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Original Document
Un pensiero a San Francisco
Printable Version

Mascagni in America

by Henry T. Finck, The Independent, October 30, 1902

Henry T. Finck wrote this article at the beginning of Mascagni's 1902-1903 American tour. Most of his facts are correct, and his desire to see Guglielmo Ratcliff performed is quite justified. However his appreciation of Zanetto and Iris is misguided and typical of a misunderstanding of Mascagni's operatic output, which consists in expecting his other operas to sound like Cavalleria Rusticana. This attitude unfortunately persists today.

Mascagni in America

By Henry T. Finck

Author of "Wagner and His Works" Etc.

Maestro Mascagni and his Family

Musical conductors are not yet quite as constant travelers as railway conductors, but they are running them a close race, and their range is much larger—the whole world is their playground. Not only do eminent German and French conductors travel from city to city in their own countries, they also regularly visit foreign capitals— London has had half a dozen at a time. Sometimes they preside over local orchestras, at other times they bring along their own players. From Italy the world has long obtained supplies of operatic conductors as well as of opera singers, but Pietro Mascagni is probably the first composer of any country who has taken a whole grand opera company across the ocean to perform some of his operas and nothing else. This, surely, is a new thing under the sun.

It is to be regretted that untoward circumstances prevented the performance in New York of "William Ratcliff," one of the four operas which Signor Mascagni was to have conducted. Had it been produced, Metropolitan music lovers would have had a chance to hear five of the eight operas he has so far written, leaving "I Rantzau," "Silvano," and "The Masks" for some future occasion. "Cavalleria Rusticana" was produced here at the time (1891) when it had such a sensational success the world over, and it has been sung many times since with various Santuzzas, the best of them being Mme. Calvé. "L'Amico Fritz" followed in 1894, but altho Mme. Calvé had the part of Suzel, only two performances were given; and as none of the subsequent works of Mascagni won a decisive victory, even in Italy, they were not brought to America.

The reason why it would have been of particular interest to hear "William Ratcliff" is that that opera antedates, in part at least, the "Cavalleria Rusticana" (which is generally supposed to have been Mascagni's first work), and takes us back to the time in his life when he was a poor musician who often did not know where he was to get his maccaroni for the next day. When he was still a student at the Milan Conservatory he one day came across a translation of Heine's tragedy, "William Ratcliff," and promptly made up his mind to convert it into an opera. The love duo was written as early as 1882. During the following six years he composed a scene now and then, as he found time, which was not often, for he led a roving life as conductor of divers opera companies. His salary began with a dollar a day and was gradually increased to two, but there were times when meals were scant and the pawnbroker a friend in need. For his American tour he gets, so it is said, $8,000 a week.

It was Cervantes, I believe, who said that while it is no disgrace to be poor, it is devilish inconvenient. The chief inconvenience to Mascagni was that he could not afford to pay for a libretto. For some years the story of "Cavalleria Rusticana" had been haunting him, but he could not engage any one to put it into shape. At last a friend of his persuaded Targioni, of Livorno, to undertake this task for him. "Ratcliff" was then put aside for the time being and the new score taken in hand. Probably neither the composer nor the librettist dreamed that their joint work would have more than a few dozen or at best a hundred performances. But, as everybody knows, "Cavalleria Rusticana" won the first prize in the lottery—that is, the competition instituted by the publisher Sanzogno—and for several years after its first production at Rome (May 17th, 1890) this little opera had more performances than all of Wagner's operas combined. Only Weber's "Freischütz" in its day, and in recent times some of the operettas of Sullivan and Strauss, boasted such an instantaneous and universal success.

When a man has written a "Trilby" or an "Eben Holden" all his subsequent books are eagerly taken up by the publishers. Mascagni had no difficulty in disposing of his subsequent scores, altho every one proved a disappointment. The popularity of "Cavalleria Rusticana" was sufficient to keep him busy in the role of a popular idol. To this day, if he gives a concert in an Italian or German city, it is heralded as a great event; and not infrequently he has been welcomed with brass bands and torchlight processions.

The feverish, frenzied "Mascagnitis" which prevailed for a time after the appearance of "Cavalleria Rusticana" has, indeed, subsided, and the eminent lexicographer and historian, Dr. Riemann, wrote in 1900 that Mascagni, tho only thirty-seven years old, had already outlived his fame. But last summer he once more became the best advertised of living musicians through his connection with the Conservatory of Music at Pesaro. Of this institution, which was founded by Rossini, he was appointed director seven years ago. But while it is said that he introduced some reforms and that the students liked him, his attitude in general and his frequent absence on concert tours, coupled with his intention to visit America, finally irritated the overseers of the conservatory and the Pesaro town magistrates so much that they demanded his resignation, and when he refused he was deposed and had to invoke the Italian Government to reinstate him. For weeks the progress of this fight was reported in the daily press of Italy and Germany; and when Mascagni had been dismissed most of the Italian newspapers took his part. In Livorno, his native city, he was worshiped like a prima donna, escorted to his home in a triumphal procession, and officially proclaimed Italy's greatest composer, the equal of his predecessors, Rossini and Verdi.

