As Opera Holland Park regulars will know, Mascagni is not the one hit wonder most of the rest of the world believes him to be. The stunning, unforeseen success of his first performed opera Cavalleria rusticana (1890) at the age of 26, propelled him and his librettists, Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti (1863-1934) and Guido Menasci (1867-1925), obscure even in their hometown, the port Livorno (Leghorn) in the extreme western edge of Tuscany, to international fame. This fantastical success was greeted with the rallying cry of‘abbiamo un’maestro’ (We have a maestro). Finally! Italian opera had got to a parlous state by 1890, when by far the most expert, experimental and accomplished opera maker was almost an octogenarian: Giuseppe Verdi. Mascagni, with his vernacular Italian opera, from the streets, based on a contemporary literary classic portraying life in poverty stricken Sicily, then perceived as the poorest corner of Europe, was seen as a quintessentially Italian creation. Even the musical style absorbed Italian music from the streets and the soil – not cherry-picked to be an exotic indicator of place, but thoroughly absorbed into the basics of the musical style. Even with the advent of Puccini, whose breakthrough in 1893 with Manon Lescaut, and his first two masterpieces La boheme (1896) and Tosca (1900) established his pre-eminence, Mascagni was regarded, sentimentally, by the Italians as ‘ours’, the keeper of the flame as far as a distinctly Italianate style of melody was concerned, and the successor to the grand old man, Verdi. Cavalleria’s direct, sensational synthesis of music and theatre hit Europe and beyond like wildfire – by the time of Mascagni’s death in 1945 it had been performed over 14,000 times in Italy alone. The term verismo was coined, perilous to define (truth? realism?) and indiscriminately applied to any Italian opera of this period. Mascagni’s influence pervaded Europe: it is all over Rachmaninov’s Aleko (1892), and by 1894, Massenet, the most commercially successful opera composer in France, had written a verismo one-acter La navarraise (The girl from Navarre). Within Italy, Mascagni’s example transformed the way operas were written, and Cavalleria’s success was almost trumped in 1892, by another relatively unknown composer, Leoncavallo, with I pagliacci, an opera of similar length, which by 1893 had become inseparable from Mascagni’s work, and the double bill – Cav and Pag – became a box office certainty for opera houses, and the worldwide ambassador for the Italian giovane scuola.
Neither composer ever achieved such an unequivocal success after this. Mascagni, the more far-reaching musician, and certainly the more versatile dramatist, refused to repeat himself and immediately, in a series of operas in the 1890’s, seemed to try and show the world just how diverse he could be. His every move was visible, and he became, very quickly, a celebrity. He was handsome, and his pronounced quiff was widely imitated: a ‘Ciuffo al’Mascagni’ could be had at any local barbershop, and the amount of cigarette cards, caricatures and press attention attests to the extent of his fame.
Consequently, the operatic world waited with baited breath to see what Mascagni would produce next, and he was highly productive in the 1890’s, as if determined to prove that he had more to him than blood and thunder. A bucolic romance followed, L’amico Fritz (1891) (which has received two productions at Opera Holland Park), I rantzau (1892) a robust melodrama which audiences found old-fashioned. Guglielmo Ratcliff (1895), which Mascagni referred to as his best opera, mostly written before Cavalleria Rusticana, and was an opera from an era Mascagni had himself displaced: Silvano (1896), closest to Cavalleria, Zanetto, (1896) almost a chamber work, and Iris (1898), known to Opera Holland Park audiences, a sourcebook for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904) with its Japanese setting, fragile heroine and musical modernism (for Italy in the 1890’s), which had a fairly sturdy international career in its early years.
Zanetto was based on a slender curtain raiser, first given at the Paris Odeon in 1869, Le passant (The passer-by) by a once popular writer and dramatist, now totally forgotten, François Coppée (1842-1908). Set in a Neverland Renaissance, in the countryside outside Florence, it concerns a chance encounter between a beautiful courtesan and a young minstrel, and is an inconclusive, sentimental discourse. Chances are, it might not have survived, except it marked the breakthrough of the 24 year old Sarah Bernhardt, who caused a sensation, playing the minstrel as a trouser role. With just two characters, and lasting barely forty minutes, Mascagni describes it as a scena lirica. Though well received at its premiere on March 2, 1896, at the Liceo Musicale Rossini in Pesaro, where Mascagni was music director, as part of Rossini’s birthday celebrations, it foundered badly at La Scala two weeks later, where it was deemed too slight to make an impact and lost in the large house.
It is a charming, airy, atmospheric vignette, opening with a real novelty, an unaccompanied wordless chorus, which is rather challenging, as it has to convey serenity and sentiment and uses the voices instrumentally, even taking the sopranos up to a quiet top C. Zanetto has almost no climaxes, and very few fortes, the orchestra is small, and the music follows the amorous discussion of the two strangers with great fidelity and insight, coalescing into a ripely melodic sentimental aria for Silvia (Senti, bambino) just before the end. The works closest precedent would seem to be Massenet’s Le portrait de Manon (1894) which revisits Massenet’s smash hit Manon, with the hero, Des Grieux, in old age, offering sentimental amatory advice to his nephew, and is similarly small in scale, intimate and conversational. Though the source of Zanetto is French, and the influence of Massenet is palpable, Mascagni’s strong Italian vernacular melodic style is much in evidence, in particular in Zanetto’s haunting little entrance and exit song, accompanied only by harp. A footnote in Mascagni’s oeuvre then, let alone the history of opera, but a charming, nuanced and sophisticated one.
© Julian Grant 2011. This article appeared in the 2011 Holland Park Opera Programme.