NEW YORK — Sometimes an opera’s absurdity needs to be fully embraced before its genius is truly apparent. Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re (Love of Three Kings) now easily joins that troubled pantheon inhabited by Weber’s Euryanthe, Chabrier’s Le roi malgré lui, and other operas with brilliant music and near-hopeless librettos, thanks to the New York City Opera’s April 12-15 production. This isn’t faint praise, but a step up from the opera’s previous obscurity.
L’amore dei tre re has never been too hard to find. Many of us discovered it via the 1977 RCA recording by Nello Santi, initially to monitor the partially successful vocal rehabilitation of star soprano Anna Moffo. The bonus was this orchestrally sumptuous work that premiered in 1913 and became standard repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera until the second half of the 20th century. All-star Met radio recordings with the likes of Grace Moore and Ezio Pinza have been kicking around, and though I missed City Opera’s 1982 production, I caught the 2016 concert performance mounted in Philadelphia by Academy of Vocal Arts. But in recordings and concert performances, the opera’s theatricality can only be guessed at.
Staging the piece takes a bigger chance. For that, New York City Opera drew on a Sarasota Opera production, updating it in what is said to be a film noir of sorts (1940s costumes amid antique sets), since the plot is the classic love triangle involving the heroine Fiora, whose arranged marriage is barely working, her former lover, and — in what seems like a touch of French Symbolism — a blind king who somehow knows everything. And then everybody dies from strangulation and poison.
David P. Gordon’s sets for Act I and II were painfully representational — a storybook castle, the sort you’d see in some Renaissance fair — though Act III, a crypt, was much more atmospheric. Even when most visually compromised, the opera’s character relationships, as directed by Michael Capasso, illuminated the opera’s emotional ins and outs in ways that revealed how the composer dramatized it. The libretto will never plead the case of this opera, but knowing what the composer was getting at gives motivation to the specifics of this incredibly inventive score.
The galloping motif that frames L’Amore dei tre re suggests the heightened heart rates of the lovers Fiora and Avito, as well as Fiora’s husband Manfredo, who is often arriving or departing on horseback. Musical heartbeat is also conveyed with pizzicato strings that return in the final scene after each of the opera’s three men kiss the poisoned lips of Fiora’s corpse — one of the more effective strokes of characterization. Soliloquies have Puccini’s psychology, sure pacing, and musical economy, though expressed in vocal lines that have the open-ended continuity of Wagner.
The scoring has French Impressionistic color, using every inch of the orchestra, plus the combination of grandeur and transparency one hears in Richard Strauss. Amid surging climaxes, all manner of contrapuntal passages, and instrumental pairings that sometimes make you ask what you’re hearing, the opera seemingly wants to be Pelleas, Tristan, Butterfly — as well as itself. Okay, the brass fanfares that herald Manfredo’s arrivals wear out their welcome. But that fusion of elements apparently accounted for the opera’s initial popularity — both Italian and German camps enjoyed it — then probably killed it later in the 20th century when anything derivative was regarded with suspicion. Now, in the era of “if-it-sounds-good-it-is-good,” this opera may stand a chance.
New York City Opera’s venue for this production — the Rose Theater, also known as Jazz at Lincoln Center — has the relative intimacy and vibrant acoustics that are ideal for an up-close encounter with this music. But conductor Pacien Mazzagatti deserves most of the credit for eliciting such an authoritative performance with an orchestra that had to be unfamiliar with the opera.
Vocal casting, though, was inconsistent. As Fiora, Daria Masiero, heard on April 14 in her third performance of the opera in as many days, came through in the dramatic climaxes but had pitch-obscuring vibrato elsewhere and exhibited a general lack of the charm needed to characterize a woman who is the object of male obsession. Tenor Raffaele Abete as her lover Avito had a major success with a lightish but well-projected tone that had middle-weight reserves during emotional extremes. Fiora’s husband Manfredo, baritone Joo Won Kang, was vocally imposing but with plenty of lyricism.
Perhaps the most significant vocal feat was that of veteran Metropolitan Opera bass Philip Cokorinos, whose convincing command of the words assured that the blind Archibaldo’s character would be more than a one-dimensional stock operatic figure.