Passion jewellery

Article by Tim Ashley

I gioielli della Madonna was first performed in German, as Der Schmuck der Madonna, at Berlin’s Kurfürstenoper on December 23rd, 1911. It was first heard in Italian – the actual language of composition – in Chicago the following year. The provocative story, involving the fetishisation of religious artefacts, brought instant notoriety, and during the lifetime of its composer – birth name: Hermann Wolf – it was his most frequently performed opera in northern Europe and the United States. In Italy it fell foul of the church during its opening run in Genoa in 1913 and was not heard there again until 1953. We now think it an atypical piece of verismo on the part of an eclectic composer who is usually seen as a purveyor of comedies rooted in the 18th century, and who himself confused issues still further by insisting, later in life, that he was primarily a mystic.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari is in some respects a baffling figure, and relating the music to the man is not always easy. In his early twenties, around the time of his first marriage (to the soprano Clara Kilian) he became reclusive, intensely private and often elliptical in his sparse verbal utterances. “I’ve never followed fashion,” he once said. “If anyone asked me what drove me to compose Gioielli, I would answer that the material interested me artistically, which is why the opera became what it became.” That is practically his only statement on the piece. That the work was premiered in both German and Italian, however, reflected his complex relationships with the two countries he considered home. These had their origins in his unusual childhood and adolescence, the only periods of his life he was ever willing to discuss in detail.

He was born in Venice on January 12th, 1876. His father, August Wolf, was a German painter who, after being brought up in comparative poverty, had prospered as a purveyor of copies of Old Masters to the German aristocracy. Eventually he settled in Venice, where he met and married Emilia Ferrari, an orphan of considerable beauty and charm. Hermann, the eldest of their five children, was called Ermanno at home: he officially adopted the name when his music began to be published in the mid-1890s, hyphenating his mother’s maiden name to his surname to signal his dual cultural identity.

August Wolf turned to painting after his childhood ambitions to be a pianist were thwarted by his family’s lack of money. Though wary of music as a career, he was keen to foster his son’s interest. Hermann started piano lessons at six, though it was ultimately two contrasting teenage experiences – one effectively worldly, the other spiritual – that were to have long-term implications. When he was 12 his father gave him a score of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, before taking him to a performance of the same work: its wit, grace and precision left him transfixed. The following year he spent the summer with an aunt in Bayreuth, and heard Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal. The latter, it would seem, induced in him a state of ecstatic fervour. “During the transformation scene in the first act, I believed I no longer had a body,” he later wrote. “Everything around me was no longer there.”

Initially, however, Hermann wanted to be a painter, and when he was 15, August enrolled him in the life-drawing class at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Rome. Music, so far, was simply a hobby. The following year August took him to Munich to continue his studies with the Hungarian painter Simon Hollósy. Hermann’s nudes from the period reveal a sexual maturity that is striking in one so young. Away from his family for the first time, however, Hermann began to have second thoughts about music, and eventually enrolled in Joseph Rheinberger’s composition class at the Akademie der Tonkunst. When he returned to Italy in 1895, Hermann Wolf had become Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari and his first major work, a Serenade for Strings in E flat, was already in print.

His career proceeded by fits and starts. Starting as a choirmaster in Milan, he became friends with the writer and composer Arrigo Boito, who introduced him to Verdi and Giulio Ricordi, who admired his talent but declined to publish his works. His first opera Irene never made it to the stage. His second, La Cenerentola, flopped at its Venetian premiere in 1900, but was successful when it was revived in Bremen three years later. In the interim, his cantata La vita nuova, based on Dante and dealing with interstices of desire, spirituality and creativity, had finally got him noticed in 1901. German audiences were becoming more enthusiastic about his music than their Italian counterparts, and it was to Germany that he subsequently allocated most of his premieres. He taught at the Liceo Musicale in Venice from 1903, but gave the post up six years later to devote himself to composition. Munich eventually became his home, though he was never away from Italy for long.

