It’s not often a cultural phenomenon hits the buffers the way traditional Italian opera did on the death of Giacomo Puccini in 1924. His final work, Turandot, is the terminus of a journey that began back in the 16th century; it produced no successors, and Puccini founded no school. A couple of his lesser contemporaries worked on for a bit, unaware the show was over. But Turandot was really the end of an old song.

Listening to Turandot now, there is nothing so obviously end-of-the-line about it. If it is an extreme and perhaps hysterical piece, what’s new? So was Il trovatore. To all appearances Italian opera was in reasonable health, still the soundtrack to Italian life. Its end was no enfeebled running-out of puff: this was more like a star going supernova. Opera Holland Park has made the operas of what we now think of as the decadence of the artform the company’s calling card; and few are as dazzling as Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re, composed in 1913 and almost caricaturally representative of Italian opera’s exhilarating rush towards its fiery and surprising twilight of the gods.

For over 300 years Italy had been the powerhouse of opera; it was the classic format for Italian music, in the same way the symphony was for the Germans, and it is fun to wonder why it didn’t outlive Puccini. Certainly the main reason was the divorce of academic from popular music which began with the work of Arnold Schönberg around 1910 and reached Italian opera in the next generation: “classical music” slipped from general consciousness, never to return. But there were other reasons too: the rise of movies as the medium for melodrama, the wholesale shift of music-theatre to America – and no doubt the politics of a country scarred by war and suddenly dedicated to frantic, pitiless modernity: Italy was no longer to be the world’s museum.

Since the end of Donizetti’s career in 1843, Italian opera was entirely dominated first by Verdi and then by Puccini from the ’90s. From the years of Verdi’s monopoly we now really remember only one opera by another composer: Ponchielli’s La Gioconda of 1876 (though there are odd pieces like Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele which should be unforgotten). At the same time – for comparison – in France, Berlioz was succeeded by Gounod, Offenbach, Bizet, Delibes, Saint-Saëns, Massenet; the Germans and Austrians, as well as Wagner, had Otto Nicolai, Engelbert Humperdinck and a flourishing operetta tradition alongside the mighty symphonists Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler; in Russia too opera was thriving, as Glinka was superseded by Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. And yet so iconic are Verdi’s works from La traviataRigoletto and Il trovatore in the 1850s, through Don CarlosAidaSimon BoccanegraOtello up to Falstaff in 1893, that he single-handedly maintained Italy’s name as the home of opera.

Given this rather tenuous Verdian monoculture, it’s easy to imagine how exciting the explosion of new opera and new composers was for 1890s Italy: Cavalleria rusticana (Mascagni), 1890; Pagliacci (Leoncavallo); Manon Lescaut(Puccini), 1893; Andrea Chénier (Giordano) and La bohème, 1896; L’arlesiana (Cilea), 1897; Fedora (Giordano again), 1898. Verdi’s vast talent had obscured how thin the Italian tapestry had worn. But now it was flourishing again, the musical spirit of the nation, the soundtrack to daily life as street musicians took up the new tunes and people whistled them on their way to work.

Though Puccini dominated the opera scene from at least the first night of La bohème in 1896 until the posthumous premiere of Turandot in 1926, as that list shows he was far from the only show in town. The operatic fabric began to wear thin again the early 1900s as the promise of Leoncavallo and Mascagni petered out, but works like Alfano’s RisurrezioneLa Wally by Catalani and Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur showed there was still life, and new composers appeared, notably Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, writing I quatro rusteghi in 1906 and Il segreto di Susanna in 1909. Puccini’s own output slowed down, producing nothing between Madama Butterfly (1904) and La fanciulla del West(1910). The next decade was punctuated by gorgeous fireworks: Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini; Puccini’s Il tritticoand La rondine; Wolf-Ferrari’s I gioielli della Madonna; and Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re.

Just looking at that short list provides a lesson in how things had fragmented. These works have little in common: the perfumed mediaevalism of Francesca da Rimini, the violent post-Wagnerism of I gioielli della Madonna, the intense realism of Il tabarro and the Falstaff-derived (and Richard Rodgers-anticipating) coruscations of Gianni Schicchi. Opera in Italy had been late to acknowledge any 19th-century music beyond its own horizons, but now the world had shrunk: it would be absurd to channel the long-dead Verdi, and there was little joy in trying to imitate Puccini. The wider world was suddenly an interesting option. Besides Wagner – the belated arrival of whose music in Italy made him still a fresh influence – there was Debussy, Richard Strauss (Rosenkavalier appeared in 1911), Dvorák, Massenet, not to mention the numinous harmonies of late Mahler, and those exotic Russians, the amazing soundworld of Rimsky transformed by Stravinsky in The Firebird (1910). This was a sweetshop worth raiding.

And the choice of text was equally rich. Puccini, with his unerring eye for something he could transmute into opera, unearthed melodramas that were sentimental (La bohèmeMadama ButterflyLa fanciulla del West) or lurid (Tosca, Turandot). The vague “school” of verismo fixated on the intimate connections between sex, violence and death among the contemporary proletariat, urban or rural (Cavalleria rusticanaIl tabarro). Abroad, meanwhile, opera had begun to prey upon contemporary writing with higher pretensions than the penny-dreadfuls that had been its meat and drink in Italy. Claude Debussy picked a symbolist drama by Maurice Maeterlinck, setting it word-for-word in Pelléas et Mélisande. Richard Strauss did the same with Oscar Wilde’s overripe shocker Salomé, a play whose hothouse language itself aspires to the condition of music.

