Cher Public


Italo Montemezzi’s La Nave, premiered in 1918 and not performed anywhere since 1938, concerns itself with nautical power, male and female archetypes, love and hate conjoined, sex and death, the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire — and the visionary future of Old Venice.  

No, older Venice than that. Older than Henry James. Older than opera. 552 a.d., no less when (on the Italian mainland), as you recall, the Byzantines had whipped the semi-barbaric and Germanic Ostrogoths only to bring the extremely barbaric and Germanic Lombards down upon themselves as a result. Out in the Adriatic lagoon, refugees ignored the byzantine infighting and started a city all by themselves. (It’s called Venice.)

This was a fashionable historic locale for artistic retrospection round about 1900: in the darkness, the glittering and basic emotions of our distant ancestors, glamorous with heavy gems and golden slather. Today, one Yeats poem and the paintings of Gustav Klimt are pretty much the only survivors.

Teatro Grattacielo, high exalted knightly keeper of the Verismo flame, proposed to revive Montemezzi’s La Nave last Monday at Rose Hall on Columbus Circle. It should not surprise anyone that this schedule aroused the weather gods to inflict New York’s worst case of Acqua Alta since the Algonkian administration. None of this is astonishing. What does astonish is that Grattacielo (which means “skyscraper”) survived Sandy and got its act together by Wednesday, Halloween, and that the performance came off with only one singer replaced at the last minute.

The opera itself did not astonish, but it made an enjoyable surprise, far more thrilling and elaborate than Montemezzi’s only hit, L’Amore dei tre re. La Nave‘s rarity on the stages of the world may be due to the size of the thing. The opera calls for a powerhouse cast, enormous chorus, corps de ballet, vast and colorful sets and an enormous orchestra.

L’Amore dei tre re is much easier on the singers, calls for hardly any chorus and just a couple of basic, barbaric sets, being also set in the Italian Dark Ages. The only difficulty is finding a basso capable of lifting the soprano (after strangling her) and hauling her off stage. If she is larger than Lucrezia Bori, this can be a problem. Beverly Sills said whenever she saw Fernando Corena in later years, he would moan and bend over as if his back had never recovered from the ordeal.

La Nave is based on one of the historical farragoes concocted by Gabriele d’Annunzio after overexposure to Friedrich Nietszche (and Wagner). Basiola Faledro, almost the only woman in the cast, belongs to an aristocratic family from Aquileia, which was the chief Roman port of the upper Adriatic until one day Attila the Hun showed up.

The town was never the same. Its ruins had just been excavated in 1909 when d’Annunzio wrote his play, and some of the Venetian hostility in the text may be due to the fact that the old city was still on the Austrian side of the border. Basiola’s father and four brothers, suspected of being in Byzantine pay, have just been blinded at curtain rise. Also the bishop has just died.

The fickle Venetian mob acclaim the family’s rival, Marco Gràtico, as the new Tribune (no doges yet), while his brother Sergio (the thumbless one — don’t ask, we are never told) is the new Bishop. The brothers will now run the whole show.

But they have reckoned without Basiola, who seduces both brothers with her sexy dancing in order to get them to fight each other to the death. The bishop is killed, but the vengeful Tribune Marco, regretting his lust for Basiola (who suggested he run for emperor), condemns her to death.

She begs that her death be “a beautiful one,” and he obliges by nailing her to the prow of his ship (La Nave), named Totus Mundus (The Whole World), and sails out to conquer the Mediterranean. Soon after the opera’s premiere, d’Annunzio took ship and made himself the world’s first fascist dictator — seizing the city of Fiume when the Versailles Peace Conference awarded it to Yugoslavia.

It’s obvious d’Annunzio knew Wilde’s Salome very well, and he certainly knew Tristan und Isolde and probably Reyer’s Salammbo. What seems also to be clear is that Montemezzi the composer wisely ignored those far too seductive inspirations. His score, while grounded in Wagnerian motif and method, uses a thoroughly Italian style of melody and orchestration. The horns do not cover the bass; they are illustrative trumpets for heraldic announcements and fight scenes.

The erotic music is not psychologically appalling — it is open in its yearning appeal. The music of this brutal story and its several barbarous scenes is refreshingly delicate, individual in the manner of Respighi’s La Fiamma (more Verismo Byzantinerei), and the instrumental effects are often original and always varied, moving from one group to another as swiftly and picturesquely as the plot.

And how many other operatic heroines seize a bow and arrows and slay an entire ditch full of prisoners one by one, saving the prettiest for last, just to express her ill temper? (And how many sopranos can you picture bringing it off?)

It is the manner of singing called for that assigns La Nave firmly to its Verismo era: All these singers declaim as if they were on d’Annunzian soapboxes; there is very little melody or lyric appeal in their most intimate utterances, though to be fair they are usually denouncing each other for one thing or another.

