I Gioielli Della Madonna by Wolf-Ferrari at the Home of Jazz at Lincoln Center

It is unfortunate that this crudely melodramatic opera, in which Wolf-Ferrari strayed a long way from his most natural line of country, has received more attention in the English-speaking world than any of his masterpieces. His immediate reasons for temporarily turning his back on the gracefully updated opera buffa style which he had made so distinctively his own were probably partly opportunistic: his earlier operas, from Cenerentola to Il segreto di Susanna, had proved far more acceptable in Germany than in his native Italy, and it must have seemed reasonable to suppose that his fortunes might be improved south of the Alps by a rapprochement with post-Mascagnian verismo. Ironically, the Italians paid even less attention to the new opera than to its comic predecessors, and instead it quickly found markets across the Atlantic and the English Channel.

Rosa Raisa as Maliella

Set in Naples on the feast-day of the Madonna, the turbulent story dominated by raw jealousy may recall that of Cavalleria rusticana. Being spread over three acts, however, the result lacks the concentration as well as the compelling spontaneity of the Mascagnian prototype: by 1911 this kind of opera was already showing its age. The rival males, in this case, are the blacksmith Gennaro (tenor) and Rafaele (baritone), who leads a group of Camorristi (comparable to the Mafia in Sicily). Both men are in love with Gennaro’s foster sister Maliella (soprano), who much prefers Rafaele’s more adventurous charms. When Gennaro hears about the flamboyant Camorrista’s boast that to prove the force of his love he would even steal jewels from the festively decorated statue of the Madonna, he naively decides to get the better of his rival by stealing the jewels himself. This wins him a short-term advantage, in that Maliella does give herself to him (while always having Rafaele in mind). But she then shocks even the Camorristi by sacrilegiously adorning herself with the jewels. Having so profoundly offended the religious sensibilities of the community in which they live, she and Gennaro both, in desperation, commit suicide.

This frankly sensational plot (which is said to have been based, Pagliacci -like, on a real event reported in the newspapers) at least has the merit of providing plentiful opportunities for picturesque local colour, which Wolf-Ferrari’s music evokes with some zest, making use of at least one real Neapolitan melody. The total effect, however, seems disappointingly thin and vulgar when set alongside the elegance and the psychological insights of his best comic operas. Only in a few passages – notably the profoundly lyrical later part of the duet in Act 1 for Gennaro and his mother Carmela (mezzo-soprano), and the purely orchestral postlude that follows it – does the innermost essence of Wolf-Ferrari’s personality come through clearly despite all.

By John C.G. Waterhouse (Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians)

Since 1994, Teatro Grattacielo has been an ardent promoter of overlooked works from the verismo period in Italian opera. During that era in Italy, at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, for every triumphant “La Bohème” and “Pagliacci” there were dozens of other operas produced, including many that enjoyed enormous initial success only to fall into neglect. For its next rescue job Teatro Grattacielo presents Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s 1911 melodrama “I Gioiello Della Madonna” (“The Jewels of the Madonna”), a turbulent story of a Neapolitan love triangle. Two men — Gennaro, a blacksmith (the tenor Raúl Melo), and Rafaele (the baritone Joshua Benaim), the leader of a Mafia-like gang — are in love with Gennaro’s foster sister, Maliella (the soprano Julia Kierstine), who seems to prefer the rougher charms of Rafaele. David Wroe conducts the Teatro Grattacielo orchestra. Monday at 8 p.m., Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway at 60th Street, (212) 721-6500, jalc.org; $15 to $75. (Anthony Tommasini)

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