The now-familiar Smillie-Timson team in Naxos’s
accustomed format present another ‘Introduction to …’.
This time it is Mascagni’s masterwork Cavalleria rusticana
that gets the treatment.
The narration is characteristically wide-ranging,
including references to Lully, Gluck and Mozart helping to ‘place’
Cavalleria, then referring to the bel canto of Rossini, Donizetti
and Bellini. Problems of even translating the title are addressed;
‘Rustic Chivalry’ hardly covers it. Verdi, of course,
is there; a remarkably virile excerpt from Nabucco is noteworthy:
these quotes are not credited, but it is a racing certainty they
come from the Naxos library. The roots of ‘verismo’
in the works of Emile Zola, and the play of Giovanni Verga that
provided the basis of Cav, alongside the earthen gypsy-as-heroine
basis of Carmen, all provide further context. It is only a pity
the quoted performance of ‘L’amour …’
is so awfully sluggish, especially from the bored-sounding chorus.
Talking in generalities like this can be dangerous, yet careful
consideration has been given to this so the effect of (presumably)
encouraging curiosity on the part of the listener, and thereby
increasing Naxos sales, is smoothly achieved.
The narration also catalogues the decline of
Mascagni, including an account of the demolition of the opera
Iris by the ‘Puccini juggernaut’ (we get to hear that
opera’s ‘Hymn to the Sun’ conducted by the composer).
The great advantage that this particular issue
in Naxos’s series has is that it can, and does, refer to
the composer’s own recording, separately available on 8.110714/15.
The sheer power of Mascagni’s own account of the famous
Intermezzo simply has to be heard. It comes complete with string
portamenti that to my ears are perfectly acceptable but may bother
some. A pity the narrator talks over it! Still, it comes with
a passion that makes me wish we had more of Mascagni on the rostrum.
Composers on the rostrum are not always such a good idea but this
case is an exception; the Intermezzo from L’amico Fritz
is also excerpted. We even get to hear Mascagni speaking in 1940
(track 7): in Italian, but there is an English translation given
in the short accompanying booklet.
Perhaps it is unfortunate that Mascagni flourished
in Fascist Italy. Composers are usually bad judges of politics,
posits Smillie, citing Richard Strauss in this connection.
The narrative explains the progress of the opera
and its music well. Good that this introduction points us in the
direction of other Mascagni, something those of us who enjoy trawling
the by-roads rejoice in. Good also that Naxos has capitalised
fully on their library, so the Ancient and Modern, as it were,
can co-exist and we can learn from them. Smillie contrasts the
two Turridus, Gigli and Aragall. He states that the advantage
of a modern recording is that we get to hear everything (‘maximum
clarity’) and therefore that makes it preferable; not necessarily
a logical train of thought - he explains all this in Track 9.
As Smillie states, Cavalleria rusticana is a
thoroughly enjoyable combination of sin and sanctity; the example
par excellence, of course, is Tosca, and in the discourse an example
appears right on cue.
These Naxos ‘Introduction to …’
discs bear repeated listening, although it is advisable to leave
a fair chunk of time in-between playings. There is also something
reassuring in Smillie’s delivery of the narrative that reassures
you that he knows what he is talking about.