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A Second Book Of Operas by Henry Edward Krehbiel

Part 4 out of 4

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many whose existence ended with the stagione for which they were
composed. But it is a singular fact bearing on the present
discussion that when the young "veritists" of Italy broke loose
after the success of Mascagni's "Cavalleria rusticana" there came
almost a universal desire to rush to the Neapolitan shambles for
subjects. New York has been spared all of these operas which I have
described in an earlier chapter of this book, except the delectable
"A Basso Porto" which Mr. Savage's company gave to us in English
sixteen years ago; but never since.

Whether or not Wolf-Ferrari got the subject of "I Giojelli della
Madonna" from the sources drawn on by his predecessors, I do not
know. I believe that, like Leoncavallo, he has said that the story
of his opera has a basis of fact. Be this as it may, it is certain
that the composer called on two versifiers to help him out in
making the book of the opera and that the story in its essence is
not far removed from that of the French opera "Aphrodite," by Baron
Erlanger. In that opera there is a rape of the adornments of a
statue of Venus; in Wolf-Ferrari's work of the jewels enriching an
effigy of the Virgin Mary. The story is not as filthy as the other
plots rehearsed elsewhere, but in it there is the same striving
after sharp ("piquant," some will say) contrasts, the blending of
things sacred and profane, the mixture of ecclesiastical music and
dances, and--what is most significant--the generous use of the
style of melody which came in with Ponchielli and his pupils. In "I
Giojelli della Madonna" a young woman discards the love of an
honest-hearted man to throw herself, out of sheer wantonness, into
the arms of a blackguard dandy. To win her heart through her love
of personal adornment the man of faithful mind (the suggestion
having come from his rival) does the desperate deed of stealing for
her the jewels of the Madonna. It is to be assumed that she rewards
him for the sacrilegious act, but without turning away from the
blackguard, to whom she grants a stolen interview during the time
when her true love is committing the crime. But even the vulgar and
wicked companions of the dandy, who is a leader among the
Camorristi, turn from her with horror when they discover the stolen
jewels around her neck, and she gives herself to death in the sea.
Then the poor lover, placing the jewels on the altar, invokes
forgiveness, and, seeing it in a ray of light which illumines them,
thrusts a dagger into his heart and dies at the feet of the effigy
of the goddess whom he had profaned.

The story would not take long in the telling were it not tricked
out with a multitude of incidents designed to illustrate the
popular life of Naples during a festival. Such things are old,
familiar, and unnecessary elements, in many cases not even
understood by the audience. But with them Signor Wolf-Ferrari
manages to introduce most successfully the atmosphere which he
preserves even throughout his tragical moments--the atmosphere of
Neapolitan life and feeling. The score is saturated with Neapolitan
folk-song. I say Neapolitan rather than Italian, because the mixed
population of Naples has introduced the elements which it would be
rash to define as always Italian, or even Latin. While doing this
the composer surrendered himself unreservedly and frankly to other
influences. That is one of the things which make him admirable in
the estimation of latter-day critics. In "Le Donne Curiose" he is
most lovingly frank in his companionship with Mozart. In "II
Segreto" there is a combination of all the styles that prevailed
from Mozart to Donizetti. In "I Giojelli" no attempt seems to have
been made by him to avoid comparison with the composer who has made
the most successful attempt at giving musical expression to a drama
which fifty years ago the most farsighted of critics would have set
down as too rapid of movement to admit of adequate musical
expression? Mascagni and his "Cavalleria rusticana," of course. But
I am tempted to say that the most marvellous faculty of Wolf-
Ferrari is to do all these things without sacrifice of his
individuality. He has gone further. In "La Vita Nuova" there is
again an entirely different man. Nothing in his operas seems half
so daring as everything in this cantata. How he could produce a
feeling of mediaevalism in the setting of Dante's sonnets and yet
make use of the most modern means of harmonization and
orchestration is still a mystery to this reviewer. Yet, having done
it long ago, he takes up the modern style of Italian melody and
blends it with the old church song, so that while you are made to
think one moment of Mascagni, you are set back a couple of
centuries by the cadences and harmonies of the hymns which find
their way into the merrymakings of the festa. But everything
appeals to the ear? nothing offends it, and for that, whatever our
philosophical notions, we ought to be grateful to the
melodiousness, the euphony, and the rich orchestration of the new
opera. [The performances of "I Giojelli della Madonna" by the
Chicago-Philadelphia Opera Company, as it was called in Chicago,
the Philadelphia-Chicago Opera Company, as it was called in
Philadelphia, were conducted by Cleofonte Campanini and the
principal parts were in the hands of Carolina White, Louisa Barat,
Amadeo Bassi, and Mario Sammarco.]

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