Following the phenomenal success of Cavalleria
Rusticana (1889) operas flowed rapidly from Mascagni’s pen for
about a decade: L’Amico Fritz (1891), I Rantzau (1892), Guglielmo
Ratcliff (1895), Silvano (1895), Zanetto (1896), and Iris (1898).
With the arrival of the 20th Century the pace began to slow down:
Le Maschere (1901), Amica (1905), Isabeau (1911), Parisina (1913),
Lodoletta (1917), Il Piccolo Marat (1921), Pinotta (1932) and
finally Nerone (1935), largely a reworking of a much earlier piece.
Mascagni himself was convinced that the public’s obstinacy in
preferring Cavalleria Rusticana was an injustice. Criticism of
the earlier works has tended to centre on clumsy libretti and
patches of weaker inspiration, while real controversy has surrounded
the later pieces. Here, we are told, Mascagni tried to dress up
as a modern, flirting with dissonance and ungainly vocal declamation,
at the expense of his natural melodic gifts. He was dabbling in
things beyond his reach. The case for the defence was put by,
among others (but not very many others, alas), William Alwyn,
who was convinced that Il Piccolo Marat was among the greatest
music dramas of the 20th Century, to be spoken of in
the same breath as Wozzeck.
As regards the implication of incompetence, I
do not see how anybody could listen to the records under review
and deny that Mascagni knew exactly what he was doing. His handling
of the large orchestra and of vocal declamation is masterly, while
each act has a satisfying shape and moves to its end without wasting
time. To test the truth of Alwyn’s assertion it would be necessary
to experience the opera in the theatre as well as to live with
a recorded performance for a certain length of time, but my initial
reaction to this set is that he could well be right.
If today we are obliged to say "we don’t
know the piece well enough to be sure about it", it was not
always so. In the same year as its first performance in Rome (1921)
it was also heard in Verona, Milan (not La Scala), Pisa and Turin,
as well as in Buenos Aires, Rosario and Montevideo, where the
leading role was taken by Beniamino Gigli. The following year
it was performed in Dresden and Copenhagen. Its foreign career
practically stopped here (it has never been produced at Covent
Garden or in any city of the United States) but between 1921 and
1953 it could boast performances somewhere in Italy in every year
except 1944, 1947 and 1949. It finally reached La Scala, under
Mascagni’s baton, in 1939. After 1953 it was seldom sighted. In
1961 Virginia Zeani and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, recently (1957) married
and evidently looking for something effective in which they could
appear together, revived it with Umberto Borsò as Il piccolo
Marat, Afro Poli as the carpenter and Oliviero De Fabritiis conducting.
This performance has been issued on Fonè. The Zeani-Rossi-Lemeni
ticket brought about a modest revival, since in 1962 came the
present Sanremo performance, with a different tenor and conductor,
and in 1963 they took it to Naples, Catania and Barcelona. Subsequent
performances of the opera took place in 1966, 1979, 1989 (a Livorno
performance also issued on Fonè) and 1992 (a concert performance
in Utrecht conducted by Kees Bakels available on Bongiovanni and
a run of performances at Wexford).
Set in revolutionary France, Il Piccolo Marat
is a "rescue opera" after the manner of Fidelio, with
a brutal embodiment of evil in the form of the "Ogre".
Among the prisoners in his jail is Princess Fleury, whose son
pretends to join the revolutionaries, the "Marats" (hence
he is known as "the Little Marat") in order to gain
access to her and rescue her. Along the way he falls in love with
the Ogre’s unhappy niece, Mariella, and aims to rescue her too.
The story pivots around the noble figure of the carpenter who,
utterly disgusted at the things he has been made to do (such as
inventing a device for sinking a barge-full of prisoners in the
open river) now works against the revolutionaries. It he who saves
Fleury by slaying the Ogre, and as the opera ends he carries him
off, severely wounded, to the boat where Mariella and Fleury’s
mother are waiting to flee.
It is a satisfying story, likely to remain relevant
for as long as dictators are still with us, and Mascagni has illustrated
it with music of dark and menacing power. Set arias are practically
non-existent, but the declamation itself is melodic as well as
dramatic and the few moments of lyrical expansion are often of
great beauty. Though recognisably the work of Mascagni, he has
brought a touch of steel into his style, and as far as I am concerned
has done so with complete success. I see it as an enlargement
of his range, not a negation of his natural talent.
The opera places very great demands on the singers,
who are required to sustain very long lines in high tessitura.
