As a lively art, opera has its aficionados, most of whom enjoy a small cadre of the repertoire: La Boheme, Siegfried, Rosenkavalier, Il Trovatore. But there is a smaller group of passionate operistas who realize that there is an enormous catalogue of opera that is seldom performed, or worse, seldom heard. In the case of Italo Montemezzi's opera, "La Nave", the work is virtually unknown except by reputation. A huge, monumental opera that Montemezzi claimed to be his masterpiece, not a note of it was recorded, and was not staged since 1938--and that despite an initial run at La Scala and Chicago opera. So it is with intense interest that we now have a remarkable book by David Chandler that not only sets this extraordinary opera in context of its times, but also collates the contemporaneous reviews both in Italy and America. It gives us a very well-rounded look at the composer as well as the fiery Gabriele D'Annunzio, who wrote the original play, and the man who adapted La Nave as a libretto, Tito Ricordi, removing more than 3,000 lines of the dramatic poem.
Chandler is familiar not only with the musicological aspect of the opera but understands the historical aspects as well; he makes a good case for the opera being totally of its own time, seen through the lens of Italian artists who were devoted to creating a legacy that would keep Italy at the forefront of creative endeavor. Italians saw that era as a kind of last-chance to become a world-class player in world affairs, and "La Nave" certainly filled the bill for that sentiment. The fact that a telegram was read between acts at the opera's premiere that the war had ended seemed prescient; the fact that D'Annunzio then marched on Fiume as though to begin a new world-order with Italy at its head did not fare as well as expected, and it only encouraged Mussolini to march on Rome in 1922. The Ship in D'Annunzio's conception (called "Totus Mundus") was meant to conquer new lands; Mussolini's brutal takeover in Ethiopia badly misfired. With the advent of Hitler in 1933, Italy's fate became that of an also-ran, and the fate of the opera (as well as the play) of "La Nave" seemed to be rather beside-the-point. The Second World War actually caused the destruction of the operatic scores and parts, sealing the fate of the work to be unseen for nearly 90 years.
It was up to Teatro Grattacielo in New York to ask the publisher to re-construct the score and parts from the one remaining document: the composer's own autograph orchestral score. This was done, and on Oct. 31, 2012 the opera was heard once more, to glowing acclaim. Were Chandler to continue this book in a second edition, his observation on the physical sound of the opera would be a welcome addition.