But these aren’t people you want to get to know, people who express emotion in song. It’s all speechifying, cold-hearted even when impassioned. Montemezzi’s lyricism is confined to the orchestral accompaniment instead. La Nave is more spectacle than story. Great fun to hear it (after two days’ da tempeste il legno infranto), but not a candidate for regular rep.

Teatro Grattacielo always digs up amazing singers to perform their amazing scores. Tiffany Abban, making her New York debut, has a full-sized, well-developed, beautifully supported spinto of womanly color and Verdian weight. She can ride over an orchestra or sing sweetly and softly, and the sound never becomes harsh when weight is brought to bear. She seemed a little tired at the end of Act II (hardly a surprise!) but she rallied for the spectacular conclusion.

This is a voice ready to take on the great mid-Verdi and late-Puccini roles that have long lacked proper presentation, and I look forward to seeing what she can do with them on stage. She has a sturdy figure but she is tall and can carry it, and she sings as if she meant what the words convey.

Robert Brubaker, a better-known quantity, did some startling and thrilling things with the role of Marco Gràtico, especially in the high-lying area where most of the part seems to sit. A bit of cracking by Act III was no surprise and barely a distraction from a fine performance.

Grattacielo veteran Daniel Ihn-Kyu Lee sang the episcopal brother well, and small but distinctive roles were ably handled by Ashraf Sewailam (as Basilia’s blind father), Kirk Dougherty as a stonecutter with an edge to his tongue, Rod Gomez as a helmsman and “A Voice” by Suzanne Stadler, who in one line managed to make everyone sit up and wipe their ears. A future Straussian?

The Teatro Grattacielo’s Men’s Chorus had plenty to do and did it capably, assisted by the Dessoff Symphonic Choir. Israel Gursky, another New York debutante, led the company orchestra and all properties to an exceptionally lively and convincing performance of a work that seemed to delight all palates present. Even allowing for our natural pleasure in a company that had pulled together so fine a performance in our beleaguered city, there was a wide appreciation of so attractive, unsuspected a score.

  • rysanekfreak

    Thank you for this great write-up. I would love to hear this opera. Do we suppose someone (anyone!) recorded it?

  • Will

    If anyone has recorded it, Amazon hasn’t heard of it. That set rendering, by the way, makes it into a couple of history of stage design books.

    • papopera

      same set could be used for GIOCONDA, HOLLÄNDER or L’AFRICAINE.

      • Will

        Not really--take a good look--this ship has yet to be launched. It’s still propped up on the ways before being sent down into the water.

  • phoenix

    Yo! Yohalem!
    We are VERY grateful you were able to attend this performance and take the time to write such an thorough background of the work as well an interesting review.

  • papopera

    I shall play the whole piano/vocal score to myself this evening after reading this. My very own La Nave private performance.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    I wonder how much they cut. How long was the performance minus intermission please?

  • Belfagor

    Thank you for the very in depth review. I have to live vicariously though this, as, though I had a ticket, I was stranded in rural New Jersey surrounded by fallen trees and crushed cars.

    There’s no recording as until this performance the work has not been performed anywhere since 1938. Lets hope one can be issued of this performance. The orchestral material, was I believe destroyed in an air raid in WW2, so hence the reconstruction. I’d love to have heard it.

  • Henry Holland

    If you’re looking for other late 19th/early 20th century Italian operas about ships and sailing and sailors, I’d recommend Franchetti’s Cristoforo Colombo.

    • papopera

      I have the Franchetti, must admit its a terribly boring work. His Germania was quite popular at what time.

      • papopera

        …at ONE time.

      • Henry Holland

        I like Cristoforo Colombo, the second act especially has some really terrific writing. I think it’s better than stuff the Met does like Francesca da Rimini.

        The Deutsch Oper Berlin did Germania a few seasons ago, I was glad I went. The story wanders around without much coherency, but the music is good > very good and the DOB production was fantastic. It’s available on DVD as well.

        So who’s heard his Asrael, Fior d’Alpe or La figlia di Iorio?

    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      The Franchetti is boring and so is his Germania. I prefer the Kurt Weill / Ira Gershwin version

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Isn’t this one about a boat too?

  • Gualtier M

    I was there too and spoke to Duane Printz about cuts: very two cuts but only of music that was marked as optional in the score. One was a choral cut and the other I think was in the Act II duet with Basiliola and Marco. Make no mistake -- the vocal writing is cruel and unusual punishment for both tenor and soprano. Abban sang with good, careful technique floating the high notes where she could and never pushing. Definitely has some Leontyne Price in the sound -- I know everyone compares every African-American soprano with Lee but I really heard it. She just sang a successful Aida in Amsterdam.

