Sunday, 1 September 2013

Opera Holland Park: I gioielli della madonna

[From OPERA, September 2013, pp. 1199-1200]

I gioielli della Madonna
Opera Holland Park, July 25
This production of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s hoary, whorey 1911 smash-hit—a work that in many ways represents the apogee of verismo excess—brought Opera Holland Park’s 2013 season back to repertoire that the company has traditionally found rewarding. Certainly, the company pulled out all the stops in staging the piece, fielding an enormous chorus, a beefed-up City of London Sinfonia and child extras from W11 Opera, as well as three principals more than up to the considerable challenges of their roles. 

The overall effect was irresistible, capturing wonderfully, in particular, the visceral noisiness of the crowd scenes, where Wolf-Ferrari brings Naples and its great variety of backstreet human fauna (somewhat laconically, the score lists ‘People, Vendors, Camorrists, Typical Neapolitan Characters, etc., etc.’) to life with imagination and oodles of theatrical chutzpah. The first act must represent one of the most thrilling and sustained Dionysian frenzies in all opera, while the whole thing is a great, chaotic hotchpotch of the composer’s own innovations and influences: a Wagnerian swoon or a Debussian shimmer here, irresistible Pagliacci-like street music there, a dancer in the gang-leader Rafaele’s den who gyrates like Carmen and Salome in one. 

But Wolf-Ferrari has the skill to keep it all together, and his score has enough melodic writing to inspire sympathy, despite the fact that the characters are a pretty unappealing bunch: the weedy Gennaro, in love with his good-for-nothing (apart from the obvious) foster sister Maliella, who in turn has fallen for the gangster Rafaele. In the best verismo tradition, its plot, supposedly based on real-life events, is devoid of anything edifying or redemptive; it also implies a powerful, even daring critique of religion, when Gennaro imagines a sign of forgiveness from the same statue of the Madonna he’s stolen the jewels from. 

Martin Lloyd-Evans’s production updated the action from the time of composition to the 1950s, with Rafaele’s scooter the most noticeable gain. But nothing was lost with the shift, either, and Jamie Vartan’s set—bits and bobs of dirty, graffiti-covered wall and metal cage, assorted crates of oranges—was effective in evoking the sultry, languid underworld, ready, like an urban Vesuvius, to erupt at any moment. The big chorus was directed with considerable skill, with the action effectively switching between realistic hustle and bustle and more stylized tableaux. 

As Maliella, Natalya Romaniw was terrific, bringing a bright, big soprano and generous phrasing to the part and acting the wild-eyed femme fatale convincingly and instinctively. There was not a great deal of subtlety to Olafur Sigurdarson’s Rafaele—I’m not sure the character provides much scope for nuance—but he provided all the strutting machismo one could want, and sang tirelessly. Joel Montero was admirably reliable, too, and brought plenty of heart to Gennaro. Perhaps his slightly fuzzy tenor was not ideally piercing and focused for the role, but he rose to its challenges impressively. Diana Montague was touching as the helpless mother, Carmela, and Luis Gomes stood out in Tontonno’s elegant song in Act 1. The handful of additional small roles were well taken, too.

Peter Robinson did an impressive job keeping all the score’s diverse elements under control, while unleashing wild frenzy as and when it was required; a few rough edges seemed only to add to the effect. All in all, a hugely enjoyable show.

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