Fortune has been unkind to the opera Italo Montemezzi considered his masterpiece, the 1918 epic La Nave. At its successful prima in Milan, where Tullio Serafin conducted, critics gushed over it and audiences identified strongly with its nationalist message. It received a much-publicized American debut in Chicago the following year, starring Rosa Raisa and conducted by the composer himself. There, despite the craze for the composer's L'Amore di Tre Re in the States, La Nave's reception was more measured. Critics from the windy city were less than knowledgeable (one complained there were no tunes one could whistle); American audiences enjoyed the two performances, but didn't quite connect with a symbolic, mythical tale whose intended audience was Italian.
Montemezzi fought for the rest of his career to have La Nave produced elsewhere, but with depressing results: after Italian productions in 1923 and 1938, a hush of nearly seventy-five years settled on the score. Then the visionary Duane Printz, Artistic Director of Teatro Grattacielo--a New York-based concert opera company specializing in unfamiliar Italian verismo works--took an interest. Wowed by the vocal score, Printz learned to her dismay that the orchestral score and parts had been destroyed by bombing in World War II. But Casa Ricordi generously offered to reconstruct the materials from Montemezzi's autograph score, provided she guaranteed a performance. Printz began assembling the massive orchestral and choral forces required, along with a cast capable of rising to the considerable demands of the principal parts.
It began to seem as if finally, La Nave would be christened anew, but once again, disaster threatened, this time in the form of Hurricane Sandy. Originally scheduled for October 29, the one-off concert performance fell squarely on the eve of mass evacuations and the unprecedented shutdown of public transit systems, and had to be called off. Oddly, what Sandy took away, she just as capriciously gave back: because local airports were closed, the singers couldn't leave the area. Rescheduled for Halloween night, La Nave finally set sail again before a small but appreciative audience.
The opera takes place in the year 552 C.E. during the early construction of the city of Venice. In the opening scenes of the prologue, we discover that the former ruling family, the Faledri, have fallen from grace. The tribune Orso and his four sons have been blinded; his sons have also had their tongues cut out. Orso's daughter, Basiliola, arrives by ship, and is horrified by her family's pitiful state. Not one to knuckle under, she is bent on avenging herself on the successors to her family's power. These are Marco Gràtico, who is named Tribune, and his brother Sergio, who becomes Bishop. A brassy dame (perhaps a cousin of that other operatic Aquilian warrior-maid, Odabella), Basiliola kills a pitful of prisoners with bow and arrow because one of them admits to holding down her brother while he was mutilated. To illustrate the stuff she's made of, as she finished off the last of them, she wistfully reflects that he was the best-looking one, but she never got his name!
She proceeds to seduce both Marco and Sergio, and sets the hotheaded brothers against one another at an orgy hosted by Sergio (priests had their scandals even then). In the fight, Marco slits Sergio's throat. Though no one seems particularly upset with Marco, as penitence, he volunteers to sail away on a huge ship, the Totus Mundus, for Egypt, never to return. Taking several of the city's prominent citizens with him, he vows to claim new territory in Venice's name. Begging him for a spectacular death, a suddenly more submissive Basiliola gets her wish: Marco orders the people to nail her to the prow of the ship to serve as its figurehead. As the sunlight turns the scene red, the great ship glides down the slipway into the water.
After hearing the opera (and once, mind you, is hardly enough to render judgment on such an unfamiliar and monumental work), it would be hard to argue that the quality of the score had anything to do with the composer's difficulty selling it to impresarios. Partial blame falls on the libretto, whose text is culled directly from Gabriele D'Annunzio's play of the same title. The story-line was tailored specifically to an Italian audience living in particular historical circumstances (the end of World War I, when there was great popular support for reclaiming lands once belonging to Italy). But taken at face value by a modern audience, the plot is a series of gruesome and debaucherous scenes fused together. The characters are unsympathetic, the exact motivation for their outlandish acts of aggression often obscure. But perhaps the most important factors mitigating against revival are the vast stagecraft and musical forces required. Spectacular sets and costumes, a huge, working ship onstage, ballet dancers, dueling choruses (I counted around seventy chorus members), and an enormous orchestra including offstage buccine, an ancient form of trumpet.. The opera is positively Meyerbeerian in scope, a prohibitively expensive prospect for all but the most well-heeled companies.
