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Pietro Mascagni: In Filanda
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.”

Pietro Mascagni: In Filanda

Rossella Redoglia (Ninetta); Massimiliano Fichera (Capo fabbrica); Antonio De Palma (Beppo). Orchestra e Coro I solisti di Napoli conducted by Susanna Pescetti.
Recorded live at Teatro Mercadante Napoli on the 6th of April 2003.

Bongiovanni GB 2374-2 [CD]

$16.99  Click to buy

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 sing it.

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.

Jan Neckers

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