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Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Amica (1905) [78:06]
Anna Malavasi (soprano) – Amica; David Sotgiu (tenor) – Giorgio; Pierluigi Dilengite (baritone) – Rinaldo; Marcello Rosiello (bass) – Camoine; Francesca De Giorgi (soprano) – Magdelone; Bratislava Chamber Choir; Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia/Manlio Benzi
rec. live, August 2007, Palazzo Ducale, Martina Franca, Italy
Booklet includes essay in Italian, French, English and German
Synopsis in Italian and English
libretto in French and English
DYNAMIC CDS574 [78:06]
Experience Classicsonline

Mascagni’s “poème dramatique en deux actes” had its première in Monte Carlo on 16 March 1905, with Geraldine Farrar in the leading role. An Italian version was immediately staged in Rome. I presume that the only previous recording of this brief opera, recorded in Budapest in 1995 under Marco Pace and starring Katia Ricciarelli, was sung in Italian, so here we have a first for the original in French.

If beginnings were everything this opera would be at least as good as “Das Rheingold”. If, a bit more logically, we compare Mascagni’s dawn with Puccini’s prelude to Act III of Tosca, we must surely recognize the difference between the inspired natural poet and the cunning purveyor of effects.

The trouble with the cunning purveyor of effects is, they work so damn well. I’m prepared to give Mascagni the benefit of the doubt over his daybreak prelude, however. As the music gathers power and momentum the chorus here proves ragged and few in numbers, while the orchestra is short on strings. The booklet note-writer, Alberto Cantù, admits that the “Inno del Sole” from “Iris” is “something else again”, but I daresay this one would come off too, given a better chance.

This deeply poetic opening sets the stage for what is ostensibly a rustic village wedding in the foothills of the Piedmont Alps. In a series of dances and general invitations to merriment we may note the inventiveness of Mascagni’s orchestral colouring and his continual veering away from the stereotyped music which could so easily have been called upon for such a situation. Then comes the bridegroom-to-be and we get a tenor aria.

This, of course, is where the cunning purveyor of effects scores. Puccini at this point would have come out with something like “Recondita armonia”. Mascagni follows the words with vocal writing that is melodious and expressive without actually blossoming into a melody as such. But wait a moment, are we perhaps listening for the wrong thing? When a Richard Strauss opera breaks into a soliloquy for a leading character, with vocal writing which is similarly melodious and expressive without blossoming into a melody as such, we accept this happily because it’s what we expect. We therefore have to get away from the idea that Mascagni is trying to write a Puccini-tune and not quite managing it and listen more attentively to what he is actually doing. We may then appreciate the mastery of his orchestral backdrop, which in its motivic interest, thematic entwining and variegated colour places Mascagni firmly among the Middle-European post-romantics. Post-romantic, too, is the somewhat acidic tinge to the vocal lines. If we are reminded of Puccini, it is more likely to be the later Puccini of “La Fanciulla del West”, where he, too, began to head in this same direction.

Another problem – not Mascagni’s fault – is that we are used to hearing Puccini and Strauss better sung than this. David Sotgiu has a quite pleasing voice when singing quietly, and at first I wondered if he would be able to present the case for not singing this sort of music full blast. Alas, he fails to expand and drive the music home to us. And this is only the beginning … Giorgio is actually described as “fragile and suffering”, but opera is about suspended disbelief and a fragile Giorgio can’t deliver the goods any more than a fragile Butterfly or a genuinely tubercular Violetta.

Thus far, however, we might go along with the portrayal, since Giorgio, the presumed bridegroom, actually introduces in this aria the first blight on the idyllic scene, the first faltering suggestion that things are not what they seem. For this is an arranged marriage – arranged for fairly cynical reasons I won’t go into here – and the lady’s not going to play. Amica, we soon discover, is passionately in love with Giorgio’s “solid and vigorous” brother Rinaldo, who has been driven out of the home. However, while Amica rejects Giorgio’s overtures, she does not reveal who it is she really loves. Here, and in the subsequent confrontation with her foster-father Camoine, we find that Anna Malavasi has a voice that is not always soundly produced, but with something of the scale to get the music across. There is a frisson to the singing which has been lacking so far.