But the music--oh, what music!--is rapturously beautiful. It is reminiscent of the perfumed, soaring orchestrations of Wagner, Strauss, and Debussy, with perhaps some Massenet thrown in. Yet its Italian DNA is equally obvious in the impassioned melodic inspiration, and the over-the-top, Puccinian vocal outbursts of the principals. Unlike Salome or Elektra, despite the bloodshed, the music rarely speaks the language of savagery; it conjures up great, mythic, noble deeds of passion, love. The score almost manages to make it feel plausible that a whole crowd would cheer someone for committing fratricide; that they might instantly agree that crucifying someone on the front of a boat was sheer inspiration. It is all highly melodic, but declamatory. There are no set pieces, nothing that could really be divorced from the matrix of the score and used in a recital context. Perhaps that, too, has made it difficult for the opera to have a lasting legacy. The best parts of the score are a gorgeous, gently rocking barcarola-like prelude that splendidly evokes the maritime setting; the huge choral passages; and most of all, a long, intensely dramatic love/hate dialog in which Basiliola, employing her beauty and wiles, reduces the proud Tribune Marco to kneeling before her. The entire score, though, is very pleasing and accessible to the listener, whether an aficionado or a novice.
Printz assembled a cast that was more than equal to the task. The two principal roles, Basiola and Marco, were tackled by soprano Tiffany Abban, and tenor Robert Brubaker. I predict we will hear a lot more from Tiffany Abban, perhaps (I hope) as a Verdi soprano. Blessed with a dark, powerful instrument of varied color and great expressive power, she not only impressed, but greatly moved her audience. The opera is a vocal marathon for the soprano, with Basiliola prominent for almost its entire duration (well over two hours). The combination of the tiringly high tessitura, the wide range of feeling required, and the huge orchestral forces that had to be mastered for her to be heard, made Abban's performance a very worthy accomplishment, particularly in a time when the voices that can do this sort of role are in short supply. The ovations she received from the audience were richly deserved.
Brubaker sang valiantly with what appeared to be a bad cold, still managing to deliver a very satisfying reading of this role - something not many tenors could do even in the best of health. Like that of Basiola, Marco's music calls for sustained and forceful singing in the upper reaches of his range, again in direct conflict with a blaring orchestra and chorus. Brubaker has a hefty heroic tenor voice with the size and control that make this role an excellent fit. He sang with real feeling, breathing vivid life into a rather unlikable character.
Though musically less prominent than those of Basiola and Marco, the role of Sergio still required big emotions - particularly in the orgy/duel scene. Baritone Daniel Ihn-Kyu Lee has a solid and pleasant enough voice, but didn't quite deliver the heart-on-the-sleeve singing required. This work is, despite all its Teutonic influence, still an Italian opera! As the blinded former tribune Orso Faledro, bass Ashraf Sewailam, a veteran of other Grattacielo performances, gave a performance several sizes larger than the role he was assigned. From his first utterance, he projected the kind of authority and confidence that commanded rapt attention. Equally worthy was Kirk Dougherty, who sang several of the seventeen(!) other male roles with a pleasantly ringing lyric tenor voice. As the Monk Traba, bass Joseph Flaxman was vocally uneven but also very promising, and seems fated for bigger parts. There is only one other female role - that of an unidentified voice - and she sings but a single line during the prologue. Though it is difficult to judge fairly based on such a small sampling, Suzanne Stadler (the cover for Abban) declaimed that single line with such a big, luscious sound that I at first assumed she was the heroine!
The orchestra, confidently led by conductor Israel Gursky, played beautifully and with very few mishaps of of intonation, even in the strings. The gorgeous sonorities Montemezzi provided proved one of the major highlights of the evening. The massive chorus, too, was most impressive - especially given the complexity and difficulty of their music. The ballet dancers during the orgy scene - arguably an unnecessary distraction in a concert performance -were for me a guilty pleasure, a small taste of the Meyerbeerian extravagance necessarily lacking in a performance without a set and costumes.
Finally, must again mention Artistic Director, Duane Printz, whose efforts bring us these fascinating operas, and whose ability to cast them with the right voices means we are always treated to not just a work of great musicological interest, but to an evening of opera that leaves us feeling fulfilled. And though I suspect I will have a long wait, I would love to see La Nave back on stage in all its blood-soaked splendor.
By Dan Foley