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An introduction to
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945) Cavalleria rusticana
aStefka Evstatieva, bLina Bruna Rasa (sopranos) Santuzza; aGiacomo Aragall, bBeniamino Gigli (tenors) Turiddu; aAlzbeta Michalková (contralto), bGiulietta Simionato (mezzo) Mamma Lucia; aEduard Tamagian, bGino Bechi (baritones) Alfio; aAnna di Mauro, bMaria Marcucci (mezzos) Lola; aSlovak Philharmonic Choir; aCzecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava)/Alexander Rahbari; bLa Scala Chorus and Orchestra/Milan/Pietro Mascagni
Written by Thomson Smillie; Narrated by David Timson Musical quotes from a8.660022, b8.110714/15. Commentary rec. Motivation Sound Studios, London. No date given.
NAXOS OPERA EXPLAINED 8.558080 [76’41]

The now-familiar Smillie-Timson team in Naxos’s accustomed format present another ‘Introduction to …’. This time it is Mascagni’s masterwork Cavalleria rusticana that gets the treatment.

The narration is characteristically wide-ranging, including references to Lully, Gluck and Mozart helping to ‘place’ Cavalleria, then referring to the bel canto of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. Problems of even translating the title are addressed; ‘Rustic Chivalry’ hardly covers it. Verdi, of course, is there; a remarkably virile excerpt from Nabucco is noteworthy: these quotes are not credited, but it is a racing certainty they come from the Naxos library. The roots of ‘verismo’ in the works of Emile Zola, and the play of Giovanni Verga that provided the basis of Cav, alongside the earthen gypsy-as-heroine basis of Carmen, all provide further context. It is only a pity the quoted performance of ‘L’amour …’ is so awfully sluggish, especially from the bored-sounding chorus. Talking in generalities like this can be dangerous, yet careful consideration has been given to this so the effect of (presumably) encouraging curiosity on the part of the listener, and thereby increasing Naxos sales, is smoothly achieved.

The narration also catalogues the decline of Mascagni, including an account of the demolition of the opera Iris by the ‘Puccini juggernaut’ (we get to hear that opera’s ‘Hymn to the Sun’ conducted by the composer).

The great advantage that this particular issue in Naxos’s series has is that it can, and does, refer to the composer’s own recording, separately available on 8.110714/15. The sheer power of Mascagni’s own account of the famous Intermezzo simply has to be heard. It comes complete with string portamenti that to my ears are perfectly acceptable but may bother some. A pity the narrator talks over it! Still, it comes with a passion that makes me wish we had more of Mascagni on the rostrum. Composers on the rostrum are not always such a good idea but this case is an exception; the Intermezzo from L’amico Fritz is also excerpted. We even get to hear Mascagni speaking in 1940 (track 7): in Italian, but there is an English translation given in the short accompanying booklet.

Perhaps it is unfortunate that Mascagni flourished in Fascist Italy. Composers are usually bad judges of politics, posits Smillie, citing Richard Strauss in this connection.

The narrative explains the progress of the opera and its music well. Good that this introduction points us in the direction of other Mascagni, something those of us who enjoy trawling the by-roads rejoice in. Good also that Naxos has capitalised fully on their library, so the Ancient and Modern, as it were, can co-exist and we can learn from them. Smillie contrasts the two Turridus, Gigli and Aragall. He states that the advantage of a modern recording is that we get to hear everything (‘maximum clarity’) and therefore that makes it preferable; not necessarily a logical train of thought - he explains all this in Track 9.

As Smillie states, Cavalleria rusticana is a thoroughly enjoyable combination of sin and sanctity; the example par excellence, of course, is Tosca, and in the discourse an example appears right on cue.

These Naxos ‘Introduction to …’ discs bear repeated listening, although it is advisable to leave a fair chunk of time in-between playings. There is also something reassuring in Smillie’s delivery of the narrative that reassures you that he knows what he is talking about.

Colin Clarke

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