L’amore dei tre Re

Article by Tim Ashley

L’amore dei tre Re was first performed at La Scala, Milan, on April 10, 1913.  An erotic thriller with strong political overtones, its success secured the reputation of its 36-yearold composer Italo Montemezzi.  Born in 1875 in Vigasio near Verona, Montemezzi had turned to music comparatively late, after initially training as an engineer, and his output, up to that point, had consisted of a handful of critically esteemed public failures, some of them financed, it would seem, by friends and well-wishers.  L’amore dei tre Re brought him national and international recognition, but he was never to repeat its success, and the story of his subsequent career, is, in part, also the story of the opera’s performance history.  It was hugely popular for more than forty years after its premiere.  Montemezzi was regularly invited to conduct it – there are pirated tapes in existence of one of his New York performances from the early 1940s – but after his death in 1952, it began to slip from the repertoire.  In the last few decades its outings have become comparatively rare.

Critical opinion has also tended to fluctuate about the opera’s merits.  It became fashionable to compare Montemezzi with Puccini and find him wanting, for reasons that stem from a combination of historical factors and misplaced assumptions about his style and aims.  Like many composers of his generation, Montemezzi found it difficult to emerge from Puccini’s shadow.  The two composers shared the same publisher in Tito Ricordi.  Ricordi, impressed by Montemezzi’s 1905 opera Giovanni Gallurese, commissioned him to write Helléra, to a libretto by Luigi Illica, based on Benjamin Constant’s novel Adolphe, which Puccini had turned down several years before.  Montemezzi apparently didn’t get on with Illica, who was co-author, with Giuseppe Giacosa, of the librettos for La Bohème, Tosca and Madama ButterflyHelléra was relatively unsuccessful at its premiere in 1909.

It has sometimes been assumed that Ricordi saw Montemezzi as Puccini’s potential successor.  On the surface, he seemingly shares a number of preoccupations with his elder contemporary, and like him is usually classified as a ‘verist’ or ‘realist.’ The relationships between love, sex, and power, and issues surrounding imperialism, domination, submission and control are themes repeatedly explored in the works of both composers.  It is here, however, that the comparison ends.  Psychological differences make their approaches antithetical.  Puccini has often been described as ‘feminine,’ and his recurrent emphasis on the spectacle of female suffering at the hands of unreliable or brutal men remains a source of continuing comment and debate.  Montemezzi, however, examines masculine sexual anxieties in the face of assertive heroines, often secure in their sexuality and bent on determining their own emotional destinies.

The word ‘verismo‘, meanwhile, first used to describe Mascagni’s early proletarian tragedies such as Cavalleria Rusticana, is all too frequently deployed as a generic term for Italian post-Romantic opera, and many have questioned its efficacy: opera, after all is not a realistic art form, and never can be.  Some have doubted whether its application to Puccini’s output, with the exception of Il Tabarro, is appropriate, and to dub Montemezzi a ‘verist‘ is altogether wide of the mark.  His work relates primarily to the concerns of the Italian Symbolist movement, which gathered impetus in the last years of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th centuries, and centred largely on the still controversial writer Gabriele D’Annunzio.  Poet, playwright, novelist, man of action, politician and inveterate womaniser, D’Annunzio was considered a genius by many at the turn of the 20th century, when his admirers included figures as far apart as Henry James and James Joyce.  Sem Benelli, who adapted one of his own plays to form the libretto of L’amore dei tre Re, hovered on the fringes of D’Annunzio’s circle, and is widely regarded as taking his work as a model.  Montemezzi himself later turned D’Annunzio’s play La Nave (‘The Ship’) into an opera in 1918.  Only Puccini was wary, finding D’Annunzio’s theatrical sense deplorable.

Nationalistic in stance, the Italian Symbolists, like their French counterparts, were eclectic in their choice of influences.  D’Annunzio’s versification owes as much to Keats, Shelley and the English Pre-Raphaelites as to his Italian predecessors.  Many Symbolists acknowledged a debt to the tales and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, whose necrotic imagery, awash with intimations of decay and dread, hovers behind the final scenes of L’amore dei tre Re, with their charnel house atmosphere and hints of necrophilia.  In his lifetime, Benelli’s most famous play was La Cena delle Beffe.  “Practical Jokes at Dinner” is an approximate rendering of the somewhat tricky title, though the play is known in English simply as ‘The Jest’. Depicting a vengeful Renaissance aristocrat, who drives his principal enemy insane by encouraging others to treat him as such, it more than once resembles the psychological horrors of Poe’s tales.  It was popular in the United States in the 1920s, and the Barrymore brothers, Lionel and John, regularly appeared together in it on Broadway.