Moreover, there are four big roles and another two (the mother
and the soldier) quite important enough to sink the ship if done
badly. Fortunately everyone here is equal to his task and quite
frankly, given the state of things today, it is difficult to imagine
any modern recording offering a successful challenge. Little information
is to be obtained about Giuseppe Gismondo (the booklet has a brief
essay on the opera and a synopsis, in English and Italian, and
the libretto in Italian only). I learn that he was "a favourite
of New Orleans for many seasons" so perhaps American readers
will know more than I do. He has a fresh, clear-sounding, very
"tenory" voice, not apparently big but able to cope
with the cruel demands of the writing without showing strain.
Perhaps the sound is a little unvaried, but he makes a fervent,
sincere character out of Fleury.
Born Virginia Zehan in 1925, the Romanian-Italian
soprano included Aureliano Pertile among her teachers and made
her debut in Bologna as Violetta in 1948. Gifted with a particularly
warm, refulgent timbre and a fine technique, she belongs to that
group of sopranos (Carteri, Cerquetti, Gavazzi, Pobbe …) who were
overshadowed by the Callas-Tebaldi rivalry but who would be welcomed
with open arms today. As a matter of fact Zeani was one of the
few who managed to make some impact with Violetta in those days,
a role she sang 648 times. She specialised in bel canto roles,
but she certainly did not lack the heft for Mascagni, for she
sings here with total security and a ringing conviction. It is
also a very expressive performance and for me, quite apart from
the merits of the opera, serious lovers of singing should obtain
the set for this memento of an exceptional singer. She retired
in 1982 and in 1980 she and her husband began teaching at the
Indiana University School of Music. To the best of my knowledge
she is still there.
Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (1920-1991) was born in Constantinople
of an Italian father and a Russian mother. He made his debut in
Venice as Varlaam in Boris Godunov in 1946. In 1950 he was Stokowski’s
choice for the title role of that opera, with which he was particularly
associated, though for some tastes he was excessively histrionic.
His voice is more cavernous than subtle, so it may well be that
we lose out by not seeing him as well as hearing him. But the
character itself is not a pleasant one and he certainly makes
a loathsome villain of the Ogre..
Afro Poli (1907-1988) made his debut in 1930
and in 1932 was chosen to sing Malatesta in the famous Tito Schipa
recording of Don Pasquale. He also sang Marcello in the Gigli
Bohème (1938). Obviously his voice was no longer young
in 1962, but considering that the carpenter in Act 2 is described
as "tragically changed, emaciated, ashen, worn out"
the last thing we want is a bright young voice. He sounds believably
at the end of his tether.
The Sicilian conductor, composer and teacher
Ottavio Ziino was more of a force in Italian musical life than
his meagre discography would lead you to think. A Foundation and
a vocal competition conserve his name. He was no stranger to Il
Piccolo Marat, having conducted four performances of it in Naples
in 1942, and he believed in it enough to conduct it again in 1979
(with Martinucci). He has the large forces firmly under control
and realises the score’s harsh colours, as well as its rare moments
of tenderness, with mastery and conviction. It is a pity we do
not hear his work more closely, for in the Cetra manner the voices
are very much in the foreground. The orchestra is clear, but placed
too far backward. The recording is claimed to be live, in which
case the audience must have been gagged since there is no evidence
of them. I also assume, in the absence of stage noises, that it
was a concert performance without any attempt at "production",
since at a certain point we are told in the libretto that "everybody
breaks out laughing" and nobody does so here.
As I have pointed out, there are three alternative
recordings, which I haven’t heard, one with three of the same
principals from the previous year and two more modern ones which
should at least offer better sound. However, since the present
performances is a very fine one and the sound, with the reservation
made above, is perfectly acceptable, I don’t think you could go
wrong if you want to get to know a neglected and powerful opera,
and you will also hear a little-recorded but important soprano.
By the way, in case you think I’m the world’s
leading expert on Mascagni, I should point out that most of the
above information comes from Erik Bruchez’s wonderfully informative
Mascagni site, a true labour of love which can be visited at www.mascagni.org.
The section devoted to performances of Il Piccolo Marat contains
a strong comment by François Nouvion:
Il piccolo Marat is a tenor opera… The success
of the work depends on a tenor capable of sustaining the high
laying tessitura. It was given well into the 1960s when such tenors
were still available. …. The penultimate revival in Livorno with
the tenors Pinto and Tota alternating the role was a disaster
if one bases his opinion on the live recording made with Pinto.
The tenor role is a part that neither of our "great 3 tenors"
could sing, even in their younger days.
Well, I should have thought that Domingo at least
could have coped, though since his Osaka in Iris was already strenuous,
this would presumably have been more so still. Certainly, no obvious
candidate for a modern Marat comes to mind.
I also learned from this site, rather to my surprise,
that recordings have been issued of all fifteen of Mascagni’s
opera, as well as his operetta Sì, though in many cases
they look to be stop-gaps, made live in provincial Italian opera