I remember a time in the mid 1980s when I was shepherding hopeful singers at auditions, and Dame Eva Turner, well into her 90s, was on the panel. I was detailed to look after her and dared to ask her about her favourite roles. Much to my surprise, she mentioned Isabeau, which she performed twice, once in Verona (1929) and then, a few years later, in Rome under Mascagni’s baton. ‘He was so charming and funny, very talkative,’ she pronounced in her impeccable rounded tones. ‘I caused a scandal, you know, crossing the stage on horseback in an ash coloured body-stocking. That opera should be done again: it is so byooo-ti-ful.’ Intrigued, I searched out a score, as there was then no available recording, and played it through on the piano.


Thus I discovered that there was more to Mascagni than his one hit, Cavalleria rusticana. The viral success of his first-performed opera, written for the publisher Sonzogno’s 1888 competition and premiered in 1890, when he was 26, propelled him from poverty to international fame and inaugurated the next great flowering of Italian opera. Mascagni was handsome, charming, arrogant and caustic; his pronounced quiff was widely imitated (a ‘Ciuffo al’Mascagni’ could be had at any local barbershop), and the volume of cigarette cards, caricatures and press coverage attest to the extent of his celebrity. Within three years Cavalleria had been given more than 180 productions in 66 Italian cities and more than 60 cities abroad. Mascagni became the great hope for the future of Italian opera, which had languished in the shadow of its best and most innovative composer, Verdi, now living in semi-retirement and 50 years Mascagni’s senior.


When regarded in the context of his other operas, Cavalleria is a fluke. Never again did Mascagni achieve such theatrical immediacy, such a compressed dramatic arc, and such consistency of inspiration. But what kind of composer did he want to be? A clue, maybe, rests in the opera he worked on before Cavalleria and put aside.

In Mascagni’s second year at the Milan conservatory, 1883-4, a friend had given him a copy of a dramatic poem by Heinrich Heine, Wilhelm Ratcliff, which had been translated by Andrea Maffei, (the librettist for Verdi’s I masnadieri, and a notable translator, of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Schiller, Byron and others). Heine’s poem, written in a feverish three days in 1822, is an early work which is given short shrift in the extensive critical literature on the poet. A hyper-Romantic, blood-soaked saga of thwarted love spanning two generations set in northern Scotland, it is redolent of the world of Walter Scott which was so in vogue in Italy as opera fodder in the early 19th century. Some commentators have wondered if the poem is a spoof, despite Heine’s later championing of his own youthful effort as a confessional rite of passage. Mascagni identified strongly with the figure of the outcast Wilhelm, a psychotic descendant of Werther. In choosing Maffei’s version of Heine, Mascagni unwittingly created something without precedent in Italian opera, which was later to become known as Literaturoper—an opera setting an original text without the intermediary of a verse libretto. In fact, Maffei’s very faithful translation is already versified, in what is an unusual and rather inflexible metre for musicalization, with longer lines than customary. It thus provided the fledgling composer with unprecedented technical challenges.

To the end of his life, Mascagni regarded Guglielmo Ratcliff as his greatest achievement. Written mainly during 1884-7, and resumed in 1893, it was a critical success at its 1895 La Scala premiere, though some audiences found it old-fashioned, and were disappointed by a work in a genre that Mascagni himself had superseded. Verdi, who had kept his distance from Cavalleria and subsequent operas, likely put off by tales of Mascagni’s headstrong arrogance, publicly endorsed the work and invited Mascagni to visit him at home in Busseto, initiating a friendship that lasted until Verdi’s death.

The music of Ratcliff is recognizably from the same pen that created Cavalleria, a fount of generous melody and emphatic, violent declamation. Mascagni considered Wagner to be the ‘Pope of Musicians’—as a conservatoire student, he had shared the cost of a full score of Parsifal (spending two-fifths of his monthly stipend) with his equally impoverished room-mate Puccini. Yet Ratcliff does not emulate Wagner by using leitmotifs, despite being through-composed. There are reminiscence motifs evoking middle-period Verdi, but the few dramatic moments rely on rather outdated melodramatic gestures. Ratcliff shares with Cavalleria two novel aspects: a prelude, in which is embedded an offstage song; and an intermezzo. It is unclear whether these novelties originated in the 1880s or were added in the wake of Cavalleria’s success. Ratcliff’s prelude contains Old Margaret’s Ballad, which is later threaded through the score (a device not in the original Heine), and there is a satisfying pay-off at the end of the opera when the Ballad is explained over an intensified repeat of the opening music, bringing the opera full circle. The intermezzo almost trumps that of Cavalleria. If it sounds familiar, it is perhaps because it has the same kind of descending melodic profile as Rusalka’s 'Song to the Moon’ and Dorothy’s ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’. It does not have the same effect as that in Cavalleria, which acts as an oasis between two scenes of unbearable tension: in Ratcliff, the drama is much more problematic.


