L'amore dei tre Re (Holland Park)
A fiery tale of sex, revenge and death to conclude a strong OHP season
The title's not much of a draw, nor the composer for that matter, but trust me: here's an opera that'll knock your socks off.
Take a generous slug of Italian verismo, add a Verdian bass (Archibaldo, a blind king) and a Puccinian tenor (Avito, an ardent lover), stir in some Elektra-fying nods to Richard Strauss and you have a heady brew. A loud one, too: you get your money's worth in decibels with this opera. Composer Italo Montemezzi's own voice is harder to discern above all the noise but that's not the point. His tale of illicit love, revenge and death may use the trappings of high art but it's a guilty pleasure: shameless summer fun and well worth a night out.
It's not the tunes, it's the unhealthy lip-smacking lusciousness of it all that'll have you whistling your way home from L'amore dei tre Re (or The love of the three kings).
The tale itself is well-worn. Archibaldo awaits the return from battle of his son, Manfredo, whose wife Fiora is in holy bedlock with her former fiancé, Avito. Of course it all ends badly – and there's a melodramatic frisson about the way it does, with one brutal strangulation and a corpse whose poisoned lips put paid to a couple more.
Montemezzi's astringent overture sets up an evening of breathtaking orchestrations. They're never afraid to flirt with vulgarity (much like the piece as a whole) and the sound from the pit makes you want to eat it up. A trumpet plays over rippling flutes; cutting solo moments for harp give way to keening woodwind dissonances, and some fabulous offstage fanfares are picked up seamlessly by the splendid City of London Sinfonia. As for the urbane Peter Robinson, he may look bespectacled and benign but he conducts the hell out of the opera's wild, thrashing orgasms and their placid afterglow.
Martin Lloyd-Evans's production, first seen in 2007 with several of the same cast members, is a touch functional but it doesn't get in the way of the music. Even the injection of Italian resistance partisans to his 20th-century update can be easily ignored, and they do make useful scene changers.
Jamie Vartan's expressionistic set effectively suggests an oppressive régime in a state of decay, his long sloping walkway making epic use of the wide OHP stage. Only the incorporation of a world beyond the canopies jars with this dour environment, and suspension of disbelief is regularly challenged when characters dash back and forth through floral Holland Park.
The cast is beyond praise though, and there's sparing but telling use of the marvellous Opera Holland Park Chorus. Natalya Romaniw, who sings with lashings of late romantic fervour as the passionate Fiora, is ideally matched by Joel Montero's ardent Avito. Simon Thorpe growls and scowls effectively as the cuckolded Manfredo, despite being saddled with Montemezzi's least attention-grabbing music, and Mikhail Svetlov fills the auditorium with his booming Italianate bass (although I could have done without his grandstanding bid for applause at the end of Archibaldo's first-act aria, brilliantly delivered though it was). As for Aled Hall, his stage presence and forthright tenor all but promote compassionate aide-de-camp Flaminio from comprimario to principal.
OHP's repertory fellow Lakmé tests the bladder for two long hours before you even get to the interval, but L'amore dei tre Re is done and dusted inside 100 minutes. You should kill to see it. Just don't kiss the corpse.