L’amore dei tre re at La Scala, Milan

Following its 1913 world premiere at the Teatro alla Scala, Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re (The Love of Three Kings) immediately entered the standard repertory both in Italy and the United States. New York’s Metropolitan Opera revived it nearly every year over two decades, always with starry casts.

Today L’amore has all but disappeared from the live stage. It survives instead almost exclusively among opera buffs who treasure crackly old live recordings and decry the work’s neglect. This month’s centenary production was the first performance in seventy years at La Scala, the only leading opera house anywhere in the world to mount a production over the past five years.

It is tempting to attribute the opera’s decline to its derivative libretto and music. True, it belongs to a turn-of-the-century clutch of decadent and symbolist operas that includes Debussy’s Pelleas e Mélisande, Mascagni’s Parisina, Zandonai and Rachmaninoff’s settings of Francesca da Rimini, Dukas and Bartók’s Bluebeard treatments, and even Strauss’s Salome. Following the musical-dramatic path pioneered in Wagner’s Tristan, all feature gloomy castles filled with morbidly self-absorbed characters who’s only escape is illicit and ultimately fatal sex. And, musically, Montemezzi relies on an eclectic mix of swirling harmonies borrowed from Wagner, ghostly choruses that recall Mussorgsky, and eerily uninflected vocal writing slightly reminiscent of Debussy.

Nonetheless, L’amore’s extreme neglect remains a mystery. Original or not, the recorded legacy leaves no doubt that this, his most celebrated work, creates an evocative atmosphere, features a melodramatic but effective plot, and affords exceptional opportunities for grand voices. Brevity being a virtue hardly to be taken for granted after Tristan and Pelleas, we should not forget that it clocks in at less than two hours, with one intermission included.

Despite its noble intent, La Scala’s solid effort failed to do justice to this work.

Most immediately problematic was the bleakly modernist stage design by Alfons Flores. A monochromatically black unit set is hung with hundreds of chains, matched by the men, all costumed in vaguely Fascist, black leather tunics. This set an unvaryingly dull scene and distanced singers behind a scrim of chains. More fundamentally, it dampened the ironic tension between seductive outward appearance and inward spiritual corruption central to decadent art of this period.

Were the result not bland enough, unimaginative stage direction by Àlex Ollé (backed by the chic Catalonian group, La Fura dels Baus) suppressed any grand melodramatic gestures as well. Most notable among many lost opportunities was the celebrated moment at the end of Act II when the aged King Archibaldo carries the murdered body of Fiora offstage on his shoulders—an image immortalized in striking posters from the 1913 premiere, which made the opera famous even to those who never heard it. At La Scala in 2023, Archibaldo wandered in the direction of the wings and then inexplicably turned back at the final chord to gaze upon the dead body—a baffling act by a blind man.

The production team’s justification for a bleak staging is that we need to focus on the anti-macho moral: “Fiora is the victim of a brutal male chauvinist society that holds women hostage.” While this seems pretty obvious, at least one successful extra-textual touch suggests that it could have been developed more fruitfully. At the opening curtain, Archibaldo is portrayed leaving the bed of his daughter-in-law Fiora—foreshadowing his Act I aria (“Italia, Italia”), in which he describes his youthful conquest of Italy as the forcible ravishment of a maiden. (To underscore the parallel, he calls Italy “questa bella serra di fiori.”) While this premise clarifies his motivations, it was not used to illuminate Archibaldo’s further actions later in the opera. Moreover, the blanket criticism of men neglects the strikingly different attitudes Fiora inspires in the other two kings: her young lover Avito is ardently passionate and her husband Manfredo pitifully subservient.

A second weakness lay in casting. A century ago, L’amore rose to prominence because it attracted a “who’s who” of legendary voices. Basses Nazzareno de Angelis, Tancredi Pasero, José Mardones, Adamo Didur, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, and Ezio Pinza assumed the role of Archibaldo. Baritones Carlo Galeffi, Richard Bonelli, Lawrence Tibbett and Pasquale Amato sang Manfredo. Tenors Enrico Caruso, Giovanni Martinelli, Beniamino Gigli and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi embodied Avito. Sopranos Lucrezia Bori, Rosa Ponselle, Mary Garden, Maria Müller and Claudia Muzio appeared as Fiora. With such voices, no one thought to complain that the score was derivative.

La Scala’s cast a century later consisted of singers with solid technique, considerable major-house experience, and broadly intelligible Italian diction, yet none projected a larger-than-life character. Most nuanced was Russian baritone Roman Burdenko, who convincingly conveyed Manfredo’s complex persona, though he was more comfortable slimming the voice down in vulnerable moments than finding spinto baritone power for outbursts of anguish or anger. Russian bass Evgeny Stavinsky, who assumed the role of Archibaldo after Günther Groissböck cancelled, had moments of dramatic insight, yet lacked the visceral vocal grandeur (particularly low in the voice) and the grandiloquence that invites an audience suspend disbelief. Two young Italians, tenor Giorgio Berrugi and soprano Chiara Isotton, offered uneven vocalism, despite intermittently penetrating high notes. Giogio Misseri and Fan Zhou sang smaller roles with clarity. Diction was generally uneven.

A third and final weakness lay in the conducting of Pinchas Steinberg, a worthy veteran who has championed this score for decades. He conducted a solid and intermittently exciting rendition. Yet in louder or faster sections, the orchestral sound was more symphonic than evocative, while in slower or softer sections, his beat was often slack and indistinct. None of this recalls the characteristic style of the first four great Italians to champion this work at La Scala for its first two decades: Tullio Serafin, Arturo Toscanini, Ettore Panizza, and Victor de Sabata.

For all these weaknesses of execution, La Scala nonetheless deserves praise for reviving Montemezzi’s all-but-forgotten work.

Andrew Moravcsik

Italo Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre re

Pinchas Steinberg, Conductor; Àle Ollé and La Fura dels Baus, Direction; Alfons Flores, Set Design; Lluc Castells, Costumes; Marco Filibeck, Lighting; Evgeny Stavinsky, Archibaldo; Roman Burdenko, Manfredo; Giorgio Berrugi, Avito; Giorgio Misseri, Flaminio; Chiara Isotton, Fiora; Fan Zhou, Ancella.

Teatro alla Scala Milano, Italy; Sunday 12th November 2023.

Above: L’amore dei tre re at La Scala, Milan (photo credit: Virginio Levrio)