L’amore dei tre Re was easily sat through and easily enjoyed. Montemezzi knew how to squeeze a good story into 90 minutes. In the grand old tradition of opera (or Shakespeare too, I guess) just about everyone dies. Further, as ever, the cause of conflict (since Homer, I guess) is – you guessed it – a woman. Natalya Romaniw‘s princess Fiora sends three guys mad for her beauty.
The guys: local lad Avito (Joel Montero) semi-dumped by Fiora when she is forced into marrying the conquering prince Manfredo (Simon Thorpe) by his father Archiboldo (Mikhail Svetlov) who also has a bit of a thing for Fiora – so much so that he kills her.
I could see why the guys fell for her: Fiora has a romantic heart and soul, and judging by the incredible amount of kissing in this production (yes, even beyond usual operatic proportions – themselves beyond the wildest excesses of everyday life – or maybe that’s just me and my life…and if so, well, I want more operatic kissing in my life…) she is ardent hearted too. Romaniw was truly excellent in the role. Actually her kissing alone – to say nothing of her singing – was pretty no-holds-barred (some holds and clutches actually happily exploited) and I always feel bad for opera kissers because one day you will have to kiss someone who makes you go “no thanks” and you have to kiss them in rehearsal, dress rehearsal, then night after night and in public. The stupendous amount of kissing seemed to be director Martin Lloyd Evans‘s way of showing us passion, which seemed to be over-egging the operatic pudding a bit, but I got the message in the end: Avito and Fiora really have the hots for each other. I think the snogging gave it away.
But back to Romaniw’s Fiora. In seriousness, she was well acted and more importantly, well sung: many moments genuinely thrilled. When she declaimed “do you want my life?” dramatic tension flew high because notes were easy and gloriously produced. Similarly when Fiora cries out that her life is “torture!” the same remarkable intensity was in evidence. Her voice sliced through the orchestra with ease. Her performance was gifted with clear diction and more, investment in the text and in the role – truly a superb performance. At one point Avito – the name means “sweet death” she says, declares that her voice sounds “like sweet enchantment” and I agreed. L’amore dei tre Re was worth the trip just to hear and see Romaniw’s powerhouse performance.
Mr Montero may have been suffering from a cold or was a little slow to warm up at the performance I saw. (OHP wasn’t too warm itself that evening). Intonation was a bit wayward in his first few lines and occasionally throughout Act 1. By the final act he was fine. Chemistry didn’t truly sizzle between him and his Fiora – hence perhaps the massive amount of rubbing and kissing attempting to light the fire at this melodrama’s heart. That aside, he took some of Montemezzi’s crazy climaxes and stridencies in his stride. Bravo!
Montemezzi’s horribly cuckolded Manfredo manages to be infinitely forgiving of his wife – a neat device for drama. Simon Thorpe well embodied the love and anguish and yes, pity through which his character moves. Manfredo is in danger of coming across a bit of a wet blanket because of this tender heart – the libretto has him say he could not hear his wife’s approach as she is an angel with noiseless footsteps. These tweeful sentiments could quite easily smother the drama but it was to Thorpe’s credit that he sustained the balance between loving sweetness and later vengeful fervor. One is rather reminded of Otello (strong warrior absent by war suspects his wife of infidelity, only here it is true – she is shacking up with another guy.) Particularly touching were his last moments with his dead wife in the chapel.
The last king was Archiboldo: pure evil in the grand Verdian tradition, and sung as such, his “Italia, Italia è tutto il mio ricordo!” aria garnering applause, partly due to Svetlov’s grandstanding approach to it. Playing a blind man is not easy, the gaze is important in any drama but I credit him with more than convincing acting. The scene where he dispatches Fiora in a pseudo-sexual act of strangulation (Otello again?) was pulse quickenly gripping – not least because of Romaniw’s strangulated cries and desperate wheezing. Chilling, and effective. Not many opera villains get summarily executed with a shot to the cerebellum but the Chekist looking thugs of the supernumeries decided that was the best way to be rid of this particular man. Again, chilling, plausible and well done.
This execution took place on exposed steps up high on Jamie Vartan‘s stage set, the stage itself a cube edge on, with steps on the outside and a door at the bottom. This meant that anyone at the sides (e.g. me in my “Inspire” seat) lost a small bit of sound and action, but for Inspire prices, I didn’t mind at all.
Speaking of action, Aled Hall‘s Flaminio – a soldier, was well given. He was every inch the stolid dependable military man, and well sung. I also would like to add that he spent almost the entire opera jogging off and onstage, and this was actually really convincing too, but I would have liked to have heard more of his singing. (Good arm position whilst jogging by the way, Mr Hall: small details count. As I said, “every inch the soldier.” Two thumbs up.)
Finally I must mention Jessica Eccleston as Fiora’s maid. Intimate opera such as here at Holland Park, where really there’s no poor seats, often reveals the true devotees of the operatic art. I don’t refer to the stars in the spotlights but to those hidden in ensemble and chorus. Although the part of the maid didn’t have Eccleston sing much (though when she did, it was lovely,) she did have to show grief and pay her respects to her dead mistress as part of a mournful ensemble. In that small moment she was the best thing in the whole show (which is saying something). Even as I write these words at a remove of nearly a month her expression and approach has stayed with me. She acted her socks off and it was amazing to watch. It was a quietly mesmerising performance. Were I a casting director she would have got a call the next day with offers – as would a guy I saw in Garsington Opera in Fidelio last year who was a member of Florestan’s imprisoned fellows. When released to taste the open air in an act of compassion by the prison boss the fellow made me utterly believe in his delight and astonishment at being momentarily free from care and privation; he made me believe that his soul was in spiritual release. On his face was writ emotion beyond gratitude, almost a look beyond acting – it was being lived. He was deeply moved and I will never forget that look, nor those moments. Similarly with Eccleston: emotion in spades, maybe some real tears-in-the-eyes. Splendid to see. Moments such as these are why I love the arts.
The chorus themselves were strong in voice. I am a fan of offstage chorus singing and this opera has some great bits of it, the prayer to God section especially sweetly sung.
Peter Robinson‘s conducting of the City of London Sinfonia was assured, the band whipping through the notes with aplomb but perhaps at times they nearly drowned some of the cast out! I do however wish to give special mention to the timpanist. My seat afforded me an excellent view of his art and it was a pleasure to see and hear his work from up close in this music, which made full use of his skills.
In all, a great evening out.