s career.
Like Chandler’s estimable books on Alfredo Catalani, this book takes the form of the original articles (with those in Italian translated by Monica Cuneo), interlaced with Chandler’s own essays laying out the broad background. In fact, such is the illumination and comprehensiveness of Chandler’s writing that those of a lazy disposition could perhaps dispense with the critical comment and read just his summaries.
Chandler starts by explaining the background to Montemezzi’s opera in relation to the phenomenon of literaturoper – a word that seems to have developed no English equivalent. The phenomenon was very much a late 19th and early 20th century one with composers as diverse as Debussy, Strauss and Montemezzi setting plays directly (with judicious pruning) rather than using a librettist.
Montemezzi did this for L’Amore di Tre Re and seems to have deliberately looked for another play as a follow up. The process could be hazardous, however, not every play was suitable for setting directly and it is notable that when Giordano set Sem Benelli’s La Cena del Beffe (a play in which Montemezzi was also interested), Giordano had the play adapted into an opera libretto.
Montemezzi chose Gabriele D’Annunzio’s play 1908 La Nave, a choice which led him into a variety of problems. First and foremost is whether the play was suitable for literaturoper at all, whether it could or should be directly set. Secondly, D’Annunzio’s rather gruesome play had a political angle which, though it might have seemed opportune at the time, was by no means an advantage.
Most of the criticism of the first performance of the opera in 1918 at La Scala, Milan (with Tullio Serafin conducting and his wife in the main role of Basiliola) concentrated on the play’s suitability. Certainly Tito Riccordi’s pruning of the play rather seems to have skewed things. Reading the summaries of the plot, you start to imagine the possibilities of a Mussorgsky-esque operatic epic with a large role for the chorus. In fact, Riccordi reduced things to concentrate on the protagonists, though all of them seem to be completely unloveable. In the play, all this is wrapped up in D’Annunzio’s sublime poetry, in the opera we get grim melodrama.
The opera is set in what will be Venice, in 552 AD and concerns the rivalry between the Faledro and the Gratico families. Sergio and Marco Gratico are going to be bishop and tribune, their Faledro rivals having been blinded. Basiliola, the Faledro’s sister, appears and attempts to intervene. She appears crazed. But clearly fascinates the Gratico brothers, because in the following scenes she seduces them, and sets them against each other, which isn’t difficult as neither is admirable and Bishop Sergio seems rather too fond of pagan orgies. Basiliola’s brother attacks the city but is foiled, whilst Basiliola is bound to a pagan altar. The final scene involves the launching of a ship, Totus Mundus which will go forth to conquer the Adriatic for Venice. In penance, Basiliola is bound to the ship as a figurehead.
Nave is not perhaps the grimmest opera plot of the period. Both Richard Strauss’s Salome (literaturoper) and Elektra (with a libretto by Hugo von Hoffmanstal) have principal characters who are uniformly unloveable. But Puccini realised when planning Turandot that generally opera works best if such characters have their antithesis, hence the necessity of Liu in Turandot. Montemezzi, in his desire to create literaturoper, forgot this to his detriment.
All the productions covered by the book were realistic and included a complete ship in the final scene. Chandler prints illustration of the original designs by Guido Marussig and those of Norman Bel Geddes for Chicago, along with pictures of the protagonists.
Another problem with the opera, is that D’Annunzio (who was politician and soldier as much as poet) wrote the play in support of the Irredentist movement, which sought to reclaim all Italian speaking territory in the Adriatic (including Venice’s colonies in Dalmatia) for Italy. This was a highly charged issue at the end of the First World War and by chance the opera’s premiere took place the same day as the end of the war, the day that Italian troops entered Trieste (which had been Austrian territory since 14th century). Unfortunately, given the opera’s subject matter with the links to Irredentism, this co-incidence (for co-incidence it was) gave the piece a feeling of a piece d’occasion. There was one other drawback, noted after the premiere, the absence of singable tunes.
David Chandler prints two article describing the genesis of the opera, one by Montemezzi but not written until 1938, plus seven reviews of the first performance. They make rather grim reading as the critics take the opera to pieces noting where it does not suit D’Annunzio’s play.
The concentration on the play was absent from the critical reaction to the work’s second production, in Chicago in 1919. Here, the critics were more concerned with the performance, which was excellent with Rosa Raisa as Basiliola. But even here, they found the work wanting when it came to comparisons with L’Amore di Tre Re.
A rather different controversy, however, hung over the Chicago performance. The sets of Norman Bel Geddes were regarded as controversial and disliked by Riccordi and Montemezzi. This almost certainly prevented the production travelling to New York where the critics were well disposed to Montemezzi.
The third production, in Verona in 1923, attracted little critical response and then Montemezzi had to wait until 1938 for the next production in Rome. By now Italian critics were less concerned with how Montemezzi had treated D’Annunzio’s play and, with one exception, were more balanced. The possibility that the work might establish itself as a worthy of an occasional revival became real. Alas the Second World War with Allied bombing destroying all performance material, thus put paid to the work’s career. The work had to wait for 2012 when it was performed by Teatro Grattacielo in New York for its next revival.
The exception to the Rome reviews (the one not positive) is the most fascinating, as it was written by the composer Ildebrando Pizzetti (best known for his opera based on Murder in the Cathedral). He had written the original incidental music to D’Annunzio’s play. Pizzetti’s response to the opera is vitriolic and makes gruesomely fascinating reading.
The book reaches no definitive conclusion about Nave and in fact until we get to experience the opera for ourselves, such conclusions would be difficult (you can read the critical responses to Teatro Grattacielo’s 2012 performance on their website: What David Chandler has enabled us to do is to watch the work develop and read the first hand reactions by people who knew and loved D’Annunzio’s play as well as reactions by people who did not have those concerns. The reception of Nave was an important moment in Montemezzi’s career and by giving us these primary sources, along with his own inestimable commentary, David Chandler shed light on a curious and fascinating episode.
Robert Hugill
Essays on the Montemezzi-D’Annunzio: Nave
Edited, annotated and introduced by David Chandler
Translations by Monica Cuneo
Forward by Duane D. Printz
Durrant Publishing 2012, 268 pages, ISBN 978-10905946-31-0

product_title=Essays on Italo Montemezzi D’Annunzio: Nave
product_by=Edited, annotated and introduced by David Chandler
product_id=ISBN 978-10905946-31-0