Rinaldo, in response to a letter from Amica, arrives on the scene. The two love each other as much as ever and Amica reveals the marriage that is being forced on her but, also in this case, does not say who the intended bridegroom actually is. Rinaldo curses the man “who seeks to have your love” and they flee to the mountains. Giorgio catches sight of them in the distance, without recognizing Rinaldo, and gives chase, intending to avenge himself on the “thief of love”. Just to add to the drama, a thunderstorm is brewing.

The music has by this time developed from its innocent, colouristic beginnings to a tense, darkly-hued symphonic web driving the action forward. Mascagni now gives full vent to his orchestral mastery with the longest of his many intermezzi – 10:18 in this performance. It should be said that, while the orchestra is rough and ready and the strings undernourished, Manlio Benzi has all the right ideas about how the music should go and this piece comes off pretty powerfully.

Act II takes place in a wild ravine. Giorgio confronts the couple, then draws back on recognizing Rinaldo. Rinaldo is equally astonished. At this point his fraternal love proves stronger than his love for Amica. He accuses the latter of having lied to him and, pitying his weak brother, who has now collapsed in a faint, renounces to her: “His ghost would always rise up between us; and if he lived, each kiss that you gave me would seem to be stolen from my brother”. “If you loved me”, he continues, “let your heart not be deaf to my begging voice … you alone hold Giorgio’s fate in your hands, make him a gift of your pity, of your love”. He leaves, clambering up the sheer rock face. Amica, still declaring her love for Rinaldo, attempts to follow him up the cliff, but falls into the torrent below. Giorgio has by now come to and as the opera ends Rinaldo attempts to rejoin his brother.

All this action is underpinned by powerful orchestral writing, basically a continuation of the intermezzo. Pierluigi Dilengite’s rather hoarse, barking baritone is unable to express much against this backdrop and even Anna Malavasi is reduced to ungainly shouting. This means that the effectiveness of the opera is not really proved either way. Could a Gobbi or a Taddei have given Rinaldo at this point the humanity which Mascagni evidently wants? Could a Callas have involved us emotively in Amica’s desperate final gesture (maybe Geraldine Farrar was able to do this)?

My worry is that, while I think this opera may be musically a masterpiece – it certainly exhibits rare mastery – it may fail to engage us at the human level we expect of an operatic masterpiece. Rinaldo’s sacrifice is, logically, completely useless and even silly. It’s obvious that the lady’s not for turning – he seems to expect her to switch her love from one to the other rather as a bath-tap switches from hot to cold water by moving the lever from left to right – so his own loss is of no benefit to his brother. Surely he could not have imagined otherwise? On the other hand, I’ve tried juggling the situation in my mind to produce a number of alternative endings, but most of them seem worse still. The cunning purveyor of effects might have thought of something, though, and exacted suitable changes from his librettist.

So what can we say? The musical riches of this opera demand a hearing. From this version you’ll get some idea of the orchestral mastery and the sureness with which it progresses from an idyllic beginning to a darkly dramatic conclusion in a short space of time. Anna Malavasi’s singing in the first act, at least, gives a fair hint of the sort of frisson the music could presumably have all through with a high-octane international cast. And, in spite of the positive judgement on Manlio Benzi, a Gavazzeni in the pit might have helped the singers by creating more transparent textures. Unfortunately I am unable to say whether the Ricciarelli/Pace version is any better. Michael Oliver’s Gramophone review (2/97) reports a fairly effective performance, very poorly recorded. The present recording has all the bangs and thumps we expect from a live theatre production but is technically more than acceptable. The likelihood of another version seems remote. It has become a truism among Mascagni lovers that his operas – post-Cavalleria – are a treasure-house of wonderful music which is in abeyance because the singers with the heft to cope with them are a lost breed. This is not the only recording which seems to prove them right on both counts.

Christopher Howell




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