This disc is a live recording of a concert staged to
mark the 50th Anniversary of Mascagni’s death. Despite the
title, the programme contains some of the well known and lesser known
operas of a composer who made his debut with the score of Cavalleria
Rusticana. One non-operatic work - a dance - is included.
Throughout the life of Pietro Mascagni the word
‘music’ meant ‘opera’ and musical theatre: "When my imagination runs
dry I shall compose symphonies!" was one of his famous quips.
Massimo Mila, rather tartly, but quite correctly, noted
that he ought to have written plenty of symphonies in his mature years
when he struggled to repeat the brilliant success he had enjoyed at
the age of twenty-seven with Cavalleria rusticana in 1890. With
it he had been plucked from obscurity and launched into the grand international
opera circuit, which set in motion the adventure of the Giovarie Scuola,
and of Verismo. And yet, when he was still just a promising youth,
Mascagni had produced worthy essays in non-theatrical music, with two
symphonies (of 1879 and 1881 respectively), the Elegy on the
death of Wagner of 1883, the Kyrie of 1880 and the Messa di
Gloria of 1888. Nor were significant attempts absent from the symphonic-choral
field; with the well thought of cantata, In filanda (1881 (transformed
into the short opera, Pinotta), and the even more ambitious Cantata
alla gioja for soloists, chorus and orchestra, on the Schiller ode
used by Beethoven in the finale of his Ninth Symphony. Even after the
triumph of Cavalleria rusticana, Mascagni did not give up composing
works not explicitly destined for the theatre, like the Danza esotica
(1891), a tribute to the fin de siècle fashion for orientalism,
or the eighteenth-century recuperation that he brought about in his
opera Le Maschere (1901).
We feel sure that the sanguine Mascagni would express
his displeasure were he to know that today the only parts still performed
of some of his operas are the symphonic passages, and that his only
work which has found a stable place in the repertoire is the masterpiece
of his youth, Cavalleria Rusticana. Despite their many unquestionably
beautiful touches none of his later operas came anywhere near the success
of Cavalleria. I Rantzau is an opera that has practically disappeared
from the operatic stage, though we do occasionally hear its appetising
Prelude, as we occasionally encounter the Sogno from Guglielmo Ratcliff
(actually an opera of great originality that deserves to be better
known), the Sinfonia from Le Maschere, the Barcarolla from Silvano,
the Monferrina from Amico ... Alongside these surviving pieces
there are the ones that may be considered the real hits in the Mascagni
catalogue: the Prelude and the Intermezzo from Cavalleria, Intermezzo
and 3rd Act Prelude from Amico Fritz, and the Hymn
to the Sun from Iris. Isabeau won great success at
its first performance at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires in 1911 and
held its popularity until the mid-1940s: full of lyrical force, it also
reveals the composer's unquestioned talents as a refined orchestrator.
A wholly different character is heard in the Barcarola (Notturno) from
the two-act opera Silvanio (first performance: Milan, La Scala)
to reproduce the mood of crude verismo of Cavalleria rusticana.
The Barcarola or Notturno is a dreamlike page with soft, delicate colours,
pervaded by simple, folksy melodies.
The chorus provides an important layer of texture to
some of the works presented in the later tracks of the disc. Despite
the orchestra being ‘set back’ on the sound stage Severini always manages
to coax a warm lyrical sound from them. Severini was born in Rome and
studied the violin, composition and conducting. He has much experience
in conducting Italian opera and was a good choice for this festival
since in 1999 he was selected to open the Puccini festival in Valencia.
In live recordings one has to make an exception for
the vagaries of the audience who here behave themselves until the last
two or three numbers, when coughing becomes more pronounced (not through
boredom one hopes). The orchestra start by playing well but as the evening
progresses we begin to notice some inadequate attention to detail in
the playing from the viola and cello desks. It seems that what should
be a fine orchestra is under-rehearsed in the items not well known.
The notes in Italian, English, German and French are
adequate though in parts rather rambling. The choice of items is good
for the occasion apart from the rather tedious Prelude to Iris.
After a few minutes this number warms up with an exciting crescendo
with choral accompaniment. Sadly the choral part has about it nothing
particularly interesting regarding scoring; this is not Mascagni at
his best. Surely there could have been more appropriate items available
to round off the evening of what must have been a memorable occasion.
As for the serious collector, this disc would be much welcomed allowance
being made for the commonly accessible Cavalleria items.