Heine probably never imagined his poem being staged. The complex tale is never enacted, merely recounted in extended monologues; these dominate each of the four acts. There are two moments of dramatic action: a brief duel in Act 3, and the bloody denouement. Ratcliff, the figure that so captivated Mascagni, has the sincerest and most impassioned music, but is too bizarre a character for an audience to identify with. The others are, for the most part, ciphers who retell old yarns.

These shortcomings are understandable in a novice work, but the flaws of Ratcliff persist through Mascagni’s later works too. It is as if he were oblivious of what had made Cavalleria work so well. Throughout the 1890s his operas were greatly anticipated and most were successfully launched on the strength of his celebrity alone. L’amico Fritz (1891), the imsiest of Romantic idylls, garnered 40 productions in its first season. The swift disappearance of I Rantzau (1892)—a diffuse melodrama that seemed just too old-fashioned to the public—is no mystery. Yet both, with Cavalleria, were taken up by Gustav Mahler, who, even after Puccini had produced Bohème and Tosca, regarded Mascagni as the Italian composer to watch. Silvano, premiered a few months after Ratcliff, was written at the insistence of Sonzogno, who needed another money-spinner. It is a pallid retread of Cavalleria and the public did not bite.

Forced into the limelight, Mascagni seemed never to work out what best meshed with his gifts. His choice of opera subjects and librettos show both a diffidence and an compulsion to set the first things to hand, as if the very force of his talent alone were enough to carry the day. In general, his operas are innocent of large-scale organization, sometimes giving the impression of a first draft, complete with false turns, crossings out, and moments of genius and of garbage. Iris (1898) was initially a huge success and by the 1920s seemed to be a repertoire item; however, it was followed by Le maschere (1901), the debacle of which badly scarred Mascagni’s reputation. The work was a recreation of the commedia dell’arte filtered through Goldoni: a blend of pre-Pirandellian anarchy and neo-Classicism. Alas, the librettist Luigi Illica (co-writer of Puccini’s big three successes) was out of his depth in such a world of farcical intrigue: the piece is overlong and wordy, the plot feeble, the music patchy. What really did for the piece was the hubristic idea of seven simultaneous premieres: in Rome, Milan, Genoa, Naples, Turin, Venice and Verona. Mascagni oversaw the preparations in Rome, where the opera was a relative success, achieving 22 performances in its first season; but no amount of his and Illica’s rushing round the other theatres could ensure success elsewhere. Six very high-profile fiascos resulted.

There are three operas that come close to showing the composer Mascagni might have become, had not fame crucially crippled his focus. Iris (1898), an unsavoury tale of a Japanese geisha victimized by her father, a procurer and a seducer, capitalized on the vogue for Orientalism and Art Nouveau that swept Europe. It is a decisive step forward, and contains some of Mascagni’s most sustained and inspired invention. The choral Hymn to the Sun that frames the work is a gorgeous, iridescent show-stopper, and the failed seduction duet in Act 2 has a strong through-line and psychological interest. Although Mascagni does not season the work with Japanese-style themes like Puccini as later to do in Madama Butterfly, he conveys his own Orient with garish orchestration and a new, spicier harmonic palette, revealing a knowledge of Debussy. The well-known tenor serenade ‘Apri la tua finestra’, an unmistakably Italianate melody wedded to piquant, side-stepping chord progressions, shows this new freedom well.

As Mascagni’s melodic gift grew weaker, these non-sequitur key-shifts, which tend to lurch back to the home key via conventional cadences, became pervasive and disorientating. Arresting beginnings go nowhere, to be followed up with fleeting, new and unrelated ideas. This can make Mascagni’s later music fragmented and difficult to follow. Nevertheless, these diverse elements are held in intriguing balance in Isabeau (1911), his most modernist score. It was, initially, an international success. A leggenda drammatica that retells the Lady Godiva legend, it was Mascagni’s first attempt to transcend melodrama and to fashion something more arcane. Tristan und Isolde was enjoying a vogue among the Italian intelligentsia at this time, and the newer generation of composers, most notably Montemezzi and Zandonai (a pupil of Mascagni), along with Mascagni himself, were attempting a belated response to it. It is a compact piece, but a little uncertain in musical language, lurching from wild Straussian dissonance to eccentric archaisms. The Intermezzo that accompanies Isabeau’s naked horseback ride is a luscious showpiece, teeming with bells; many other pages are among Mascagni’s nest, in particular the sensuous but fateful final duet, underpinned by a sultry rocking rhythm that almost implies a tango. It gives rise to the thought: if Kurt Weill had been Italian ...


