L’amore de tre re (The Love of Three Kings) was greeted warmly at its debuts in Milan and New York in 1913, both conducted by Arturo Toscanini, and acclaimed by some critics as the greatest Italian opera since Verdi. But the last time it was performed in Philadelphia was 1960, and the Metropolitan Opera has not done it since 1948.
It is a buried treasure which should be seen and heard. More than most operas, it’s an effective synthesis of tragic story, rich orchestral and vocal music. As in the operas of Wagner, the tale is told mostly through the orchestra and not through stand-alone arias. Yet the music is not imitative of Wagner. It sounds Italian with hints of Arrigo Boito plus Richard Strauss and Alexander Scriabin.
Fiora is a young woman engaged to a prince named Avito in her native Italy. King Archibaldo from the North conquers her town and forces Fiora to marry his son Manfredo. While her husband is away on military exploits, Fiora has an affair with her former fiancee. Archibaldo suspects what’s going on but cannot identify her lover because he’s blind. Archibaldo strangles Fiora, then coats her lips with poison. The brokenhearted Avito cannot resist a final kiss with Fiora, and that kills him, as Archibaldo had planned. Manfredo returns home, also kisses his wife, and he too dies from the poison.
The score includes seething harmonic complexities, and dramatic contributions by brass, woodwinds, four prominent French horns, harp, celeste and cymbals. Archibaldo is a towering character with great dramatic moments. Manfredo has a poignant scene where he wonders whether his wife ever loved him. Avito has a passionate last-act solo which is capped with a crowd-pleasing high B-flat.
So, why did this opera fall into neglect?
The main reason is that you can’t walk out of a performance humming the melodies. Most of the words are declaimed rather than crooned. This is especially noticeable in contrast to Montemezzi’s contemporary, Giacomo Puccini, with his tuneful La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly.
Also, Montemezzi was a one-hit wonder who never developed a base of fans. He was proud of a failed opera he wrote in 1918 called La Nave (The Ship). Montemezzi adapted it from a play by Italy’s nationalistic poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, and it was presented as a proclamation of Italy as a world naval power.
It’s unclear whether Montemezzi became a fan of Mussolini, or whether he just tried to ingratiate himself to his nation’s ruler, but he wrote to the dictator in 1931 and recommended La Nave as an appropriate opera to mark the tenth anniversary of Fascism: “No other opera can be more suitable than La Nave to exalt the power of our race.”
Consider the timing. L’amore de Tre Re was performed frequently in America from its 1913 premiere until 1941, the year the United States entered World War II. Then it disappeared except for a single performance in 1949. The political association of its composer with Fascism seems to have doomed it.
Yet another impediment is the opera’s title. Whether in Italian or English, it’s unwieldy; and, moreover, is inaccurate. The plot actually concerns a king and two princes, not three kings. Montemezzi would have done better if he copied Puccini’s penchant for naming his operas after their leading female characters. So L’amore de Tre Re could have been called Fiora. Or maybe named for its main character, the old king Archibaldo.
Because the instrumentation is so rich, this production benefited from the employment of a 60-piece orchestra and its placement on the stage, instead of in the pit. The unique juxtaposition of strings, winds, brass and percussion was properly exposed to the audience. Christofer Macatsoris led with urgency, intensity and propulsive energy.
The singers acted their roles and used some props, but there was no scenery because the large orchestra filled the stage.
All of the performers embodied their roles as if they’ve been playing these characters for years—manifesting superb coaching. After hearing two casts sing this opera, I’m impressed with the depth of talent at the Academy of Vocal Arts. Even the secondary tenors who were the king’s servant displayed voices capable of lead roles on major stages.
Basses Andre Courville and Anthony Schneider as Archibaldo, baritones Jared Bybee and Armando Piña as Manfredo, tenors Marco Cammarato and Galeano Salas as Avito, and sopranos Marina Costa-Jackson and JoAna Rusche were all excellent.
Twenty AVA resident artists—each of them qualified for lead roles in other works—appeared to sing a brief but crucial chorus during the final scene.
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