‘In a luxurious restaurant in Paris a group of friends are enjoying
life in the small hours when the painter Giorgio appears. In reality,
he is prince and heir apparent in a country somewhere in the Balkans.
There is a row when a group of people are seen running after a
frightened girl, mocking her for not wanting to be kissed by some
customers. Giorgio and his friends defend the girl and the crowd
disperses. The girl tells Giorgio her story. Her name is Marcella.
She comes from poor circumstances and followed a friend to work
in this restaurant. The establishment has a dubious reputation
but she has not yielded to living in sin. Giorgio and Marcella
are gradually drawn to each other and the first episode end with
the couple leaving the restaurant together.
In the second episode
we are in a country house where Marcella and Giorgio are living
together, deeply in love. Marcella still doesn’t know Giorgio’s
true identity. His friend and compatriot Drasco arrives and
tells Giorgio about the serious political situation in their
home country. The sovereign is old and weak and Giorgio realises
that it is his duty to return home and settle the unrest. He
wants to leave the same night. Marcella overhears the conversation
and understands that this is the end of their happy life. They
talk about it in deep sadness.
In the third episode
it is night and they are bidding each other farewell. Giorgio
wants Marcella to come with him but the difference between their
conditions is too big, says Marcella and rejects his offer.
They part in deep distress – their mutual feelings are not dead
but their mutual life together has become impossible.
This is the plot
in this short Idillio moderno, a kind of verismo aftermath
by Umberto Giordano. Giordano first came to notice when he took
part in a competition for the best one-act opera; it was won
by Pietro Mascagni with Cavalleria rusticana. Giordano’s
contribution, entitled Marina, was placed sixth among
seventy-three. This led to a commission from the publishers
Casa Sonzogno for the 1891-92 season, Mala vita. Dealing
with a prostitute heroine it caused a minor scandal but it was
so successful that it was played in Vienna, Prague and Berlin
as well. In 1896, after a romantic opera that flopped, his best
known work, Andrea Chenier, was premiered and it has
stood the test of time ever since. Fedora, premiered
two years later with Gemma Bellincioni singing the title role
opposite a young and practically unknown Enrico Caruso, has
also survived though in a more backward position. The aria Amor
ti vieta is in most lyric-dramatic tenors’ recital repertoire.
His later operas are seldom or never heard but Siberia
(1903) – with singers like Rosina Storchio, Giovanni Zenatello,
Giuseppe De Luca and Antonio Pini-Corsi in the premiere cast
– had resounding success and ran for several seasons in Paris.
As late as 1915 Madame Sans-Gêne was a hit when it was
premiered at the Metropolitan in NY, conducted by Arturo Toscanini
and with Geraldine Farrar, Giovanni Martinelli, Pasquale Amato
and Paul Althouse in the leading roles.
In the liner-notes
there is a curious statement that Giordano was ‘in the final
phases of his creativity (only Mese Mariano was to come
…’. This seems to be a misunderstanding from the translator,
since this bracketed passage doesn’t appear in the Italian original.
The truth is that Giordano completed another three operas after
Madame Sans-Gêne – the last of them, Il Re, in
1929. Another was left unfinished.
‘Puccini with water’
was the dismissive comment I once heard about Giordano’s music.
It may be that his melodic invention isn’t as constantly inspired
as Puccini’s. He sometimes resorts to rather empty bombast or
syrupy sentimentality. The orchestral texture is not always
as refined and subtle as the older master’s, but there are many
memorable melodies in his oeuvre and arias and duets are eminently
singable. Giorgio’s Dolce notte misterioso in the third
episode is an aria that Puccini would have been proud of. Both
Tito Schipa and Beniamino Gigli agreed and sang it in recital.
No less than Fernando De Lucia was the one who sang it at the
premiere, while Gemma Bellincioni, who was the first Fedora
a decade earlier, sang Marcella.
Writing lovely music
for tenor and soprano was Puccini’s forte and in this opera
they are practically the only ones that matter. ‘The three acts
are nothing more than three love duets for the protagonists’,
says Alberto Cantù in his notes and this is by no means an exaggeration.
Of the others only Drasco has something important to sing. Most
of this comes in the dramatic and powerful scene in the second
episode, when he and Giorgio discuss the terrible situation
in their home country. Maybe the finest music in the opera is
the prelude to episode III for strings, an evocative nocturne
opening with a ravishingly beautiful cello melody. The long
scene in episode II E dovrei lasciar tutto … Sempre così.
Voglimi bene! is truly inspired and again Puccini must have
envied his younger colleague.
performances there are some stage noises, but I’ve heard much
worse. The sound is slightly dry but it is well balanced and
the record company lives up to its name. I haven’t been able
to find any information on the soloists but soprano Serena Daolio
has at least taken part in a complete recording of Marchetti’s
Romeo e Giulietta and tenor Danilo Formaggia has featured
in another Romeo and Juliet opera, Bellini’s I Capuleti ed
i Montecchi. They have primarily lyrical voices, she slightly
fluttery, lending a vulnerable quality to her singing, he smooth
and with a good ring, though not without some strain. They both
grow in dramatic conviction through the opera and the final
duet is deeply moving. Pierluigi Dilengite has a good darkish
baritone and invests Drasco’s role with pathos.
I doubt that there
will be too many opportunities to see and hear this opera live
and there is undoubtedly some highly attractive music that has
been unperformed for too long. ‘Puccini with water’ indeed!
But I prefer that mix to ‘Puccini with syrup added’ which in
some musical bars I have visited has been the only available
see also Review
by Robert Hugill