WHEN the operas of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari came to America (his beautiful setting of the Vita Nuova” was already quite widely known at the time), it was thought singular and somewhat significant that though the operas had all been composed to Italian texts they should have their first Italian performances in this country. This was the case with “Le Donne Curiose,” heard at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, on January 3, 1912 ; of “Il Segreto di Susanna,” which the Chicago-Philadelphia Opera Company brought to New York after giving it a hearing in its home cities, in February, 1912 ; of “I Giojelli della Madonna” first produced in Berlin in December, 1911, and in Chicago a few weeks later. A fourth opera, “L’Amore Medico,” had its first representation at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, on March 25, 1914.
The circumstance to which I have alluded as worthy of comment was due, I fancy, more to the business methods of modern publishers than to a want of appreciation of the operas in Italy, though Signor Wolf-Ferrari sought to meet the taste of his countrymen (assuming that the son of a German father and a Venetian mother is to be set down as an Italian) when he betrayed the true bent of his genius and sought to join the ranks of the Italian veritists in his “Giojelli della Madonna.” However, that is not the question I am desirous to discuss just now when the first impressions of “Le Donne Curiose” come flocking back to my memory. The book is a paraphrase of Goldoni’s comedy of the same name, made (and very deftly made) for the composer by Count Luigi Sugana. It turns on the curiosity of a group of women concerning the doings of their husbands and sweethearts at a club from which they are excluded. The action is merely a series of incidents in which the women (the wives by rifling the pockets of their husbands, the maidens by wheedling, cajoling, and playing upon the feelings of their sweethearts) obtain the keys of the club-room, and effect an entrance only to find that instead of gambling, harboring mistresses, seeking the philosopher’s stone, or digging for treasure, as is variously suspected, the men are enjoying an innocent supper. In their eagerness to see all that is going on, the women betray their presence. Then there follow scoldings, contrition, forgiveness, a graceful minuet, and the merriment runs out in a wild furlana.
Book and score of the opera hark back a century or more in their methods of expression. The incidents of the old comedy are as loosely strung together as those of “Le Nozze di Figaro,” and the parallel is carried further by the similarity between the instrumental apparatus of Mozart and Wolf-Ferrari and the dependence of both on melody, rather than orchestral or harmonic device, as the life-blood of the music upon which the comedy floats. It is Mozart’s orchestra that the modern composer uses (“the only proper orchestra for comedy,” as Berlioz said), eschewing even those “epical instruments,” the trombones. It would not do to push the parallel too far, though a keen listener might feel tempted also to see a point of semblance in the Teutonism which tinctures the Italian music of both men ; a Teutonism which adds an ingredient more to the taste of other peoples than that of the people whose language is employed. But while the Italisnism of Mozart was wholly the product of the art-spirit of his time, the Teutonism of Wolf-Ferrari is a heritage from his German father and its Italianism partakes somewhat of the nature of a reversion to old ideals from which even his mother’s countrymen have departed. There is an almost amusing illustration of this in the paraphrase of Goldoni’s comedy which the composer took as a libretto. The Leporello of Da Ponte and Mozart has his prototype in the Arlecchino of the classic Italian comedy, but he has had to submit to so great a metamorphosis as to make him scarcely recognizable. But in the modem “Donne Curiose”
we have not only the old figure down to his conventional dress and antics, but also his companions Pantaloon and Columbine. All this, however, may be better enjoyed by those who observe them in the representation than those who will only read about them, no matter how deftly the analysis may be made.
It is Mozart’s media and Mozart’s style which Wolf-Ferrari adopts, but there are traces also of the idioms of others who have been universal musicians rather than specifically Italian. Like Nicolai’s “0 susse Anna !” (Shakespeare’s “Oh, Sweet Anne Page”), Wolf-Ferrari’s Florindo breathes out his languishing “Ah, Rosaura ! ” And in the lively chatter of the women there is frequently more than a suggestion of the lively gossip of Verdi’s merry wives in his incomparable “Falstaff.” Wolf-Ferrari is neither a Mozart nor a Verdi, not even a Nicolai, as a melodist, but he is worthy of being bracketed with them, because as frankly as they he has spoken the musical language which to him seemed a proper investiture of his comedy, and like them has made that language characteristic of the comedy’s personages and illustrative of its incidents. He has been brave enough not to fear being called a reactionary, knowing that there is always progress in the successful pursuit of beauty.
The advocates of opera sung in the language native to the hearers may find an eloquent argument in “Le Donne Curiose,” much of whose humor lies in the text and is lost to those who cannot understand it despite the obviousness of its farcical action. On the other hand, a feeling of gratitude must have been felt by many others that they were not compelled to hear the awkward commonplaces of the English translation of the libretto. The German version, in which the opera had its first hearing in Munich six years before, is in a vastly different case neither uncouth nor halting, even though it lacks the characteristic fluency essential to Italian opera buffa; yet no more than did the speech of most of the singers at the Metropolitan performance. The ripple and rattle of the Italian parlando seem to be possible only to Italian tongues.
The Mozartian type of music is illustrated not only in the character of many of its melodies, but also in the use of motivi in what may be called the dramatic portions the fleet flood upon which the dialogue dances with a light buoyancy that is delightfully refreshing. These motivi are not used in the Wagnerian manner, but as every change of situation or emotion is characterized in Mozart’s marvellous ensembles by the introduction of a new musical idea, so they are in his modern disciple’s. All of them are finely characteristic, none more so than the comical cackle so often heard from the oboe in the scenes wherein the women gossip about the imaginary doings of the men an intentional echo, it would almost seem, of the theme out of which Rameau made his dainty harpsichord piece known as “La Poule.” The motto of the club,
“Bandie xe le done,” is frequently proclaimed with more or less pomposity ; Florindo’s “Ah, Rosaura,” with its dramatic descent, lends sentimental feeling to the love music, and the sprightly rhythm which accompanies the pranks of Colombina keeps much of the music bubbling with merriment. In the beginning of the third act, not only the instrumental introduction, but much of the delightful music which follows, is permeated with atmosphere and local color derived from a familiar Venetian barcarolle (“La biondina in gondoleta “), but the musical loveliness reaches its climax in the sentimental scenes a quartet, a solo by Rosaura, and a duet, in which there breathes the sympathetic spirit of Smetana as well as Mozart.
In “Le Donne Curiose,” the gondoliers sing their barcarolle and compel even the cynic of the drama to break out into an enthusiastic exclamation : “Oh, beautiful Venice !” The world has heard more of the natural beauties of Naples than of the artificial ones of Venice, but when Naples is made the scene of a drama of any kind it seems that its attractions for librettist and composer lie in the vulgarity and vice, libertinism and lust, the wickedness and wantonness, of a portion of its people rather than in the loveliness of character which such a place might or ought to inspire.
Perhaps it was not altogether surprising that when Wolf-Ferrari turned from Venice and “Le Donne Curiose” to “I Giojelli della Madonna” with Naples as a theatre for his drama he should not only change the style of his music, but also revert to the kind of tale which his predecessors in the field seem to have thought appropriate to the place which we have been told all of us should see once and die out of sheer ecstasy over its beauty. But why are only the slums of Naples deemed appropriate for dramatic treatment ?
How many stories of Neapolitan life have been told in operas since Auber wrote his “La Muette di Portici” I do not know ; doubtless 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 black-guard 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 re-wards 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 folksong. 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 “I1 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 Louise Bèrat, Amadeo Bassi, and Mario Sammarco.