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Pietro Mascagni
26 Apr 2009

Il Piccolo Marat

Try to imagine the scenario: You’re an opera company, giving concert performances of neglected, indeed forgotten, hundred-year-old scores (no sets, no costumes, at least you don’t have those headaches), and you give young singers a chance to do their stuff once a year before a paying New York crowd actually eager to hear music they do not know, and you’ve lit on a genuine obscurity, even in the ranks of the obscure; Mascagni’s penultimate stage work, a huge success at the premiere (as his operas usually were), utterly forgotten nowadays (as, but for Cavalleria Rusticana and, on rare occasion, L’Amico Fritz, they pretty much are), and it’s never been performed in North America ever.

Pietro Mascagni: Il Piccolo Marat

Il Piccolo Marat: Richard Crawley; L’Orco: Brian Jauhiainen; Mariella: Paula Delligatti; Il Carpentiere: Daniel Ihn-Kyu Lee; Il Soldato: Joshua Benaim; Una voce basso: Alfred Barclift; Una voce tenore: Hugo Vera. Teatro Gratticielo Orchestra, conducted by David Wroe. Teatro Gratticielo at Avery Fisher Hall, April 13.


Recordings of ancient performances exist, though, and everyone is really excited to hear it, with its blood-and-skullduggery-defeated-by-true-love French Revolutionary plot, and you gather your forces, and rehearse to a fare-thee-well, and then it happens: the lead tenor in the big title role withdraws due to a death in the family. Okay, hardly the first time that’s happened, there’s still two weeks, you can dig up another tenor, and you do. But then the baritone in the impossibly evil villain’s part (and in verismo opera, it’s the villain who makes the machine run, more than almost anything else), falls ill and cannot sing, and you have mere days to find a baritone capable of learning a long role, to say nothing of performing it Monday night. And you find one, and he can handle Scarpia, so he can probably handle this. And then, the day of the performance, the third male lead, another baritone, has to pull out … and there is no time for anyone to learn this thing now, and no one on earth knows it … but a young singer of no less than three other small roles says he’s been following the sick man’s music and he could give it the old Bastille try. And you give it to him, and smile when the audience shows up, and out of the corner of your mind, the sole corner that remains sane, you vow to rip the soprano’s head off if she so much as murmurs of her rampaging case of bubonic plague, but no, she is a lamb, she is in excellent health and ready to rock, and by all the Muses (but especially Thalia, comedy), the show goes on.

Would you have a stroke? Would you retire? Would you call Mel Brooks or Blake Edwards and try to get them to option this backstage screenplay, far too unlikely to occur in real life? Or maybe a skit on SNL?

And would the show go on?

On April 13, at Avery Fisher Hall, the show – Teatro Gratticielo’s concert performance of Mascagni’s Il Piccolo Marat – went on, and was greeted, at evening’s end, with a standing ovation.

The world premiere, in 1921, took fifty curtain calls. Why, then, did Marat become so rare? I’m told the Grove Dictionary of the Opera blames its failure to hold audiences on its Fascist librettist. This does not make sense when reading (and following) the libretto, which is as passionate a hymn to freedom from tyranny as Fidelio or Tosca. Too, there is a rather beautiful love duet, a melodious lullaby that recalls the peaceful Easter music of Cavalleria Rusticana, and a tense climax that lures the audience into the emotions of the three “good” characters as, desperately, they assault the unkillable Ogre (English for Orco, the character’s nickname – so that’s where Tolkien found the word!).

As is customary in verismo, a school that matured as the bourgeoisie seized political power and its echo in the arts from aristocratic predecessors, the chorus is a main character in this opera, easily swayed and ruthless in its bloodthirsty support of hero or villain by turns. The Cantori New York and the Long Island University Chorus howled gloriously under the direction of Mark Shapiro; we were right at home, ringside to mob rule.

As is also the rule in operas about the French Revolution (think Andrea Chenier or Madame Sans-Gêne), there were innumerable small parts – which proved convenient when one singer of three of them, Daniel Ihn-Kyu Lee, earned a needed promotion to the almost-lead role of the gentle Carpenter, not too sensitive to design death ships but queasy when the Ogre wants him to build them. Joshua Benaim was worthy and forthright as a Soldier sent to investigate the Ogre – a by no means easy role, designed for a Pertile or Del Monaco sound, to give heroic voice to the Revolution during the opera’s early scenes, when the title character, the Piccolo Marat, must conceal his real feelings to win the Ogre’s confidence. Alfred Barclift and Hugo Vera showed promise onstage playing offstage voices. (Versatility is the name of this game.)

Richard Crawley, in the title role, effectively concealed his noble self and warmed up the while in order to sing a passionate duet with Paula Delligatti, as Mariella, the Ogre’s unhappy niece, and then burst out like a Cavaradossi “Vittoria” when the time came. Brian Jauhiainen was less overwhelming as the monstrous Ogre. Neither gentleman indicated, however, by any hesitancy or misstep, how recently they had first encountered this music: these were trim, professional performances and we were all very grateful to have them. Delligatti has an expressive spinto, perhaps less than ideal to the explosions of a Butterfly or Tosca but probably ideal for Liú or Maddalena. Her lullaby, perhaps the opera’s only excerptable number (another reason for the work’s obscurity), was serene and charming.

Conductor David Wroe, who perhaps rehearsed with the singers who cancelled, rather bashed his way through the score. It’s a large score, all right, and the music should be loud, but not holding back in a hall as orchestrally focused as Fisher is a disservice to the singers, who were often inaudible at the opera’s high points.

John Yohalem

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