Some of the most memorable nights in this country's opera houses have been occupied with impassioned performances of an opera that today suffers from a lack of imaginative singing, conducting and stage direction. It is Italo Montemezz's "L'Amore dei Tre Re" or "The Love of Three Kings."
Written in 1912, its dramatic sweep and lyric beauty are in the direct line of Verdi's "Otello" and Puccini's "La Boheme." Montemezzi's orchestra is marked with the same rich texture that enhances Verdi's great masterpiece, and his singers are given melodic lines that soar like the most famous passages of "Butterfly," "Tosca," "Mimi" and "Rodolfo." In addition, Montemezzi's opera sets a play by Sem Benelli that is in itself luminous and moving even without a note of music. It is a part of this opera's greatness that its composer found music worthy of the post-drenched play.
To speak of "memorable nights" in this country when "L'Amore" was being given is to recall its Metropolitan premiere under the baton of Toscanini, followed by performances in that house when the role of Fiora was sung by Lucrezia Bori and Rosa Ponselle, with tenors named Caruso, Martinelli, Gigli and Johnson as Avito and the great basses Didur, Mardones and Pinza as the terrifying Archibaldo.
But the cult that grew up worshipping this opera was not an exclusive New York property. Chicago, too, had its special splendors in the opera. Claudia Muzio, who sang it at the Met, took her glorious singing with her when she moved to Chicago, where she shared the ro!e of Fiora with the woman who. some say, was the greatest of them all: Mary Garden. In the Chicago houses, Garden and Muzio used to sing in tandem with Edward Johnson before he went to the Met, with Richard Bonelli as their heroic Mandredo and the unforgettable Virgilio Lazzari as an Archibaldo for all time.
Thirty years ago, just as these historic performances were ending, Montemezzi came to this country to give a special aura to performances he conducted in New York and at the Cincinnati Opera, where he showed the advantages of what a musical Supreme Court might call "deliberate speed." He brought the best out of Grace Moore, and with a cast headed by Lily Djanel, Charles Kullman, Robert Weede and Lazzari, proved the strenths of his own music.
In ensuing years, one of the most venturemome evenings in the history of the "NBC Opera Theater" was their account of this opera. With Alfred Wallenstein as a superb conductor, things could have been distinguished except for a cast of young singers among whom only Giorgio Tozzi was up to his assingment. For "L'Amore" is not an opera that yields up ots proven gold except to choice artists who care and who are given ideal conducting and direction.
It is an opera, however, that could come off magnificently in recording. Nearly a quarter of a century ago an emerging company took a shot at the opera - with largely disastrous results. The pity of that is it can turn some people away from a great work. Now RCA Victor has come up with a new and promising two-record set, ARL 2-1945, that I would not be without. I play it repeatedly, with great pleasure, wishing every second that the conductor were either Carlo Maria Giulini or Carlo Abbado instead of Nello Santi; and that each of the four principals had sung the work onstage in public a dosen times before taking it into the studio.
Santi has the London Symphony Orchestra and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus at his disposal and, for his four principals, Anna Moffo, Placido Domingo, Pablo Elvira and Cesare Siepi. But Santi is an insensitive leader who rushes roughshod through passages of subtle dynamic nuance, paying little attention to many rhythmic marks that can enhance the score. There are three optional cuts in the music that, taken together, total under four minutes. It is unthinkable in these days of complete recordings to make such cuts, yet Santi takes all three, in each case to the detriment of the music and drama.
Like Puccini, Montemezzi often marks his score, "col anto," meaning "with the voice." It is direction to the conductor to give the singer his head and to keep singer and orchestra together. Yet Santi repeatedly overrides his singers,so that downbeats are frequently two distinctly different things; and in the middle of Siepi's great monologue, "Italia! Italia!," he deliberately ignores the voice and brings the players in a beat early.Such pigheadedness is not the kind of conducting that makes for a great performance of an opera worthy of the attention given to "Pelleas" or "Falstaff."
Santi is probably at his most offensive in the opening scene of the last acr, with the chorus in its only appearance. Montemezzi brings his singers in on the word "Morte" sung full voice. Santi, following the cheapest Italian tradition of bad choral conducting, makes the excellent English chorus produce a crescendo and an accent on the second syllable. The effect is ruinous.
Yet I would not be without this recording. For no Santi can prevent a large measure of Montemezzi's gorgeous writing and intention to come through. Moffo, who has discussed her recent vocal problems frankly in print, is generally in excellent voice and style, and she has the kind of Italianate sound that suits the score ideally. Her great cry of "Ah, tortura!" in the second act is wonderfully achieved, as are all her full voice phrases and nearly all her lovely soft work. Strangely enough, her problems come only occasionally on quiet, short notes in the lower, middle part of the voice.
Her voice is beautifully set off against Domingo's. He is an ideal singer for the Avito, but in the course of stage performances or an added week of preparation for the part - which all of the singers would have appreciated - someone could have enhanced his concept immensely by reminding him of the use of half voice. It seems unlikely, especially in the light of what most tenors say about sex before singing, that Avito would have come out of the bedroom where he has just spent the entire night with Fiora, and sing out full voice as if he were Radames, Canio or Rodolfo.
So here we have a long-desired opera recording that may very well stimulate some companies to revive this glorious opera. RCA Victor has come close. The pity is that the right conductor could have made the entire venture ideal.