When he started for America he doubtless expected not only a repetition of his European triumphs, but a rest from his trials and tribulations. On his arrival, he can have found no fault with his reception, for he was met in the harbor by a band of admirers; and when he conducted his "Zanetto" and "Cavalleria Rusticana" at the Metropolitan Opera House, on October 8th, a considerable number of Americans helped to make up the big audience which gave him an enthusiastic welcome notwithstanding the mediocre performance. But he found the atmosphere of New York quite as bellicose as that of Pesaro. A mistake had been made in bringing over from Italy an orchestra which was not only of inferior quality, but incomplete. The attempt to complete it led to a war with the Musical Union, whereat Mascagni was so disgusted that he threatened to take the next steamer back to Europe.

Matters were finally adjusted, but the poor, unrehearsed band proved a serious handicap. Altho the ambitious, energetic composer set to work rehearsing with all his might and main, so incessantly that he had to miss dinners given in his honor, both in New York and Philadelphia, he did not succeed, with the material at his command, in giving satisfactory performances of his operas. Instead of hearing the "Cavalleria Rusticana" for the first time quite at its best, the admirers and judges who assembled at the Opera House were agreed that they had seldom heard so bad a performance of it. The result of this was that at subsequent performances of this opera, as well as at those of "Iris," the audiences were discouragingly small, wherefore the enterprise has proved neither a financial nor an artistic success.

Had Mascagni visited us eleven years ago he might have been the object of almost as wild a craze as Admiral Dewey (in whose honor the Spaniards last summer accused him of having written a hymn—which he denied). Coming as he did, the only advantage he has brought us has been the chance to hear two of his operas which Mr. Grau would have never introduced in his repertory—"Zanetto" and "Iris." And even this seems a doubtful advantage. "Zanetto" certainly is one of the dreariest little operas ever placed on the stage. If "Ratcliff" had been produced in its place the prevalent opinion that Mascagni is a "yellow" composer would have been confirmed, for Heine's tragedy, "William Ratcliff," which his libretto closely follows, is a story of ghosts, highwaymen and murders. But "Zanetto" roars as gently as a sucking dove. There are only two characters in it. One of them is a young woman who poses as a widow and keeps a country inn. The other is Zanetto, a wandering minstrel, who does not know that the widow is the beautiful but cruel Sylvia he has heard so much about and is in quest of. She seeks to retain him and offers him a home, but he departs, and she weeps. This idyl may be allegorical, but it certainly is not operatic in either the good or the bad sense of the word. Nor is the music which Mascagni wrote for it operatic. It is prettily orchestrated, chiefly for strings and harps; but there is no inspiration in it—no warmblooded melody.

Much more interesting in every way is "Iris." It is based on a Japanese story— or, rather, a story placed in Japan, for there are not a few slips which show that the librettist does not undestand Japanese sentiments and motives. The plot, however, is sufficiently plausible and operatic, and the fact that the supernatural enters as an invisible chorus representing the voice of the sun makes it the more suitable for a romantic opera.

Iris is the lovely daughter of a blind man, Cieco. A roué named Osaka plans her abduction. Aided by Kyoto, a pander, he arranges a puppet show, and when Iris mingles with the crowd gathered by it she is seized and carried off to Kyoto's house in the Yoshiwara. There Osaka makes love to her in the second act, but her innocence is proof against his wiles, and he leaves, disgusted. Kyoto thereupon exhibits his prize to the crowd in the street. This brings back Osaka, who renews his advances, when presently the voice is heard of the blind father. He has been brought to the place in which his daughter dwells, and thinking that she left him of her own accord, he throws mud on her and curses her. Crazed by the curses, Iris jumps into a sewer basin, where, in the last act, she is found by ragpickers. They flee in superstitious terror when she shows signs of life. But it is the last flickering of the flame. As in a trance, she once more hears the voices of Osaka, Kyoto, Cieco. Then the rising sun intones a chorus, and, covering her body with a dense growth of lotos flowers, lifts her up toward the Infinite.

And the music? An Italian sitting near me said to his companion after the first act that he should like to hear it two or three times before making up his mind about it. After the second act he looked disappointed, and remarked that the music was "too heavy." He had expected another "Cavalleria Rusticana," with its broad, impassioned melodies. Now, as a work of art, formally considered, "Iris " is immeasurably above "Cavalleria," but it lacks those melodies, trivial but fervent, which made the "Cavalleria" famous. In "Iris" he seems deliberately to avoid such melodies, or rather tunes; he seeks to rise into the higher dramatic atmosphere of Wagner and the later Verdi; but not being big enough he fails to'get there. His orchestration is bizarre rather than dramatic, and his vocal parts have very few rememberable melodies. Yet there are some admirable details. The tune which the geisha hums at the opening of the second act suggests genuine local color, while the swelling crescendo of the opening chorus is superb, even if it is too obviously an imitation of the prologue in Boito's "Mefistofele."

"Iris" would have probably enjoyed better success had its two hours of music not been diluted to a four-hour performance. The small size of the audiences attracted by it, combined with the scant time for rehearsal, doubtless account for the non-production of "William Ratcliff."

New York City.