Norbert Christen


«L'Amore dei tre re»



La versione originale in tedesco e integrale
si trova nel booklet del CD
©1999 KOCH International GmbH


«L'Amore dei tre re» was premiered on 20 April 1913 at La Scala with Luisa Villani as Fiora, Edoardo Fontana as Avito, Nazzareno de Angelis as Archibaldo and Carlo Galeffi as Manfredo and with Tullio Serafin conducting; its spectacular success was repeated at later performances. The following three decades witnessed no fewer than thirty-two new produetions in Italy: at La Scala alone it was given six new productions or revìvals, the last in 1953. Abroad, it was performed in London and Paris in 1914, Prague in 1916, Berlin in 1919 and Vienna in 1922. But its greatest success came in the United States, where Toscanini introduced it to New York on 2 January 1914 in a brilliant produetion starring Lucrezia Bori as Fiora, Ferrare Fontana as Avito, Pasquale Amato as Manfredo and Adam Didur as Archibaldo. Many famous sopranos expressed their admiration for the work, including Mary Garden, Rosa Ponselle and Claudia Muzio. After the Second Wortd War, however, interest in Montemezzi's masterpiece lapsed in the New World as well as in Europe, and it has only been sporadically revived, sometimes in concert performances, in Genoa, Wexford, Kassel and Vienna, and in Chicago, San Francisco, Washington and the New York City Opera.