This manner of drama was given a native Italian spin by the figure of Gabriele d’Annunzio, a highly interesting character – sensualist, self-publicist, proto-Fascist, poet, novelist, playwright, man of action, daredevil military pilot, pathological womaniser; a writer whose exalted opinion of himself was matched for a while throughout a Europe which saw in him the reincarnated spirit of Rome and Renaissance Italy. It is still difficult to assess d’Annunzio soberly; the resonances of his flashy life, his fashionable glorification of violence and espousing of causes that would lead to two catastrophic wars, his peacocking vanity, obscure his real qualities as a writer and creative figure, which of course are utterly tied up with them.

He burst on the scene in 1889 with a wildly pornographic novel called Il piacere (‘Pleasure’), contemporary with the craze for “Decadence” in France exemplified by Mirbeau, Huysmans and Wilde (whose Salomé was written in French). His love-affair with the actress Eleonora Duse – the great rival of Sarah Bernhardt – led him to write plays for her that would have a great influence on the whole tenor of Italian cultural life, not least opera, notably La città morta and Francesca da Rimini. These plays were a hotpot of influences, stirred together into a highly-flavoured stew. They combined the scented language and extreme aestheticism of Wilde and Maeterlinck’s symbolist imagery with a mediaeval fixation recalling the fantasies of the Pre-Raphaelites. Wagner is there, in a fascination with a nexus of night, adulterous love and death that comes straight out of Tristan und Isolde – and the atmosphere of morbidity and spiritual sickness is a Decadent inheritance that can be traced back to Edgar Allan Poe. These are not naturalistic dramas – d’Annunzio had himself declared the death of realism in 1893: “We no longer want truth; give us the dream!” – and he described Francesca da Rimini as “a poem of blood and lust”.

It is a bit of a surprise, therefore, that the play L’amore dei tre Re was not in fact written by d’Annunzio but by a follower of his called Sem Benelli – a man who has been unkindly called “the cast-off slipper of d’Annunzianism” – but it certainly echoes the d’Annunzio method. In a sense all these plays are operas waiting to happen, since they are written with so much self-conscious reference to the texts of Wagner and Debussy. If we describe them as “erotic melodramas” we can see the chasm that has opened between them and their models. Wagner’s Tristan is emphatically not a melodrama despite the standard ingredients of adultery and consequent death – it transcends its genre, dwelling on a plane of metaphysics which, while exclusively concerned with sexual love, avoids any sense of being merely titillating. Whereas works like Francesca da Rimini and L’amore dei tre Re (and Tosca and Turandot) count being titillating among their very highest aims.

The play’s clothing takes it beyond a mere tawdry sex-and-death thriller. Benelli employs a lot of Wagnerian language of the Tristan variety wherein the lovers “abhor the sun” and refer to each other as “dolce morte”. The story itself is a symbolic nationalist dream wherein the foreign invader is conquered by Italy itself – a pretty accurate metaphor for the centuries-old German longing for the warm South. The Dark-Ages “Altura” of the play is a cipher for the Italy invaded by the German king Otto I in the tenth century, with the old blind king Archibaldo standing for Otto. His son Manfredo is married to local princess Fiora, but she secretly keeps up her love with her previous fiancé Avito, an Alturan prince. Italy might have been a sovereign country since 1861, but even in 1913 much of north-eastern Italy still lay under Austrian rule; d’Annunzio and his followers were much fired with irredentist passions and plays like L’amore were expressly designed to fan the flames.

The composer Italo Montemezzi acknowledged no influences – “I learned how to write for the orchestra from the gallery at La Scala”, he said – and like many Italian post-Romantics was a self-made agglomeration of musical styles. Like Puccini, his main aim was to write music that was effective, allying to the extreme situations and disturbed pathologies of the characters a sensationalist idiom which to our ears recalls nothing so much as the film scores of the ’40s. It may not be subtle, but neither is it unsophisticated. His harmonic language is hardly advanced – there is nothing in it that would seem out of place in Wagner’s music of the 1870s, and it never approaches the adventure of Debussy. But he knows how to use an orchestra, how to build and shape, to generate levels of extreme ardour and maintain them, to write music of melting, ethereal sexiness, to employ the tropes of heavy Romanticism – big violin lines, upwardly modulating sequences, ecstatic cadences and tonal shifts lifted from Richard Strauss, the turbo-charged passions a big orchestra and a tenor and soprano at the top of their register can generate – and put them at the service of a stark, fast-moving tragedy that pays little attention to plausible emotions but channels the grand old Gothic of battles, suicides, adultery, revenge, the whole panoply of fantastic mediaeval romance.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Montemezzi never produced anything to touch L’amore: this extravaganza had exhausted his invention. In its time it took the world by storm, appearing at the Met in New York in 1914 and staying there till the 1950s, championed by the conductors Serafin and Toscanini. Maybe now it is a historical curiosity, though one of great sinister power and drive. And we can see the piece for what it is, part of the magnificent final flowering of a blazing tradition that had vastly enriched the world.

Originally printed in the 2015 Season Programme Magazine