Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re

In Prokofiev’s Love
for Three Oranges
the King of Clubs, the ruler of an imaginary kingdom,
tries to cure his son’s hypochondria with laughter.† In Montemezzi’s
vicious melodrama a blind king, Archibaldo menacingly guards his son’s wife
from her former lover: there is none of Prokofiev’s colour, fairy-tale and
satire, just abundant black fiendishness and slaughter.

Written in 1913, L’amore dei tre Re is a rich amalgam of
musical influences: Wagner, Debussy, Puccini and Strauss — and the soaring
melodic lines also recall the bel canto idiom of the early nineteenth
century.† The libretto (by Sam Benelli, based on his play of the same title)
bears the heavy imprint of both PellÈas and MÈlisande andTristan
und Isolde
, with, in the closing moments, a dash of Romeo and
thrown in.† But, Montemezzi whips up a psychological maelstrom
more than equal to any of his operatic predecessors — and, in a matter of
only 95 minutes.† It’s surging, heady stuff — but not without musical
sophistication, as Opera Holland Park confirmed in this splendid revival of
Martin Lloyd-Evans’s 2007 staging.

The action takes place in the blind King Archibaldo’s castle following his
occupation of the kingdom of Altura.† (Archibaldo alludes to the figure of
Otto the Great, who was Saxon King from 936 and Holy Roman Emperor from 962
until his death in 973, and who greatly extended his kingdom and power through
foreign invasions and strategic marriages, conquering the Kingdom of Italy in

Princess Fiora of Altura has been forcibly wed to Archibaldo’s son,
Manfredo; with the latter away at war, Archibaldothreatens and
imprisons Fiora to prevent her meeting with her former betrothed, Avito.†
Needless to say, love finds a way … and learning that Fiora has been
unfaithful to Manfredo, the King demands the name of her lover.† When she
refuses he strangles her and then orders her body to be borne to a tomb.†
Convinced that the secret lover will be unable to resist bidding his beloved a
final passionate farewell, Archibaldo laces Fiora’s lips with lethal venom.†
True to form, Avito does return; but so does Manfredo, and both lover and
husband succumb to the poison’s virulent potency.

This neo-medieval verismo, in which the distance of the Dark Ages
shrouds the violence in patina of mystery, reaches extremes of psychological
melodrama and emotional tension.† †Director Martin Lloyd-Evans and designer
Jamie Vartan make the sensible decision to ignore the medievalism and minimise
the set.† They place an imposing constructivist concrete block centre-stage,
with sloping ramps spanning the wide platform, and perilous stairways creating
upper levels.† The latter are sensibly used to raise the singers above the
enlarged, resplendent and myriad-voiced forces of the City of London Sinfonia
who project the relentless score (an almost unalleviated forte or
louder) with power and passion.† The effect is a visual echo of the
monochrome, gravity-defying stairways of Escher’s lithographs, where those
who live among each other occupy different planes of existence.

There are few gimmicks but many nice details, as when Archibaldo’s attire
becomes increasingly more military as if to demonstrate the growing strength of
his dictatorial grip and his monomaniacal ruthlessness.† The grey is relieved
only occasionally; but tellingly, when Fiora’s white silk veil — which
Manfredo has asked her to wave as a sign of her love as he departs — billows
from the height of the staircase and is embraced by Avito on the ground
below.† After Fiora’s death this veil becomes a ribbon of black.† The
reference to MÈlisande’s luxurious hair in which PÈlleas is enveloped is
obvious, but deft.† And, to keep the historical context in our minds — both
that of the medieval past and the era of post-unification Italy when the opera
was composed — two chorus members daub the castle walls with name of the
1920s anti-fascist resistance movement: ‘Giustizia e Libert‡’.

It was only at the end of the opera as the chorus stirred themselves to
revolutionary action and Fiora lay on a hospital trolley draped with the
tricolour bandiera d’Italia that the focus seemed to turn a little
too far from the private towards the political.† I wasn’t sure, either,
whether in the closing moments it was necessary for the masses, led by
Archibaldo’s Italian guard Flaminio, to actually pull the trigger on their
oppressor: we are left with the echo of gun-shot rather than the pathos of a
blind tyrant with a pistol poised at the back of his head.† Moreover,
Archibaldo’s assassination is a directorial addition.† In the libretto,
Archibaldo enters the tomb and, finding Manfredodesperately kissing
the infected lips of Fiora, assumes that he has trapped the guilty
lover.† When he discovers the truth, he wraps his arms about the body of his
dying son, and it is the sightless old King’s lament with which the opera
ends: ‘Ah! Manfredo! Manfredo! Anehe tu, dunque, Senza rimedio sei con me
nell’ombra! Manfredo!† Manfredo!’ †(Ah! Manfredo!† You too, then, with
no hope of remedy, are with me in the shadows!).

