Sex and Murder
'La cena delle beffe',
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
La cena delle beffe ('The Jesters' Supper') is an opera in four acts composed by Umberto Giordano to a libretto by Sem Benelli from his 1909 play. The gruesome story, set in Florence at the time of Lorenzo de' Medici, recounts the rivalry between Giannetto Malespini and Neri Chiaramantesi for beautiful Ginevra and Giannetto's thirst for revenge over a cruel joke played on him by Neri and his brother Gabriello. Giannetto's revenge 'joke' ultimately leads Neri to murder both Ginevra and (by mistake) his own brother. The opera ends with Neri's descent into madness. In a way there are some points in common with Eine florentinische Tragödie by Alexander von Zemlinsky based on an unfinished play by Oscar Wilde: a ghastly and cruel view of Florence during the Renaissance where sex and murder seem to be the main occupations. Sem Benelli's play was also the subject of a very popular 1942 Italian movie.
Like several other works by Benelli, La Cena delle beffe is written in florid neo-romantic verses, with a historical setting and a violent plot. Benelli's play was an immediate and extraordinary success in Italy. At one time it was being performed simultaneously by four different Italian touring companies, and continues to remain in the repertoire today. It was also quite successful in London and New York, but less so in Paris. La cena delle beffe premiered on 20 December 1924 at La Scala in a performance directed by Giovacchino Forzano and conducted by Arturo Toscanini with some of the best known singers of the time. The sets and costumes were designed by Galileo Chini who had also designed the premiere production of Benelli's original play in 1909. The opening night was a triumphal success with the conductor and cast taking twenty-four curtain calls. The opera was a major hit in Italy and abroad. After 1930, performances have become sporadic although the opera has never completely dropped out of the repertoire. It had major revivals at Wexford Festival Opera in 1987 and at Zurich Opera in 1999 as well as at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna in a production directed by Liliana Cavani. In 2004, it was revived in Manhattan by Teatro Grattacielo at Alice Tully Hall.
In 1909 the plot was considered scandalous, and for this reason it attracted audience. In 1942, the film was one of the first Italian movies in which a well-known actress, Clara Calamai, appeared half naked — an additional reason to push the public to cinemas in the midst of World War II.
I saw and heard one of this season's last performances of La Cena delle beffe in Milan on 4 May 2016. What are now the merits of the opera? It is not only a 'period piece' worth showing every so often. There is a lot of interesting singing, sliding from declamato to arioso, especially for the main tenor (a superb Marco Berti), but also for the baritone (an excellent Nicola Alaimo) and for the lyric tenor (a good Leonardo Caimi). There is also good singing for the soprano, but Kristin Lewis did not seem to fit the bill as a femme fatale who over a time span of eighteen hours sleeps with two brothers and their rival. There is also (for the period) innovative orchestration: Carlo Rizzi and La Scala Orchestra extracted all the rhythm and tints.
The Italian press warmly applauded the stage direction, but in my opinion it is the production's weak point. Director Mario Martone and his associates (Margherita Palli for the sets, Ursula Patzak for the costumes and Pasquale Mari for lighting) do not stage the action in a surrealist Florentine Renaissance but in New York's Little Italy in the nineteen thirties or forties. This creates a clash with the elegant verses carefully molded with the music so that every word could be understood. Then, there is no reason to change the final scene with a mafia massacre covering Neri's madness.