Of the regular questions we are asked about our repertoire of late Italian operas, the most common is "where on earth do you find them?" Having been presenting these works for so long we often find ourselves unable to answer since it is hard to remember where a piece first came onto our radar; L'amore dei tre Re famously took ten years from first being discussed to finally getting a production. The truth is that in reality, whilst these operas now lay abandoned and forgotten (many argue for good reason) this wasn't always the case and once you begin to ferret around in the text books and internet resources, they become a part of a wider picture that begins to feels perfectly normal. I gioielli della Madonna by Ermano Wolf-Ferrari (who is more famous for his comedies and in particular I segreto di Susanna) enjoyed a kind of butterfly-brief stardom that many operas in the early 20th century shared. They would be launched onto the public, flourish for a while, sometimes become staples of the repertoire and then vanish again. L'amore dei tre Re was a significant hit in America, being performed regularly for nearly forty years until the composer died, the opera's popularity perishing with him.
Controversy marked gioielli out; love between a brother and his adopted sister, implied attacks on the Catholic church, gangsterism, overheating passions, suicide and, horror of horrors, the pilfering of sacred adornments in the pursuit of lust. What these operas of the veristic tradition did was take the core tenets of human nature and amplified them in often hysterical, febrile caricature, as unreserved and demonstrative as the simple, peasant folk they depicted. In their way they were breaking ground in their desire to offer uncensored, raw depictions of how badly we can behave when our loins are stirred but they wrapped it all up in a diverting and palliative sheath of beautiful music. Of course, today, none of it is even faintly controversial but at the time, some of these operas burned like acid through society. Gioielli itself was not performed in Italy until a whole 42 years after its German premier in 1911 (Wolf-Ferrari had a German publisher and his works were often premiered there) but when you consider that fifties Italy was still a fairly zipped up place one can deduce that the opera isn't quite the fire and brimstone sacrilege it was at first made out to be. Even the Proms seemed in love with it, or more specifically, Henry Wood, with the preludes to acts two and three being given in 1912, 1913, 1914, 1915, 1917, 1922 and then not again until 1950 which was the last time the BBC went anywhere near it. In 2002, University College Opera produced it in a full version.
Wolf-Ferrari and other composers faced the almost inescapable problem of living in the shadow of Puccini and to some extent Mascagni and it is no coincidence that we have programmed the most famous duo in the verismo repertoire to open the 2013 season. If Cav & Pag was the birth of verismo, gioielli represents the place to which the composers who followed took the genre, injecting German and French influence and a contemporaneous perception of greater daring and grit. As we know, what composers like Wolf-Ferrari, Giordano, Cilea, Zandonai et al hoped would be a new spring turned out to be a brief flowering. There is some irony that Leoncavallo, composer of Pagliacci is famed for that work and little else although he did compose good operas thereafter, including a La boheme that had the rug pulled from under it by Puccini. And whilst Mascagni's light began to burn more brightly alongside that of his fellow Tuscan, he was never fully satisfied with the public and critical perception of him, forever seeking new ways to articulate his music.
Musically, however, gioielli does indeed pay healthy homage to Mascagni but is more ambitious in its scope and certainly seems to be deliberately conceived to provide opera houses with an epic migraine in producing terms. It is huge. Indeed one could probably find reason to accuse the composer of pomposity (the score calls for 12 mandolins for starters) but it is also easy to believe that Wolf-Ferrari merely felt he wanted to create a mammoth piece of socio-realist spectacle that would take the breath from its audience by using scale and monumental orchestration; in our post-Olympic ceremony mega-theatre world we are in no position to criticise. Neapolitan street scenes peopled by a chorus we will comfortably hail as our largest ever deliver deliciously authentic music that calls upon tarantella traditions. They are accompanied by an orchestra (also the largest ever at OHP) which punctuate the acts with four suites of bewildering variety, one of which outdoes Mascagni's Cavalleria intermezzo for pained, weeping gorgeousness. The opera even includes a duet between mother and son as he pours his heart out, echoing Cilea's L'arlesiana but with the added frisson of it being about his adopted sister (one wonders if the excision of blood ties was a last minute example of self censorship by the composer). And as with Pagliacci, the opera promotes itself on the claim that the story emerged from true events.
A reality that all opera houses face is that audiences tend to gravitate towards the works they know. In fact, this isn't a problem only experienced by opera houses but there is a peculiar perception afoot that by presenting these works we are, by definition, asking audiences to consider them all to be masterpieces and as such they are frequently judged on that basis. The definition of a masterpiece varies from person to person and gioielli probably isn't one, but it is bloody good and a fantastic night at the theatre. Central among our reasons for presenting these works is that for all of their flaws (flaws, I should add, that are relative to our notions of perfection) they frequently contain moments of shimmering beauty that compare to - or even surpass - anything in the repertoire.
For sixteen years, OHP audiences have gathered in their thousands to hear and experience these curiosities and so we have little reason to complain about a reluctance to explore among our patrons. It is also true to say that any season without one is challenged by our supporters which is encouragement enough for us to continue resurrecting them.
A version of this article appears in the autumn edition of OHP's "Scenario" magazine.Suggest a correction