By then, his reputation as an opera composer was assured. 1903 saw the premiere of Le donne curiose, the first of his comedies based on the work of the Venetian dramatist Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793); Wolf-Ferrari drew his inspiration above all from the traditions of 18th-century theatre and the commedia dell’arte. In 1906, he produced I quattro rusteghi, the Goldoni-based work that is his masterpiece. A bittersweet comedy, similar in tone to Verdi’s Falstaff, it deals with women in arranged marriages who want their children to have the opportunities to marry for love they were themselves denied.

Its successor, in 1909, was Il segreto di Susanna, a two-hander for soprano and baritone about the pleasures of nicotine. Dramatically, it owes something to Pergolesi’s La serva padrona (1733), and the libretto was by the Neapolitan writer Enrico Golisciani, who was soon to collaborate again with Wolf-Ferrari on I gioielli della Madonna, his next major work. As with most of his operas, the latter’s genesis was protracted, and Carlo Zangarini, best known for his text for Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, was drafted in as co-librettist when Wolf-Ferrari suddenly decided to make substantial changes to the plot partway through composition. The score was finished in 1909, though he was still tinkering with the orchestration when the work was put into rehearsal in the autumn of 1911.

It has often been averred that the subject and narrative were Wolf-Ferrari’s own, which is not entirely true. So much has been made of his output as constituting a German-Italian dialogue that influences from elsewhere have largely been overlooked, and I gioielli della Madonna owes much to French decadent literature. Its starting point is Pierre Louÿs’s 1896 novel Aphrodite, in which the sculptor Démétrios steals the pearls from a statue of Aphrodite at the instigation of the courtesan Chrysis, who has demanded them as the price of her night. In the opera this becomes a theft by the blacksmith Gennaro of jewels from a statue of the Madonna, in a desperate attempt to win the love of Maliella. As in the opera, the public exposure of sacrilege provokes the final crisis. The gangster Rafaele, Gennaro’s rival for the affections of Maliella, has no equivalent in Louÿs’s novel, however, which reaches a morbid climax in which Démétrios forces Chrysis to drink hemlock then uses her corpse as the model for his next statue. Wolf-Ferrari originally intended that Gennaro should murder Maliella at the end. The opera very much shares the novel’s sadomasochistic tone. Some of the libretto’s language, meanwhile – “Tu mi dai la voluttà” for example (“You ravish my senses”) – is rather more Pierre Louÿs than proletarian Neapolitan.

The novel’s Hellenistic setting to some extent rendered the subject safe for its first readers, though behind it lurked nearly a century of erotic writing dealing with religious transgression. The conflict between sex and spirit, and the paradoxical closeness between sexual and spiritual experience, are among the dominant themes of western culture. Images of the blasphemous fetishisation of sacred artefacts and the erotic profanation of religious vows enter European literature in the late 18th century, with the sexualised priests of the early Gothic – Schedoni in Anne Radcliffe’s The Italian is in many respects the prototype – and the altogether more violent fantasies of the Marquis de Sade. The focus of a sub-cult for more than a century, they informed a wide spectrum of mainstream literature including the metaphysical nightmare of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, the horror of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Là-bas and Baudelaire’s seminal Les fleurs du mal, with its blurring of the polarities between flesh and spirit and its transgressive preference for the conventionally evil over the conventionally good.

Among those strongly influenced by Baudelaire was Wolf-Ferrari’s friend and Verdi’s librettist Arrigo Boito, whose own poetry – produced in the long compositional silence at the centre of his musical career – is full of decadent tropes: the “evil God” of Iago’s Creed, Boito’s one major addition to Shakespeare in the libretto of Otello, has overt echoes of both Les fleurs du mal and Sade’s Justine (Verdi, one suspects, never knew about its literary origins). Another major Baudelairean was the English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, a practising masochist, whose Dolores, published in 1866, forms an incantatory litany to “Our Lady of Pain”, a mysterious figure who conflates the Virgin Mary with the savage fertility goddesses of Asiatic antiquity. Swinburne’s work, more popular on the continent than in Britain, proved imagistic fodder for the European decadents around the turn of the 20th century; Gennaro’s apostrophe to “Madonna dei dolor” is a guarded allusion to it.

