Italo Montemezzi’s The Love of Three Kings

The poster for the original production of Montemezzi's L'amore dei tre re(Photo: Sistema Musica)
The poster for the original production of Montemezzi's L'amore dei tre re(Photo: Sistema Musica)

Italo Montemezzi  (1875-1952) is a one work composer. True, he wrote several operas and a lot of chamber music, and he had a fine career as a conductor, but Montemezzi is known today for his under -performed opera L’amore dei tre re,  The Love of Three Kings.

The opera was premiered at La Scala, Milan in  1913 to a respectable success. Monteverdi’s kings, and his unhappy Princess Fiora, loved by two of the monarch had a good run until 1950. There was a tepid revival at the New York City Opera in the early 1980s. Despite the presence of Samuel Ramey as the blind king Archibaldo, the opera went nowhere.

I don’t understand why. At the Metropolitan , L’amore dei tre re turned up seventy times between 1914 and 1949. Not bad for an Italian opera with no set arias, and a score that sings more of Debussy and Stravinsky than, well…here’s a quote from a review of opening night, January 2, 1914

Montemezzi’s music is of importance in many respects, but perhaps in none more than its complete freedom from any influence of Puccini…

W.J. Henderson in the New York Times wasn’t knocking Puccini, he was lauding Montemezzi’s originality.

The opera is based on a play by Sem Benelli of the same title. The play ran on Broadway with the Barrymores, and may well have been familiar to audiences for the new opera nearly 100 years ago.

In medieval Italy, the blind old King Archibaldo suspects his daughter-in-law, Fiora of having a lover.  Fiora’s husband, Manfredo comes home from the wars, a decent man deeply in love with this wife.  She is cold to him.  In fact, she passionately loves Prince Avito.  We meet them early in the opera, awakening from a night of passion.  “It is still deep night” says Avito. “The signal was given too soon.”  Fiora replies “Ritorniamo!” Let us go back. One critic said that anyone hearing soprano  Rosa Ponselle sing that one word to her lover would have granted her husband an immediate divorce nisi.

Archibaldo strangles Fiora. He poisons her lips as she is laid out. Both Manfredo and later Avito kiss her in death and die of the poison on her lips. Archibaldo has destroyed two kings: Avito and Manfredo,  his own son.  “Oh Lord” cries Archibaldo. “Since you have taken my eyes, do not let me see…blind! blind!”

Here’s a bit from the third act in a 2005 production from Turin. Not the best quality but this will give you an idea of the musical texture. Manfredo and Avito each having kissed Fiora…die.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHULloBOhBM

Grisly yes. The relationship between Fiora and Avito is brutally sexual. Between Manfredo and Fiora it is coldly formal (her) or longing (him). Archibaldo’s blind footsteps rumble on pizzicato low strings. The brief third act has an exquisite lament for the dead Fiora.

The only readily available recording was made by RCA in 1976. It turned out to be the final recording of Anna Moffo and Cesare Siepi-and an early success for Placido Domingo. L’amore dei tre has always been a singer’s opera, attracting Lucrezia Bori, Rosa Ponselle, Mary Garden, Enrico Caruso, Adamo Didur and Ezio Pinza. The opera was championed in Milan and New York by Arturo Toscanini. Lamore dei tre re, indeed owes nothing to Puccini-this score of 1913 pays tribute to Wagner, Debussy and even Mahler. Pays tribute without copying. Montemezzi, as the critic notes, was a complete original.

 

Saturday on Stage presents a double bill,  Catalani’s La Wally and  Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre,  this afternoon at 1 PM.

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