Even on paper, it sets the heart pounding: a young blacksmith (Gennaro) falls passionately in love with his adoptive sister (Maliella), who, instead, fancies Mr Couldn’t-Be-More-Wrong (Rafaele). But then, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s neglected opera ‘I Gioielli della Madonna’ is all about wanting exactly what we shouldn’t, and as such, weaves a tapestry of taboos that, one imagines, would have gone down like a stink-bomb in 1911 when the work was premiered: borderline incest; implied criticism of the Catholic church. At one point there’s even (woop woop) an on-stage orgy.
It’s still pretty racy by today’s standards, an impression consolidated by Wolf-Ferrari’s score. Creamy, sensuous, awash with colour, it leaves you feeling like you’ve had too much pudding – satisfied, if slightly queasy. Evidently the City of London Sinfonia – expanded to over sixty players – couldn’t get enough of it, responding ravenously to Peter Robinson’s assured conducting.
On-stage, emotions run similarly high. Director Martin Lloyd-Evans has set the action in a seedy, graffiti-covered yard, filled to capacity with fruit-sellers, dancers, balloons and general revelry, where the debauched world portrayed in the opera is brought vividly to life. And the cast do their most to enhance the illusion, particularly Natalya Romaniw’s Maliella, her ripe, rounded voice every bit as mesmerising as her fiery stage persona. Joel Montero gives an impassioned performance as Gennaro, the hapless blacksmith who attempts to win Maliella by presenting her with the stolen jewels of the Madonna. Olafur Sigurdarson contributes a powerful presence as Rafaele, while Diana Montague makes a memorable appearance as Carmela, Gennaro’s mother.