Much of the impact of I gioielli della Madonna depends on the interweaving of decadent themes with a realistic portrayal of life in contemporary Naples. The work is dominated by the image of the Madonna and the ambiguities and hypocrisies surrounding her veneration. The narrative plays itself out against the background of a feast-day in which the libertine atmosphere of carnival coincides with intense religious faith. The camorristi (gangster members of Rafaele’s camorra) cover their own statue of the Madonna during their orgies, while Rafaele, though boasting he will steal the jewels for Maliella, is capable only of conventional moral outrage when the deed is done. Gennaro is first seen with a candelabrum he has made as a votive offering, but is soon begging the Madonna to assist his hopeless passion for his foster-sister. Maliella’s life, meanwhile, has effectively been consecrated to the Virgin Mary through Carmela’s vow to bring up a child born in sin should Gennaro survive the illness that once threatened his life. But Maliella’s neurotic sexuality brings nothing but catastrophe in its wake.

The twists and turns of the narrative allow Wolf-Ferrari to draw on his own double musical heritage. The deft use of melody, the extraordinary counterpoint of some of the carnival scenes, and the brilliance and clarity of much of the orchestration strongly indicate Rossini’s influence. Yet it grates against an altogether different soundworld. When Gennaro first emerges from his forge, the glitter fades and we hear a dark string tremolando over which the violins trace a chromatic melody that bears an unmistakable resemblance to the distortions of the Grail theme at the close of the first act prelude of Parsifal. Given that Wagner’s final work also aligns images of sexuality and the profanation of religious artefacts, the allusion, the first of several, is pointed. Maliella’s first appearance, to a headlong downward scale pausing briefly on the octave, marks her out as a second Kundry, torn, like the latter, between sex and spirit. Later, as Gennaro takes advantage of her mystic-erotic trance to seduce her, we hear a series of chords derived from the Act 3 prelude of Tristan und Isolde, in which physical and spiritual passion prepare a path to annihilation.

Wolf-Ferrari wrote nothing quite like it ever again. His next opera was L’amore medico, based on Molière. Then came the First World War. Germany and Italy were on opposite sides of the conflict, which was agony for him. After a nervous breakdown, he moved to Switzerland and wrote next to nothing. When he returned to Germany after the war, his marriage broke down. His subsequent music was more dissonant in tone and uneven in quality. He based several further operas on Goldoni, none of which equalled I quattro rusteghi. His best works of the 1920s and 30s are Sly, about practical jokes that go hideously wrong, and Das Himmelskleid, his only work to a German libretto, a bitterly beautiful fairy tale about the fragility of love.

We know little of his life during the totalitarian years. As Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy swung into alliance, much was made in the German press of his double cultural heritage. He is known to have distrusted the far right, though in 1939 he accepted an appointment as professor of composition at the Mozarteum in Nazioccupied Salzburg. The same year he wrote an essay on Wagner for the Bayreuth programme, which, significantly perhaps, confines itself to musical and textural analysis and makes no mention of contemporary politics or Wagner’s status as a nationalist icon. His interest in the relationship between flesh and spirit surfaces in a striking passage on what he calls “the Venus-Elisabeth problem in Tannhäuser”.

In 1940, however, the recluse suddenly began to speak when he collaborated with the Austrian writer Alexandra Carola Grisson on an authorised biography, though it is more a collection of interviews. It was published in 1941: a revised edition appeared in 1958. Grisson steers clear of those areas of his life he is unwilling to discuss, and the book consists of a detailed analysis of his childhood, followed by an extended discussion of his aesthetic views. In language that now sounds new-agey, Wolf-Ferrari talks about Wagner’s “inner child”, his belief in God (he never mentions Christ) and the World Soul, and the mystic nature of his own creativity. Once again we are acutely conscious of his avoidance of politics: perhaps he believed that by identifying himself purely in spiritual terms the Nazi authorities would leave him alone.

The closing months of the war were misery. The Nazis requisitioned his house. Wolf-Ferrari and his second wife moved to Altaussee in Austria, where they lived in poverty. Eventually he returned to Venice where he died suddenly on 21 January, 1948. He remains one of the most enigmatic figures early 20th-century music. His output, neglected in the decades following his death, is now undergoing a gradual process of re-evaluation, of which Opera Holland Park’s revival of I gioielli della Madonna forms an integral part.

Tim Ashley is music critic for The Guardian and author of a biography of Richard Strauss (1999)