WOLF-FERRARI I gioielli della Madonna
It’s not quite true that this is the ‘World Premiere Recording’ of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s über-verismo hit of 1911, as Naxos’s cover proclaims. A 1976 radio recording – starring Pauline Tinsley and Peter Glossop and conducted by Alberto Erede – has been doing the rounds for some time. However, this first ‘official’ recording of the work is welcome, not least in the way it presents the score in clear (if hardly first-rate) sound, sung by a decent (if hardly first-rate) cast. And what a score it is, a dizzying juxtaposition of all sorts of modernistic influences (Debussy, Strauss & Co) against a wild and raucous evocation of Neopolitan street life – the feral dance of Act 3 is a fine example, in which something akin to Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils segues into a sort of naive tarantella.
Part of the reason, indeed, why German and American audiences apparently warmed to it so much before the First World War intervened was due to the way in which it ‘othered’ the southern Italians, portraying them as a people as wild and dangerously alluring as any other portrayed in operatic exoticism. Wolf-Ferrari’s Italo-German heritage certainly informs this score, even if it more generally prevented him finding acceptance in either land. And it was the composer himself who supposedly happened upon the newspaper story on which the plot is based, fashioned into a libretto by Carlo Zangarini and Enrico Golsiciani.
It’s a plot that has the dubious distinction of containing barely a single sympathetic character. We have Gennaro, one of verismo’s weedier mummy’s boys, who is in love with his beautiful half-sister Maliella, who takes sadistic pleasure in taunting him but who succumbs to his advances when he steels the jewels from a statue of the Madonna for her – hence the title. Rafaele, a local gang leader and Lothario, completes the triangle when he falls for Maliella; but, on hearing of her seduction, he abandons her in front of a mocking crowd and leaves Genarro to suffer his humiliation alone: the tenor duly stabs himself.
There are some genuinely affecting moments, the famous Intermezzo just one example, and tenor and baritone each get a big duet with Maliella – Gennaro’s with her is especially notable for emphasising the erotic allure of his sinful deed. It’s all pretty shabby and shocking, but undeniably compelling in its sheer energy.
Naxos’s set has its problems, though, not least in the rather unalluring Maliella of Natalia Ushakova, whose squally soprano is neither adequately seductive, secure in its tuning nor accurate above the stave, where the part often takes her; many of her words fall by the wayside, too. Kyungho Kim offers a decent, reliable Gennaro, however, and sings with beefy, steady tone throughout. Daniel Čapkovič brings plenty of swagger to Rafaele, and his baritone is pleasingly grainy, if occasionally strained. Susanne Bernhard brings a touching quality to Carmela, mother of Gennaro and Maliella, and about the only pleasant character in the whole thing. Among the smaller roles, some rather shrill ladies make an impression for the wrong reasons.
It’s all a decent effort, and an achievement of which Haider and his Bratislava forces can be proud: the conductor paces it all well, and his players keep up impressively. CPO also has a new recording in the pipeline, though, from the same forces that produced their Francesca da Rimini (1/16). If you’re desperate for a modern Gioielli straight away, by all means go with Naxos; otherwise I’d wait to hear what CPO’s set is like. Unlike Naxos’s, it will probably also come with a libretto.