After 20 years, a striking opera is heard again

The first performance in over 20 years of Italo Montemezzi's "L'amore dei tre re" at the Providence Opera Theater aired again a truly neglected masterpiece of 20th- century opera.

The work was given its world premiere in 1913 in La Scala, Milan, and its US premiere at the Metropolitan Opera Jan. 2, 1914, with Arturo Toscanini conducting. It had great favor then as a superb vehicle for great singing actors. Basso Ezio Pinza had tremendous success in the part of blind vengeful King Archibaldo. The opera was done on a memorable NBC opera presentation with Giorgio Tozzi and Phyllis Curtin. Grace Moore was a noted interpreter of the role of Fiora, and Mary Garden and Rosa Ponselle made their marks in that part as well.

What is it about this opera that made it such a success? First, its superbly theatrical libretto, pared to a lean, tight, emotionally taut and dramatically volatile series of confrontations. Montemezzi set the tremendously successful Sem Benelli play of the same title word for word, with no trims or cuts. The composer's orchestral skill is formidable, his theatrical sense exceptional. This is not an opera that has its roots in arias, scenes, and sweeping melodies. Rather, it is a tightly conceived, expressionistic narrative. The orchestra supports the singers, sets the mood, depicts the action. And, in a play where on-stage action is rather limited, it is the orchestral fabric that gives "L'amore dei tre re" such impact.

It would surely seem that the time is ripe for a major revival of this work at the Metropolitan Opera: If the house can see fit to mount especially Mascagni's tedious "Il Picolo Marat" for Placido Domingo, to be seen in a few seasons, then surely this major work not only can be, but demands to be produced there.

The Providence Opera Theater is in its inaugural season. The company performs in the large Ocean State Theater, with a capacity of 3,200 people. The company has its share of evident growing pains. The best thing about this evening was the orchestral work under Alvaro Casutto, music director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic. His work in this production is part of a consortium effort that will eventually involve the major arts groups in Providence -- all the Philharmonic, the Rhode Island School of Design (sets and costumes), a director from Trinity Square Repertory, and of course, the opera company. It is a commendable undertaking.

Casutto got his orchestra to cope generally very well with Montemezzi's involved, elaborate scoring. It is not easy music for an orchestra, and the conductor must keep textures from becoming too thick, too massive for the singers. The sets by Preston McClanahan were not really suited to the opera -- a series of square pillars that regroups to form this and that. Nowhere was there the hint of 10th-century Italy, more a sense of mediocre '50s modern. The Lorraine Howes costumes were not much more help and were especially unflattering for the soprano.

Of the singers, John Seabury's Archibaldo proved the most rewarding, though he lacks the sheer impact to make the part really come to life. In the important role of Fiora, Louise Cash, filling in for an ailing Anna Moffo, communicated very little of the woman's feelings or emotions, outward and inward. Lawrence Cooper was fine as the stolid Manfredo.

The performance, taped for the local public television station, was directed by William Radka, who clearly has scant idea of what makes opera tick and makes one question his abilities as a theater director as well.

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