The Drama and its Characters


Italian dramatic writing at the end of the nineteenth century was influenced by Gabriele d'Annunzio more than by any other poet. Numerous plays were written in the shadow of d'Annunzian "decadence", all of them unmistakably marked by this fascinating and brilliant but controversial writer. Sein Benelli's «L'amore dei tre re# is no exception. In contrast to, for instance, d'Annunzio's «Francesca da Rimini# or Benelli's «La cena delle beffe#, which have a specific historical provenance, the plot of «L'amore dei tre re# is only loosely located in time and location.
It is set in an isolated castle in Italy in the Middle Ages, forty years after a barbarian conquest: the Italianized names of the barbarian leaders, Archibaldo and Manfredo, suggest a Germanic origin for the plot, which is located in the grey area between history and legend, and the work exhibits traits of both semi-historical and neo-romantic opera. The situation at the start seems somewhat stereotypical: foreign invaders are subduing the indigenous population, their ruler is deposed and bis beloved is forced into marriage with one of the victorious tribe. The curtain rises on charaeters in a triangular relationship with an intriguing variant, the inclusion of a fourth character into the emotional web. Not only does this add quantity, it has a qualitative part to play and is well exploited for dramatic purposes. 
The figure of Fiora is tragic in a thoroughly classical sense: she is the innocent victim of a brutal, male-dominated society which degrades her to the status of a mere object and robs her of her dignity as a human being. Her forced marriage with the usurper's son plunges her into psychological turmoil from which it seems there is no escape. She is bound to Avito, to whom she had been betrothed, by an enduring passion which is only briefly threatened by a rational decision to renounce him, while her rela tionship with Manfredo is characterised by a submissiveness which barely conceals her distant, cold feelings towards hirn. Occasionally she does feel pity for Manfredo, who loves her in his way and whom she cannot love in return. Her relationship to Archibaldo is similarly ambivalent: fear that her secret love will be discovered is sometimes offset by her feeling of superiority towards him because he is blind. It must be noted that some strands of the plot are conveyed less by the dialogue than by the stage directions. When she first meets Manfredo, 'she greets him with a cruel coldness which, however, appears to convey docility', and when in Act II Archibaldo's questioning of her reaches a turning-point and Fiora flings the admission of her extra-marital love in the old man's face, Benelli directs her to 'draw herself up suddenly like a snake'.
Montemezzi follows operatic tradition in casting the first tenor as the true lover. The characterisation of Avito is relatively two-dimensional, he represents the typical romantic lover who lives only for the fulfilment of his love, which is forced to shun the light of day, and whose erotic longings occasionally give way to apparent resignation. Far more complex is the depiction of his rival, Manfredo. He does all that is expected of a warrior, but, lacking his father's harsh, unbending will, he is a less rigid character who arouses sympathy. Doubtiess he did not chose his wife: she was assigned to him for reasons of power politics, and any natural reiationship between them is precluded. His conduct towards her is, on the one hand, akin to that of an elder brother who likes being her protector, but on the other it is characterised by a painful resignation: when re reproaches Fiora for being so reserved, she counters this with icy logic: how could it be otherwise, when he is always away? Manfredo thus shares the fate of all unhappy lovers whose feelings are not reciprocated. Unlike Archibaldo, he is marked by the Christian virtue of forgiveness, and it is symptomatic of the different mentality of the two men that when Fiora demands to speak with Manfredo about her fateful love for Avito, Archibaldo declines with the words: "He would forgive you, I taught him this virtue without joy." A consequence of this process of humanisation is that Manfredo's originally unfettered emotions are diminished and he submits humbly to fate, so than when his wife is murdered he does not react with fury and outrage, as might have been expected. Instead he marvels at the greatness of the love of which Fiora was capable, and when Avito asserts that she loved 46 him alone, he exclaims: "My God, why can I not hate him?" 
The most interesting and complex character is Archibaldo. A barbarian warrior accustomed to power, but now grown and blind, he spreads around him an atmosphere of oppression and suspicion and only expresses his enthusiasm for war, adventure and heroic deeds when he allows his thoughts to drift back into the past, as in bis Act I monologue. With the heightened sensitivity of the blind, he has an intuition that something illicit is going on in his household and he is determined to uncover the secret. The true motive for bis determination is the fact that, though he perhaps does not realise it him-self, he is in love with Fiora - a situation hinted at from the start by the title of the work. This is no paternal affection but an erotic desire, as is made unambiguously clear when he says to Fiora: "I could not touch you unless it were to kill you" (Act II). When, later, he follows the words by arranging the deed, it seems at first that he carrying out the legitimate punishment for adultery, normal by the moral standards of his day. But on closer examination this justification is unmasked as a mere pretext: the true motive for Archibaldo's action lies in his thwarted desire, and the killing comes as compensation for what he is denied by old age, fate and morality. Fiora's refusal to accept his claim to absolute power, by admitting that she loves another but withholding his name, is of only incidental importance.
Archibaldo is undoubtedly the central character: he acts rather than merely reacting, and has the last word at the end of each act of the drama. He draws the strands of the plot into a weh in which the other three Characters become enmeshed and meet their downfall. His own tragedy lies in the fact that he causes the death of his own son and is condemned to be the only ultimate survivor, joyless and with no purpose to his life.
Benelli's command of language cannot rival that of his model, d'Annunzio, for instance in the recreation of archaic turns of phrase, yet the period's style is palpable in his libretto. He is at pains to include a wealth of rather recherché images and metaphors while not despising more traditional symbols such as the white scarf in Act II, which Fiora grows tired of waving despite her good intentions. Features of the 'black Romanticism' which characterised the fin de siècle are also present: for instance, when Avitö and then Manfredo kiss the lips of the dead Fiora, there is more than a whiff of necrophilia, calling to mind the notorious scene in Salome. Showing death on an open stage was no novelty, but the exultation in death in its many variants, and the poeticization of killing, are unquestionably a fin--de-siècle innovation on which Benelli was quick to capitalize.

