In what was both the most impressive production ever staged by Opera Holland Park and the highlight of July's opera season in London, an ideal team of soloists, chorus, orchestra, conductor, director and designer came together in perfect union for this highly anticipated presentation of L'amore dei tre Re by Montemezzi.
Indeed, this felt like nothing short of a landmark event, because not only will the opera's fortunes on the stage surely be reversed after OHP's electrifying production, but the history of the entire genre will need to be reassessed. Remarkably, Montemezzi isn't even mentioned in George Martin's Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera (1980), yet L'amore dei tre Re (written in 1913) is a fascinating and possibly unique version of post-Wagnerian Italian opera. The composer responds and refers to Wagner in all kinds of ways in this opera, from the importance of cadential gestures to a dramaturgical reference to King Mark's interruption of Tristan and Isolde's lovemaking in the first-act duet of L'amore. Debussy, too, figures large in the inspiration for the work: the reminiscence of the mysticism of the setting of Allemonde in Pelléas, the characteristic intertwining of the vocal lines and the ominous, harmonically ambiguous chords in the horns signifying death are all Debussy-like aspects to this fascinating work; the blind, father-figure character of Archibaldo is almost an exact replica of Arkel in Pelléas. Yet it's still an amazingly Italian work; there may not be the closed numbers of earlier Italian opera, but the smooth vocal arches derive entirely from the land of bel canto. This is a wonderfully compact and tight piece, played here in an hour and forty minutes without an interval, and the crowd on opening night greeted the cast with the loudest cheers I think I've ever heard at this venue.
Similarly, designer Jamie Vartan's set is perhaps the most ambitious the company has ever presented. A gloomy, oppressive grey tower forms the focus for the entire opera, with steps ascending precariously to a room above. Director Martin Lloyd-Evans is not afraid of depicting the overt eroticism of the piece, either in the overwhelming passion between Avito and Fiora or in the way that Manfredo and Archibaldo ferociously desire Fiora's body. Politically, too, this is an insightful production: Lloyd-Evans clearly understands that the opera belongs to the context of post-unification Italy, and expresses it by having two members of the chorus paint 'Giustizia' and 'Libertà' on the walls of the tower at the end of Act One, and the chorus arrives to mourn the death of Fiora in Act Three carrying an Italian flag. Fiora's death comes to symbolise an attack on the state, one that transcends the event of the character's slaughter and instead demands a national retribution on Archibaldo's occupying forces. Again reflecting Wagner, the collision of the erotic with the political makes L'amore dei tre Re both an emotional and absorbing experience.
Not only were there no weak links in the cast, but several of the singers were exceptional. Amanda Echalez could not have been bettered in the role of Fiora, who is the focus of attention for the three kings of the title (Avito, Manfredo, Archibaldo). Thanks to her physical beauty the sexual contest between the men was entirely viable, but her voice was what made her stand out. Her projection was strong, even over an extensive orchestra, and the stamina of her phrasing was incredible. The only frustration was that Montemezzi has her killed off in the second act, because hers was the stand-out performance, even in a great evening such as this.
Tenor Julian Gavin was also excellent (he's come on a lot since I first heard him sing Don Carlos at the Edinburgh Festival in 1998!), imbuing the slightly two-dimensional character of Avito with plenty of interest thanks to his luscious singing. I've never heard him in better voice, riding the orchestra with ease even at huge climaxes, and there was true heartbreak in his closing monologue, 'Fiora, Fiora. È silenzio: siamo soli' ('Fiora, Fiora. All is silent, we are alone').
I thought it was a shame that Olafur Sigurdarson tried to milk the applause after his first big monologue, because it caused a break in the tension, and his acting was slightly unruly compared to the rest of the cast. However, he was as vocally polished as always. His lyric baritone particularly excelled in the catastrophic final scene, when he follows Avito in kissing the lips of the dead Fiora, which have been coated in poison by the blind Archibaldo in an attempt to bring Fiora's seducer to justice.
Archibaldo himself was sung by the American-Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov, a mesmerizing singer whose previous appearances include operas at the New York City Opera, the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Bavarian State Opera - such is the quality of the top-notch cast assembled by Holland Park. Svetlov's rich voice and commanding presence always ensured that he captured the audience's attention, and what really made an impact on the performance was his realistic portrayal of a blind man whose other senses are highly developed. He can't see, yet in some respects Archibaldo has more insight than the other characters (even if he is ultimately destroyed by his overbearing manner - literally so in this production, though he doesn't die in the original libretto).
Alex Hall, the splendid Gastone from this year's La traviata, showed great promise in the role of Flaminio - a singer capable of such nuance will surely go far - and the smaller parts were all adequately taken.
Aside from the odd imbalance of volume between orchestra and singers (inevitable with an open pit) and a momentary lack of co-ordination between the (otherwise excellent) off-stage band and the main orchestra, this was an exemplary performance by the City of London Sinfonia. Much expanded in size - an extra canopy in which one could practically overwinter accommodated the percussion - the CLS did more justice to this extravagant score than the LSO did in their famous recording with Domingo many years ago. I've never seen Peter Robinson conduct with such passion and abandon, imbuing soloists, orchestra and chorus with the enthusiasm that he evidently feels for this marvellous piece.
The bad news is that there are only four performances of the production left in the season, and ticket availability is low. But beg, steal or borrow - do anything you can to get a ticket for this, the opera event of the summer.