Mascagni’s next opera, Parisina (1913) was a conscious attempt to out-Tristan Tristan, and contains the finest music he ever wrote. Alas, the libretto—written especially by the notorious decadent Gabriele d’Annunzio—is entirely static and devoid of action. Their collaboration was greeted with incredulity by the press and artistic community, as D’Annunzio had denounced Mascagni in a scathing article in 1892, ‘Il capobanda’ (‘The band-master’), stating that his music was commercial exploitation and the enemy of true art—to which Mascagni responded with equally toxic insults. Mascagni sets the libretto almost in full, amplifying and underlining each line of text and each emotional state, so that the result—three hours and 20 minutes of music uncut—is slow and, in the last resort, shapeless, lacking the cumulative tension and musical organization such an edifice requires. Polychromatic and sumptuous, the music oozes yearning. The second act, bestrewn with offstage voices of pilgrims, sailors and priests, and with a postlude of languid foreplay, is one of the hidden peaks of Italian music. The premiere was respectfully received, but there was unanimous criticism of the work’s immense length, and for the second performance huge cuts were made, including the whole of the last act. This did not save the work, which has had almost no stage life. Mascagni never came close to writing music of this quality again. For a tiny taster, it is worth searching out the miniature (four-minute) tone poem Visione lirica (1922), which inhabits the same world—as far away from Cavalleria rusticana as can be imagined.

The later operas show a marked decline. Lodoletta (1917) gained notoriety as Puccini and Mascagni tussled for the rights of Ouida’s popular novel 'The Little Wooden Shoes'. One can see why Puccini relinquished it: it is a return to the world of La Bohème, out of step with a post World War I audience. It made it to the Met as a vehicle for Geraldine Farrar and Enrico Caruso, and a Mr Pitts Sanborn summed it up in a review: ‘Mascagni seems to have made up his mind on no account to rewrite Cavalleria rusticana only to lose himself hopelessly in a maze of treacherous Puccini shallows.’  (1919), an operetta for the Viennese market, is a little better, with the set number format imposing form, and some catchy melodies in a moody, pre-Nino Rota vein. Il piccolo Marat, a French revolution tale written, as Mascagni put it, ‘in blood’ had a spectacularly successful premiere in Rome in 1921. This was in part due to the hope of some sort of demonstration, as Mascagni had supported the socialists in the wake of World War I, incurring the disapproval of the fast-emerging fascist party and its leader, Benito Mussolini. The score did the rounds of Italian theatres, but it is sad to hear the stale fag-ends of Mascagni’s melodic talent lumped with some almost incoherent retro-modernisms. It is a score bereft of organization and cumulative effect. There was talk of exhuming it at the Met for Domingo in the early ’80s, but presumably Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, a much more rewarding score from the same period, took its place.


Mascagni spent the rest of his life opportunistically courting Mussolini: his final work, Nerone (1935), was intended as a tribute. This was a curious choice of subject to curry favour. The opera was not banned, but Mussolini made his displeasure known, with few Italian theatres daring to take it up. It is by no means as bad as its reputation. Much of the music stems from Vistilia, an abandoned Roman project from the 1900s, when Mascagni’s muse was fresher. He regained favour in 1940, when Mussolini decreed that every theatre in Italy should mark the 50th anniversary of Cavalleria, and Mascagni conducted a famous, indulgent studio recording of his one unalloyed success. But by then, the Italian tradition that Mascagni had jump-started into another flowering had become the museum culture that prevails to this day. Audiences had long deserted the opera house for the cinema, which was where, in Italy, real creativity thrived. None of Mascagni’s ‘other’ operas have been quite robust enough to survive the whittling-down of the repertoire into a canon of perennially revived staples. A shame, for Mascagni’s is a tale of unrealized potential: a very different composing personality struggles to be noticed, fitfully, in his other operas, but is dwarfed by the paralyzing reputation of his one great success. 

© Julian Grant 2015. This article appeared in the October 2015 edition of OPERA magazine.