The action is grittier, the stakes (and skirts) raised higher, and the orchestral noises louder than anything else of its time: if Puccini’s realist operas are verismo then Wolf-Ferrari’s 1911 I gioielli della Madonna is verissimo.
With Vespas and gelato-sellers, a brass band and children’s chorus, a procession and – yes – even an orgy, Opera Holland Park’s superb new production embraces the excess of this neglected work, offering a timely bit of operatic everyday for anyone tiring of all the gods and giants up the road at the Proms’ Wagner week.
Those who famously dismissed Tosca as a “shabby little shocker” would faint dead away at a plot that combines blasphemy, incest and Neapolitan gangsters. It’s easy to see why the opera enjoyed such success during Wolf-Ferrari’s lifetime in Northern Europe and America (and still easier to see why Italy and Southern Europe rejected it).
Director Martin Lloyd-Evans cannily updates the action to the early 1950s, matching the urgent and percussive violence of the music to the charged post-war mood. Just as Wolf-Ferrari’s score strains at its harmonic leash, so heroine Maliella (Natalya Romaniw) rages against the outdated traditions and restrictions of her community – a sole voice struggling to be heard again the spiritual clamour of processing worshippers and the secular shouts of the street-folk.
The music flourishes in dialogue with designer Jamie Vartan’s evocative, graffiti-daubed visuals, and conductor Peter Robinson encourages the City of London Sinfonia to match the plot for dynamic extremes. Although they do occasionally overpower the singers, the orchestra (with added guitar, mandolin and accordion) are excellent, and there’s a particularly pleasing friction between the euphemising beauty of the music that opens Act II and the coarse onstage action.
Welsh soprano Romaniw’s Maliella is everything the part demands, combining vocal heft and gloriously dark tonal colouring with a flirtatious energy that never risks becoming vulgarity. Of her two suitors Olafur Sigurdarson’s bad-boy Rafaele (though physically incongruous) is more successful than Joel Montero’s Gennaro, finding a consistently powerful and beautiful place for his voice. A chorus of almost sixty singers are rarely absent from the action – a public always threatening and encroaching into a private tragedy.
In Wolf-Ferrari’s The Jewels of the Madonna Opera Holland Park have truly found a gem. Their production glows with understanding and affection for this unruly, outrageous score, and whatever your personal tastes it’s hard not be swept up in such conviction.