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.]