As the focus for the violent passion of the ‘three kings’ — Avito,
Manfredo and Archibaldo — and the catalyst of the triple tragedy, Fiora is
also the opera’s single female role.† Natalya Romaniw was more than up to
the challenges and walked off with the vocal honours, though there was strong
competition.† The smooth arches of Montemezzi’s languorous melodic lines
were excellently projected with no sign of a lessening of stamina.†
Romaniw’s tone was thrilling and radiant: but she was able to capture both
Fiora’s sensuousness and her more ethereal delicacy — for upon her death
the male chorus ask: ‘Who makes the lily, which has now come fall!† The
spring was killed among the flowers!’ (‘Chi ci rende il giglio, che venuto
Ë ormai l’autunno! La primavera fu uccisa tra i fiori!’)

Initially I was not entire convinced by the supposedly all-consuming desire
of Fiora and Avito, despite the erotic embraces on stage.† Joel Montero’s
characterisation of Avito was slightly one-dimensional to begin with but he
found a true Italianate sound of great sweetness in the Act 2 duet and later a
heroic, noble ring.† His closing monologue — ‘Fiora, Fiora. » silenzio:
siamo soli.’ (Fiora, Fiora. All is silent, we are alone.) — was
captivating.† Overcome by emotion, this Avito seemed genuinely close to death
when he staggered from the bitter Manfredo and asked, ‘What do you want? …
Can you not see that I can scarcely speak?’ (‘Che vuoi tu?† Ma non vedi
ch’io non posso quasi parlare?’)

Simon Thorpe used his lyrical baritone particularly well in the calamitous
final scene; his tone was well-focused, revealing Manfredo’s humanity.† As
the blind patriarch, the American-Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov, reprised his
role from 2007. †This was a terrifying, threatening but mesmerising portrait:
Mussolini meets a demented Arkel.† In Act 1, Svetlov’s generous, dark-toned
voice was occasionally covered at the bottom by the orchestra — one of perils
of an open pit — but whenever on stage Svetlov was never less than utterly
commanding.† His convincing depiction of a blind man showed real dramatic
intelligence: his infirmity added poignancy but also malignancy to his
assertions of power.† He paced the portrayal well too: we can see from the
start that Archibaldo is insanely fanatical, but Svetlov slowly released his
repressed, self-destructive desire for Fiora.† This toxic lust culminated in a
chilling and ferocious throttling: Archibaldo slumped over Fiora’s body in
post-coital exhaustion, then — when discovered by Manfredo — brusquely
kicked her dead body aside.† Aled Hall also recreated his 2007 role and was
excellent as Flaminio, pushing what is a fairly minor role to the centre of the

Under Peter Robinson’s baton, the City of London Sinfonia surged with
turbo-thrust towards a perennial precipice, much like the protagonists’
pulsing heartbeats.† The score stabbed like a sword, and the outrÈ
harmonies swerved unpredictably.† But, despite the orchestral extravagance and
extroversion, the details didn’t get lost in the impassioned outbursts.

L’amore dei tre Re is melodramatic and certainly not subtle.† It
wouldn’t take much for a staging to slip into the realms of caricature and
farce, but this OHP production never strays near parody and as the sun set over
South Kensington we were all enveloped by the growing darkness. †It’s
compelling stuff.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Fiora: †Natalya Romaniw, Avito: †Joel Montero, Manfredo: †Simon
Thorpe, Archibaldo: †Mikhail Svetlov, Flaminio: †Aled Hall, An Old Woman:
†Lindsay Bramley, Ancella: †Jessica Eccleston, Una Giovanetta: †Abigail
Sudbury, Un Giovanetto: †Timothy Langston, Una Vecchia: †Lindsay Bramley,
Voce Interna: †Naomi Kilby; Conductor: †Peter Robinson, Director: †Martin
Lloyd-Evans, Associate Director: †Rodula Gaitanou, Designer: †Jamie Vartan,
Chorus Master: †John Andrews. Opera Holland Park,
Wednesday 22nd July 2013.

L’amore dei tre Re will be performed on 25, 28 and 30
July, and 1 August.

image_description=L’amore dei tre Re at Opera Holland Park:
product_title=Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: L’amore dei tre Re at Opera Holland Park: