Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari is a bit of a strange fish: a recluse, a self-described mystic, and proud enough of his hybrid German-Italian identity that he appended his mother’s maiden name to his own at the age of nineteen. So it’s not entirely surprising that his opera I gioielli della Madonna (1911) is such a bizarre combination of superstitious religion, lust and incest in which an otherwise conventional story of a girl’s lost virtue hinges on the stolen jewels of a plaster Madonna.

Natalya Romaniw as Maliella and Olafur Sigurdarson as Rafaele © Alex Brenner
Natalya Romaniw as Maliella and Olafur Sigurdarson as Rafaele
© Alex Brenner

Things begin innocently enough with a lively street scene, displaying the Neapolitan’s celebrations during a religious carnival with such charming local colour as a gelato seller on a bicycle. Opera Holland Park’s substantial chorus – bolstered by an energetic group of children from W11 Opera, and the City of London Sinfonia (conducted by Peter Robinson) – very nearly blew the roof off during the boisterous overture and first scene. This, coupled with an impressive percussion section and on-stage brass band, virtually left a dust-cloud in its wake.

But alas, not everyone in the town is celebrating. The lusty blacksmith Gennaro (played by tenor Joel Montero) is found pining for his adoptive sister Maliella. Montero is fantastic in this role: the warmth and power of his voice fully brings out Gennaro’s tortured passion and desperation. The feisty Maliella is having none of it: disgusted by her brother’s practically incestuous advances, and fed up of her stiflingly traditional adoptive mother (touchingly sung by mezzo Diana Montague), she breaks out into the streets, seeking excitement.

And excitement she gets in spades. Natalya Romaniw plays Maliella with all the sauciness and naivety this role requires – her delicate soprano voice occasionally quivering with that touch of youthful lust that leads to Maliella’s downfall. She meets the dangerous Rafaele, leader of the Camorra (the Neapolitan equivalent of the Mafia), sung heartily by baritone Olafur Sigurdarson. Unfortunately for our young heroine, the suave Rafaele has a way with words: he even goes so far as to suggest stealing the Madonna’s jewels for her.

It’s a shocking sin that even Rafaele wouldn’t seriously commit – so horrifying to these superstitious Italians that the Camorra themselves are stunned when Maliella stumbles in bedecked by the holy baubles. (These are the same criminals, by the way, who cover their own plaster Madonna with a rug during a lurid orgy-cum-ballet scene.) But these jewels seem to have a strange, mystical power: when Gennaro, crazed with unfulfilled lust, steals them from the church in an attempt to one-up his rival, Maliella becomes so intoxicated by them that she falls into a sort of sexual trance. You can imagine the rest: Gennaro has his wicked way with her; Maliella is rejected as a fallen woman; and Gennaro desperately seeks religious salvation before both inevitably commit suicide.

I gioielli della Madonna was a popular opera in its day (though now rarely performed), but its religious content initially caused an uproar among Italian Catholics. It’s not hard to see why: what seems at first a charming portrait of Naples celebrating the feast-day of the Madonna turns out to be a rather disturbing look at the blurred lines between religious transgression and eroticism. Director Martin Lloyd-Evans skilfully highlights these aspects with dream-like, uncomfortably lurid scenes: Maliella is dressed like the Madonna in white nightgown and blue mantle during both a passionate duet with Rafaele and her rape scene. It’s all rather bizarre – though the libretto was apparently based on real events – but this production handles the subject so well that these scenes are viscerally thrilling.

Jamie Vartan’s set designs for I gioielli are spare but effectively convey the city’s moral decay and seediness: the graffiti-covered stone walls and raunchy neon signs do the trick, though the reason for setting the opera in the 1940s is not entirely clear. Perhaps it’s just about the most modern you can make a piece like this without its religious aspects becoming totally irrelevant.

Wolf-Ferrari’s score is not the most intricate or subtle – and who can blame it, when the pomp of a carnival and on-stage processions demand music so loud, simple and joyful? – but what it lacks in originality it makes up for in pleasant melody. The intermezzo between the second and third act is schmaltzy as anything, the sort of stuff you’d expect in a melodramatic film soundtrack, but its languorous strings are enchanting, and suitably foreshadow the opera’s impending tragedy.

Though I gioielli della Madonna’s themes may seem quaint at best, or at worst an outdated example of sexual double-standards, it’s unusual enough to intrigue. All in all, while this may be an odd choice for a revival, strong performances from the Opera Holland Park cast made for a fully enjoyable evening.