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Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Il Piccolo Marat - Opera in 3 Acts (1921)
Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (The President of the Committee – "The Ogre"), Virginia Zeani (Mariella), Giuseppe Gismondo (Prince Fleury – "Il piccolo Marat"), Afro Poli ("The Carpenter"), Anna Lia Bazzani (Princess Fleury – "la madre"), Giulio Fioravanti (The Soldier), Alfonso Marchica ("The Spy"), Giulio Montano (The Thief"), Bruno Cioni ("The Tiger"), Piero Francia (The Captain of the "Marats"), Armando Benzi (The Carrier of Orders)
Chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Orchestra Sinfonica di Sanremo/Ottavio Ziino
Recorded live (mono) 20th January 1962, Teatro del Casinò di Sanremo
WARNER FONIT "CETRA OPERA COLLECTION" 50466-3246-2-7 [2 CDs: 60:52+70:22]


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 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 houses.

Christopher Howell



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