    I don’t know what this is with verismo and tenors -- so many of the Mascagni operas are unsingable. Supposed Hipolito Lazaro had to be supported backstage before the 4th act or “Parisina” -- he had been declaiming loudly in the passaggio for 3 hours and had another to go. Folco in “Isabeau” was only easy for Bernardo de Muro. The tenor role in “Guglielmo Ratcliff” is murder -- Lando Bartolini had a 20-minute psychotic rant all in the passaggio and above. The tenor role Giannetto in Giordano’s “La Cena delle Beffe” (another Lazaro role) is also murderously high and exhausting. Brubaker (who is no kid -- I saw him nearly 30 years ago as Pinkerton at the NYCO in the old Frank Corsaro production with Catherine Lamy as Cio-Cio San) had to pile drive unprepared B’s and C’s over a heavy orchestra all night long. It was all done with muscular force and wasn’t pretty but my god, he got through it. Kudos to him. The real problem in D’Annunzio’s bombastic and pretentious libretto -- a lot of the action is referred to obliquely in the text but not dramatized. Like Basiliola seducing the Bishop (pagan?) brother Sergio. What is dramatized is rather bizarre and over-the-top wildness.

    I liked the orchestration but the vocal lines are really unmusical and unvocal. No arias to take away with you -- the reason why no single discs were made of selections in the 78 era.

    • rapt

      Glad to hear the good report of Abban, but, on a pedantic note, the recent Aida was in Oslo rather than Amsterdam, I believe.

  • Gualtier M

    Oh another few things: very poor turnout due to the Hurricane Sandy fallout and being on Halloween. This opera has a curse on it -- Montemezzi considered it his masterpiece but had trouble getting it performed.

    Also the orchestral parts were destroyed in the Allied bombing of Rome in the 1940’s. The autograph of the complete orchestral score was in safekeeping elsewhere. When Duane Printz asked Ricordi about the score they said they didn’t have the parts, just the piano/vocal score. However, they could make up parts from the autograph if Printz were guarantee a performance. She did but had to wait a year for Ricordi to generate the parts and conducting score. Then when all is set to go, along comes Sandy.

  • Gualtier M

    I can’t stop myself -- another murderous awful tenor role -- the title role of “Il Piccolo Marat” -- also Mascagni and also created by Hipolito Lazaro. They said that when Mascagni composed he would sing the tenor part in his falsetto range -- hence the too high “sit” in the passaggio. Also when Mascagni conducted his scores he had a “heavy arm” with slowwwww tempos. The singers would just die.

    • Henry Holland

      I love Il Piccolo Marat, it’s set in the French Revolution, the ending is fantastic with the Bad Guy getting bludgeoned to death with a candelabra. The Met was thinking of doing it as a vehicle for Domingo, MacNeil and Scotto in the mid-to-late 70’s but it obviously didn’t happen.

  • isepo

    I’d guess and say the crowd was equal to the number of people on stage. Bottom floor was about 65% full, a couple dozen people were in the upper galleries. It was a little sad to hear such tepid sounding applause after quite a Herculean effort!

    First of all, the two principal roles are fiendishly difficult. Abban sounds like she lives in the shadow of Leontyne and seems to embrace it. A beautiful voice which seemed unfazed by any challenges the music posed. Her tone was round and spinny, indifferent to text, which seems at odds with the historical notion of “verismo”-style singing, but hey, few really do that anymore. Generous piano singing but I prefer a little more core. Brubaker, who’s been seen at the Met the last 20 years, started out very stentorian and forceful. Decent singing, but his high notes pulled back…this seemed to take a toll. His voice quickly became scratchy and worn, and his clenched fists were more a means of vocal production rather than expression. The last hour was regrettably rather painful to listen to. The only other singers of any notable distinction were Daniel Lee and Kirk Dougherty. The Grattacielo Men’s Chorus (about 18) were the usual cast of NYC choral ringers and totally out-sang the Dessof Symphonic Choir (about 50+). “Liturgical” sounding is being kind…rife with straight tone and consonant overkill, at times the Dessof singers resembled a shaker choir who were very under-rehearsed. Several moments in the last two “Episodes” sounded like they were outright sight-reading.

    Gursky led an orchestra of capable professional players that seemed a little malnourished in the string sections, but delivered. Gursky has little in the way of Verismo style or discernable personality in his conducting, but he seemed at least functional. The group created some lovely sounds at times, but also seem under-rehearsed (Gursky waved his arms frantically a couple times during moments of ensemble mis-coordination to shush people, but the writing is so contrapuntal and tonally complex, one really couldn’t tell that easily!).

    I am told that Ricordi let Grattacielo have the parts for free, provided they would produce a recording of this long neglected work. I’m sorry to say that what they’ll get will be anything but a reference-quality recording.

  • isepo

    Gualtier, I just saw your post, and your version about the Ricordi “deal” sounds more correct, now that I think about it…that Grattacielo had to guarantee a performance, rather than a recording in exchange for the parts. It had been several months since I heard Printz talk about this arrangement…