Montemezzi's Music


Not enough research has been done for it to be possible to determine whether Montemezzi's style in «L'Amore dei tre re» is typical of all bis operas or specific to this particular work. lt evinces some of the characteristics found in the works of other composers of the 'Young Italian school' such as a more or less noticeable tendency to integrate traditional forms such as aria or duet into the dramatic flow without the usual breaks, or the emphasis on the contribution of the orchestra, which is relatively marked in comparison to earlier periods of Italian opera. A further point is a new, although only partial, leaning towards other modes, notably the music dramas of Wagner and the'drame lyrique' of Massenet and, later, Debussy. Italian operatic composers around the turn of the century were open to inspiration from a variety of traditions, and the charge of eclecticism often levelled against them is irrelevant insofar as it matters less what the influences were than whether they managed to weld them into a distinctive personal idiom.
Montemezzi is sometimes dubbed the Italian Debussy'. Such labels are usually questionable since they divert attention from the differences, yet they do often give a pointer to features which suggest such classification. In the present case closer examination reveals that stylistic similarities between the two Composers are limited. What Montemezzi shares with Debussy is the principle of operating with layers of sound and vocal lines strung along in parallel, instead of with individual voices led contrapuntally; furthermore, both have a certain delight in advancing the musical action on the woodwind. Apart from this there are few similarities. As regards orchestration and barmonic System Debussy went quite another way. lf there is an Italian composer who resembles him closely, it is Riccardo Zandonai in his «Francesca da Rimini# rather than Montemezzi.
Another contemporary who must have impressed Montemezzi greatly is Richard Strauss. «Salome# and «Elektra# were given at La Scala shortly after their premieres, and this was the nearest great opera house for an opera enthusiast living in Verona. Even with Strauss, however, the points of contact are relatively marginal. Certain tonal sequences and harmonic turns, occasional string melodies and horn Solos suggest a marked receptivity to the music of the Bavarian composer, but it could hardly he claimed that Strauss's polyphony was a model for Montemezzi.
By far the most lasting influence on Montemezzi undoubtedly came from another composer: even though it has been, and still occasionally is, constantly denied by apologists of Italian 'melodramma', there are strong traces of the music of Wagner, especially Tristan, in «L'Amore dei tre re» . This is most noticeable in the great love scene in Act II; it begins with the symbolism of day and night, formulated in the libretto, harking back to Act II of Tristan and extending io compositional procedures such as the close concentration of insistent chromaticisms and a technique of obsessively recurring sequences. More obvious, however, and more comprehensible, is the intoxicating effect produced by the music of thìs scene; despite all the obvious stylistic differences, Montemezzi's music is here particularly closely allied to that of Wagner. A possible explanation is provided by biographical fact: Montemezzi later consistently asserted that he had learnt much rnore from La Scala than from the conservatoire, and if we consult the season's programmes between 1898 and 1900, when he was in Milan, we find that they do indeed contain a number of music dramas by Wagner, along with a handful of operas by Verdi and Mascagni and a predominance of French works.
Despite these influences Montemezzi managed to develop an individual compositional idiom and a style bearing his own personal signature. His melodic inspiration covers a wide spectrum, from declamatory passages dominated by the orchestra to long arching melodic lines conceived for the voice which are often memorabie and irresistibly fascinating. As regards the orchestration, he clearly cherishes the ideal of rich, mellow sound which, even in the forte passages, never rasps but retains a rounded quality without seerning overloaded. In structure bis orchestration is distinguished over long passages by an apparently improvised manner which is highly effective and often consists of a tireless repetition of tiny patterns, for instance in the Act II love scene already mentioned (although this is noi to imply any value judgement), whereas Zandonai, by contrast, in the corresponding scene in Act III of «Francesca da Rimini#, continually reflects each tiny nuance, as a result causing the overall musical picture to fragment.
Obviously Montemezzi was not averse to writing the extended orchestral passages so typical of the period: these have a descriptive function, depicting both physical action and psychological states, as for example in the scene between Fiora and Avito in Act II where the ciatter of the horse's galloping hooves, Manfredo's grief and Fiora's agitation are ali heard simultaneously. Interestìngly the composer provided this section with detailed instructions for the producer based on the exact coordination between music and action. Film music is not far away.
Montemezzi had only a limited interest in many of the compositional preoccupations of the time, but even this lack of interest illustrates his individuality. Occasionally characters and situations are clearly delineated in musical terms -an example is the Archibaldo motif, which provides a sharply defined miniature portrait with its dark colouring and 'groping' rhythms - though it cannot be claimed that he adopts, a conscious technique of leitmotif like Puccini in Tosca (1900): instead of modifications dependent on the dramatic action, he prefers varied repetition of larger-scale features. In «L'Amore dei tre re» , with the exception of the modal colouring of the scene in the castle crypt in Act III, Montemezzi does not go in for any very marked characterization of time or piace such as the other Italian composers of the period cuitivated. This is to be explained partly by the vagueness of the libretto's temporai and geographical location but it is also due to his own personal inclination.
«L'Amore dei tre re» is 'without doubt the greatest Italian tragic opera since Verdi's Otello'. This assertion by the American musicologist Donald Jay Grout may seem astonishing in the face of, for instance, «Andrea Chénier# or «La Bohème#. But there is no doubt that this is a work 'sui generis' which defies classification and has íts own unmistakable aura. At the same time it is a convincing example of the phenomenon that a problematical and forgotten play can survive as an opera thanks io an inspired and passionate musical score.

Translated by Celia Skrine