Opera Synopsis: The Jewels Of The Madonna

Opera synopsis: Libretto summary of The Jewels of the Madonna, an opera by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari with a look at the original reaction to its themes.

The Jewels of the Madonna is a veristic opera in three acts written by the Italo-German composer Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari at the beginning of the twentieth century. At the time of publication it enjoyed some success in Germany and England. Unfortunately, the topics it dealt with were not considered very appropriate for the stage, especially in Catholic Italy, where the opera was not performed until 1953. It is the presentation of these topics we are to observe more closely, rather than the musical virtuosity of the composer (who insists on using an abnormal number of instruments, anything from toy trumpets to Putipu's, organs and church bells).

Act one opens, without an overture, with a bustling street scene in contemporary Naples with a large number of street salesmen pitching their wares, children running around, beggars, monks and one of the main characters, Gennaro, the local blacksmith, sitting in the background. It is the feast day of the Madonna, and everyone is outdoors to celebrate this religious festival. We find out that Gennaro is not joining in the festivities because he is in love. Unfortunately, the object of his desire is his younger adoptive sister, Maliella, who is kept indoors by her overprotective mother and brother so as not to fall in love.

As the feast progresses outside, Maliella throws a tantrum and, contrary to her family, goes out and joins the fun. She turns out to be a centrepiece of entertainment to the crowds by dancing and singing to everyone's pleasure (bar her brother, who tries to force her back indoors). As this goes on, a young man, Rafaele, the leader of the Camorra, a group of local roughians, catches her eye and vice versa. He begins to woo her, as this is one of the few ladies in the neighbourhood he has not yet had. In order to gain her affection, he offers to steal the jewels off of the statue of the Madonna, a crime of unutterable sacrilege, just when the procession of the Madonna reaches its religious climax as the statue is paraded through the town square in a spectacular finale to the first act.

The second act takes place, after a short musical interlude, in the back yard of Maliella and Gennaro's home. Maliella, by now having fallen in love with Rafaele, decides to leave the house, but is prevented by Gennaro. A lengthy duet follows where Gennaro admits to loving her. Unfortunately for Gennaro, Maliella is outraged and thinks him insane - they are brother and sister and such love is not natural. She goes on to tell of the virtues of Rafaele, and Gennaro finds out that Rafaele was prepared to steal the jewels of the Madonna for her. Gennaro, insulted and hurt beyond belief, agonises over his decision for a short period, and eventually walks off into the distance with his tools, locking the house and garden behind him, with Maliella in it.

As Gennaro is away, Rafaele approaches with a band of followers. He serenades Maliella and then proceeds to seduce her through the garden fence. Before they manage to get beyond a kiss, Gennaro returns in the distance, and Maliella promises to escape and meet Rafaele later in his lair outside town. Gennaro comes back to find Maliella in a dreamlike state. He presents her with the jewels of the Madonna, which he has just stolen. Maliella is convinced that no man except Rafaele would have the bravado to do anything like that, and takes Gennaro for Rafaele in a state of delerious confusion. Gennaro proceeds to reap the fruit of Rafaele's seduction in the pause between acts two and three.

The final act opens up to show the lair of the Camorra in the woods, just outside of town. A large amount of bawdy revellers appear, and with the arrival of some stolen goods a great party begins. The Camorra and attendant cronies all marvel when Rafaele describes the beauty of Maliella and roll with laughter as he reveals his true intentions for her. His only interest is in her virginity and liberating her of her "little hooded rose-bud". The women of the assembly take offence in his lack of interest in them, and decide to start a dance, which rapidly degenerates into a full scale orgiastic event, with everyone taking part. It is only interrupted by the arrival of Maliella.

The girl is still wearing the jewels, concealed by a cloak. She tells of how she was taken by Gennaro, at which point Rafaele spurns her as she is no longer a virgin. Her horror is worsened when she reveals that she is wearing the jewels of the Madonna. The populace see her as accursed for having worn the Jewels and they too reject her as excommunicated. There is little else for her but to commit suicide, and she runs away towards the sea, screaming. Gennaro, having been chased up by a band of Camorra sent out by Rafaele to punish him for his audacity to deflower Maliella, arrives, and realises the gravity of the situation. Rafaele does not kill him as Gennaro too is accursed because of the theft, and leaves him "...to die, die here alone, die like a dog!". He also underlines how the Camorrists are a godfearing community that would never break the commandments. Meanwhile, the theft has been discovered in the town and the church bells are rung. The Camorrists flee, leaving Gennaro alone with his concions. He stabs himself as the townspeople enter with his mother, and even she, his own mother, refuses to help him because of his heinous crimes.

The concept of multiple deaths in an opera was hardly anything new, though it is a device rarely used. However, openly, and in many cases very bluntly, suggesting not only sexual activity, but also incest on stage was probably a bit too much for the contemporary audience. There was also the matter of the religious controversy and the blatant hypocrisy clearly displayed in the third act, where the Camorrists have not only bragged about stolen booty, but also indulged in extramarital carnal pleasure. This, indeed, is the main moral of the story. Wolf-Ferrari clearly displayed his thoughts on the hypocrisy within the Catholic church by depicting how crimes and sacrilege could be committed, yet absolved by confession later on. This, rather than the incest and sexual references was presumably what delayed the staging of his work in Italy by 42 years.


Wolf-Ferrari, E. "The Jewels of the Madonna (I Gioielli della Madonna)" New York: G. Schirmer, INC.

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