The Symbolists, by and large, wanted little to do with Verdi.  It was Wagner’s music dramas – morbidly erotic, and shot through with images of convulsive decline and renewal – that formed the focus of their obsessions.  D’Annunzio’s prose is heavy with Wagnerian imagery and leitmotivic linguistic repetitions.  One of his novels, Trionfo della Morte (‘The Triumph of Death’) openly revamps Tristan und Isolde as a piece of sadomasochistic erotica.  Tristan, with its recurrent equation of orgasm with death, also lurks behind L’amore dei tre Re, which is comparably structured round a vast central duet for a pair of adulterous lovers, rapturous yet guilty, whose erotic yearnings can only find fulfilment in annihilation.  Wagner’s sorrowing King Mark is also the model for Montemezzi’s Manfredo, whose primary response to his wife’s infidelity is not anger but amazement at the great love of which she was capable, albeit for another man.

A further influence on Montemezzi and Benelli was Debussy, with whom D’Annunzio, who lived in France between 1910 and 1915, also collaborated on Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien in 1911.  It has been suggested that Tito Ricordi saw Montemezzi as an Italian Debussy rather than as Puccini’s potential successor, and the links between L’amore dei tre Re and Debussy’s only completed opera Pelléas et Mélisande run deep, and have formed the focus of more critical attention than any other element in the score.  Benelli’s descriptions of Altura resemble Debussy’s Allemonde.  Though Montemezzi’s essentially melodic vocal writing is far removed from Debussy’s insistence on the declamatory replication of speech, his harmonic structures, with their hovering chromatic suspensions, along with his translucent orchestration betray a greater debt to Debussy than to any other composer.  The character of Archibaldo, derives in part from Debussy’s similarly blind Arkel, and like Pelléas, L’amore dei tre Re examines the impact of female sexuality upon an enclosed community of men.

Unlike Pelléas, however, the implications are political as well as personal or domestic.  L’amore dei tre Re reflects the Symbolist preoccupation with questions of national identity in the aftermath of Italian unification in 1870.  Images of foreign domination and internal resistance thread their way through the work.  Archibaldo is an invader from a northern country (unnamed, though Austria is implied) who has forced Italy into subjugation and attempted to maintain peace by marrying his son Manfredo to the Italian princess Fiora.  She, however, is sexually involved with Avito, her former fiancé and legal heir to the Italian throne, whom she meets in secret when her husband is away on military campaigns.

A disturbing strand of imagery links political with sexual control throughout.  In Archibaldo’s opening monologue, Italy, grammatically feminine, is repeatedly imagined as a sequence of female archetypes – ‘this goddess… our new mistress, all fresh, all golden, who, were she our mother, would teach us to dominate the world.’  His words carry the worrying implication that only a liberated Italy could ‘dominate the world,’ though the country’s delineation as female also paves the way for the tacit equation of Altura with Fiora, and more specifically with Fiora’s body, bartered for the sake of political strategy, but freely given only to her countryman Avito.  Fiora’s sexual integrity, threatened both by Archibaldo’s violence and by the respect she feels for Manfredo’s gentleness, is consequently a symbol of political resistance in the face of oppression.

In the first of the opera’s love duets, which ranks among the most erotic passages in the history of music, she equates sexual fulfilment with a sense of inviolable peace, which even Avito is unable fully to comprehend.  Her death not only forms the catalyst for the destruction of the three kings who would possess her, but finally brings political resentment to the surface in the cataclysmic choral passage that opens the final act.  It is here that Benelli and Montemezzi can be seen as departing from dannunzian ideology.  D’Annunzio was essentially misogynist, and his work harps on the idea of men fulfilling an isolated, heroic destiny, to which female sexuality is presented as an impediment.  Had he written L’amore dei tre Re, he would have let Avito live and made him a demagogue.  Montemezzi and Benelli close the work in a mood of precarious uncertainty: Archibaldo’s power is broken, and thoughts of liberation have finally begun to foment in the minds of those he has oppressed.

