Traditional Italian opera, we are told, died in 1924 with Puccini. But before that final moment, a clutch of composers – the verismo movement – were exploring what the form could do and expanding Italian opera’s orchestral possibilities. Only a few of those works get regularly played now, but Opera Holland Park have made a calling out of resurrecting them, the latest being Italo Montemezzi’s 1913 L’amore dei tre re (The love of three kings). The story is straightforward and dark: the invading King Archibaldo has married off the local princess Fiora to his son Manfredo, but Fiora remains in love with her original fiancé, the local prince Avito. The blind Archibaldo has his suspicions. Bad things happen and everyone dies.

Simon Thorpe (Manfredo) and Mikhail Svetlov (Archibaldo) © Robert Workman
Simon Thorpe (Manfredo) and Mikhail Svetlov (Archibaldo)
© Robert Workman

Around this story, Montemezzi wraps orchestral music of great power and variety. Imagine a sort of Italianate version of Wagner, albeit without the catchy leitmotifs: there’s a lot of powerful brass, there are clever combinations of brass and woodwind, a huge variety of string effects, plenty of variations in tempo, all of this within a particularly Italian melodic sweep. Conducted by Peter Robertson, the orchestra played with energy, putting across a lot of the detail and maintaining the prevailingly dark, tense mood.

Vocal performances were strong. The main roles all require dramatic, heroic voices, and we had them. Top honours to the bass Mikhail Svetlov as Archibaldo, very much the villain of the piece, who gave a cold, hate-filled performance while reaching sepulchral lows with authority. As Avito, Joel Montero was urgent and committed as well as producing attractive timbre through his upper register and succeeding almost entirely in competing with the strength of the orchestral backing. Natalya Romaniw’s Fiora was every bit the dramatic soprano, working through a whole series of high octane passages without a waver. Manfredo is a smaller role (he’s absent at the wars for much of the 100 minutes of the opera) but Simon Thorpe made the best of his opportunities: his closing duet with Montero, in which Manfredo is desperate to find out whether his wife was really in love with him, was every bit the emotional high point of the opera that it should be.

Joel Montero (Avito) and Natalya Romaniw (Fiora) © Robert Workman
Joel Montero (Avito) and Natalya Romaniw (Fiora)
© Robert Workman

In short, this was an evening of excellence in musical performance. But in spite of all these good components, I didn’t find the opera convincing: I was never quite grabbed by the story or the emotions it contains. The reason, to a large extent, lies in the libretto. Although the story has plenty of potential, individual words and phrases were neither particularly poetic nor particularly compelling: in any given scene, the dialogue seemed rather routine, containing nothing outside the obvious of what Italian opera characters say in similar circumstances.

Natalya Romaniw (Fiora), Aled Hall (Flaminio) and Mikhail Svetlov (Archibaldo) © Robert Workman
Natalya Romaniw (Fiora), Aled Hall (Flaminio) and Mikhail Svetlov (Archibaldo)
© Robert Workman

Martin Lloyd-Evans direction didn’t hinder, but it didn't really breathe life into the piece. Jamie Vartan’s set – a large square tower surrounded by a spiral staircase and balcony/rampart – did a good job of representing the castle in which Fiora is (emotionally, at least) imprisoned, but with much of the action happening on the narrow balcony, it offered limited scope for movement around stage. And while vocal performances were strong, there were few occasions when they were matched by notably exciting acting (the scene in which Archibaldo murders Fiora being a violent exception).

As a piece of music, L’amore dei tre Re is well worth hearing: there’s good vocal writing, excellent orchestral writing and it’s all well performed. As a piece of overall music drama, this production hasn’t convinced me of its merits.

***11