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20 Apr 2006
MASCAGNI: In Filanda
Last year was the 60th anniversary of Mascagni’s death. When I wrote a big commemoration article for a Dutch operatic magazine, I wondered if we would ever hear a full version of the 18-year old Mascagni’s first work: a cantata called “in the weaving mill.”
And lo and behold,
the Bolognese firm of Bongiovanni, itself celebrating its 100th anniversary,
has been so nice to record a performance given a few years ago that to my
best knowledge had not found its way in the pirate circuit.
The liner notes (Italian/English) tell in great detail the genesis of the
work and are well worth reading. They omit, however, the story that young
Mascagni thought himself a genius à la Mozart who had nothing more to learn.
He dedicated the piece to Amilcare Ponchielli and happily accepted the elder
composer’s invitation to come to Milan. To his dismay, Mascagni found
out that nobody was eagerly awaiting for the appearance of an Italian
equivalent of Wagner, Beethoven and Weber in one person. Though Ponchielli, a
professor at the conservatory, acknowledged Mascagni’s talent, he was
not ready to introduce him to music publishers, but had only thought of
enrolling the young man in his alma mater. Within a few months, a
disillusioned Mascagni went home only to return half a year later, ready
after all to go the long hard way and start with his formal studies.
The reason for Mascagni’s conceit was that In Filanda that
had been performed in his home town Livorno (Leghorn) with resounding
success, probably helped a lot by the generous financing of his uncle
Stefano. Would Bongiovanni have thought of resuscitating this 47-minute
cantata if the composer had been called Bizelli, Bossi, Brero, Bucceri or
other worthies who once tried to compose operas without any success? Probably
not, as this is clearly a work by a talented young man but not more. Is there
anything distinctly Mascagnian to the score? Yes, the young man already knows
how to write a tune that vaguely hints at post-Cavalleria operas
like the still unjustly neglected masterpieces, Zanetto and
Silvano. Interesting, too, are the fine chorus for the workers that
points a little to the famous “Gli aranci olezzano” and two
preludes that are intermezzi in reality. The big tenor solo was the
most successful part at the time of the première; but it sounds a little too
laboured to me. And the finale concertato is just bombast. Contrary
to Puccini, Mascagni was very young when he saw a lot of performances in the
local opera houses (courtesy of his uncle too) and, though he somewhat later
called Wagner the pope of all composers, it is clear he was far more
influenced by some Verdi (end of the second act of Traviata) and
Ponchielli concertati (end of the third act of Gioconda). Years
later Mascagni would use some of this music for a first opera,
Pinotta, that went unperformed until almost fifty years later when
old Mascagni, despised by his modernist rivals and without inspiration, sent
the opera on its unsuccessful way. Therefore, not a masterwork or even an
important piece of work; but, as with everything from young Mascagni, worth
hearing as the composer is never boring.
Orchestra and conductor are fine and so are soprano and baritone. Tenor
Antonio De Palma though won’t be to everybody’s taste. He clearly
has a big, somewhat beefy, voice with strong top notes that happen to flatten
now and then. But, unless you are an adamant fan of verismo-tenors
like Nicola Zerola, Giovanni Chiaia or Vittorio Lois, I fear De Palma’s
rough style will make you less than happy. This is evidently not
Bongiovanni’s fault. Many of their worthwhile sets with real
discoveries in the verismo repertory are hampered by singers who are
not equal to the role; but, nowadays, the very few singers who can cope with
this repertory won’t think of studying difficult parts for a single
performance that is almost a world première at a fee that mostly consists in
honour only. So the Bolognese firm often has to take whomever is willing to
As 47 minutes is short shrift, there are two bonuses. The first one is the
magnificent, melodious intermezzo from Mascagni’s second
opera, Guglielmo Ratcliff (premièred, however, several years after
Cavalleria) and it proves how much the composer had refined his art
in the two and a half years at the conservatory. It was his undoing, too, as
conductor Franco Faccio was much impressed with the score and wanted to
perform it during a La Scala concert. Students had to ask permission at the
conservatory to have their music performed unless they chose a pseudonym
(Pigmeo Sarcanti was Mascagni’s ridiculous choice for some of his café
compositions). But Faccio insisted on the real name, the conservatory refused
permission and Mascagni left for good in a towering rage to start his
wandering years. A second bonus is one of the composer’s finest pieces:
intermezzo and tenor aria from Silvano, once only known in
the truncated version by Enzo De Muro Lomanto; but currently available in a
complete recording of the opera. It is a hauntingly beautiful melody that
would have been in any tenor’s repertory if the opera had become more
popular; and I fear that Mr. De Palma’s somewhat rough style
doesn’t fit completely with the unearthly melancholy.