The love duets form points of passionate stasis in a score that most of us experience as hurtling and sinister.  The opera’s nerve-racking tension derives from the fact that the blind Archibaldo can hear and sense the presence in the castle of an intruder whom he can neither see nor identify, thus arousing his suspicions of Fiora’s infidelity.  Montemezzi suggests his presence, both physical and psychological, with an unforgettable sequence of broken, syncopated pizzicatos, whose rhythmic irregularity creates an antithetical sound-world to that of the heady sensuality of the love scenes.  Manfredo, as one might expect, inhabits musical territory somewhere between the lovers and his father.  He effectively takes over the rhythmic motto suggestive of hoof beats and indicating conquest, which we hear first in the Prelude, and then in Archibaldo’s monologue, though its force is repeatedly softened when associated with Manfredo, who genuinely loves both Fiora and Italy, and whose music has a lyrical warmth, often suggestive of Strauss. The score seemed startlingly novel to its first audiences.  Tullio Serafin conducted the premiere, though for many years the opera was primarily associated with Toscanini, the greatest of its early champions, who insistently scheduled the first American performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1914.  The American press hailed it as ‘the greatest Italian tragic opera since Verdi’s Otello’, and its popularity in the United States soon outstripped its success in Europe.  Until the 1950s, no great bass could hope to conquer the Met without Archibaldo in his repertoire.  Even though Montemezzi allots Fiora no aria, singing actresses were soon vying to establish themselves as operatic sex symbols in the role.  The opera maintained a foothold in the American repertoire, even after its fortunes in Europe began to decline: the majority of its revivals after World War II have taken place in the United States.

America eventually became a safe haven, personally, politically and artistically, for Montemezzi himself.  The Italian Symbolists gradually became associated with the pre-fascist far right, from which first Montemezzi, then Benelli, were soon at pains to dissociate themselves.  D’Annunzio, above all, had made no secret of his elitist, antidemocratic attitudes, or of his essentially imperialist stance.  A keen aviator, he became a national and international hero during World War I.  In 1919, however, capitalising on public anger that the Adriatic port of Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia) was not ceded to Italy under the terms of the treaty of Versailles, he drummed up a private army, which illegally occupied the city until 1921.  Mussolini enthusiastically supported the expedition, of which Benelli was a member.  Benelli went on to serve in Mussolini’s government, though he resigned in protest at the assassination, in 1924, of the socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti.  He later served as a volunteer in Mussolini’s Abyssinian campaign, which D’Annunzio, whom Mussolini had pushed into retirement in 1922, enthusiastically hymned in one of his last volumes of verse.  At the outbreak of World War II, Benelli went into exile in Switzerland, and did not return to Italy until after the cessation of hostilities.

Evidence suggests that Montemezzi’s distaste for current Italian politics dates from around the end of World War I.  La Nave seems to have formed some sort of watershed in his career.  D’Annunzio’s play, celebrating Venetian maritime imperialism, fuelled nationalistic aspirations when it was first seen in 1908.  The first performance of the opera, on November 3 1918, was interrupted by the announcement of the expulsion of Austro-German forces from Trieste and the end of Italy’s participation in World War I.  There was near frenzy in the theatre.  The following year, however, the American public rejected the work at its Chicago premiere.  Montemezzi was in the audience.  After La Nave, a compositional silence set in, not broken until 1931 with the premiere, in Milan, of his opera La Notte di Zoraima (‘A Night with Zoraima’).  During this period he is known to have spent as much time away from Italy as he could, mostly in the United States, where he settled in 1939.  There was to be a second collaboration with Benelli, the opera L’incantesimo (‘Enchantment’), given its first performance by NBC radio – Toscanini was the chief conductor of its symphony orchestra – in 1943.  The following year, Montemezzi composed an anti-fascist tone poem, Italia mia! Nulla fermera il tuo canto (“My Italy! No one will silence your song”) in support of the allied war effort.  In 1949, he returned to Vigasio, where most of his music had been written, and where he died three years later.  L’amore dei tre Re is all that really remains of him.  It’s a unique, disquieting masterpiece, and its revival at Holland Park is something we should celebrate.