The Unjustly Neglected Works of Pietro Mascagni
by William Schoell, July 1997
© 1997-1999 William Schoell
Originally published in BBC Music Magazine in July 1997. This slightly expanded
version was reprinted in High and Low arts/entertainment newsletter in the Winter
In 1890, Pietro Mascagni (1863 - 1945), the baker's son from Livorno, made operatic
history with Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), which not only
won the prestigious Sonzogno competition for one-acts, but began the "verismo"
(realism) movement that influenced dozens of composers in Italy and elsewhere.
Cavalleria told a moving story of unrequited love and betrayal via soaring
melodies of true depth and feeling, and has been popular with international
audiences for over one hundred years. The opera, generally considered a masterpiece,
is held in higher regard by music critics than previously imagined, but there are
those who find its music "crude," its emotion too raw they find verismo too
melodramatic. They could not dismiss Cavalleria no matter how hard they
tried, but they did do their best to unfairly dismiss the fifteen stage works
With the first performers of Cavalleria Rusticana in 1890
Roberto Stagno, Leopoldo Mugnone
Mascagni, and Gemma Bellincioni
The accepted "wisdom" about Mascagni is that he was a one-work composer whose
inspiration ran out with his first opera, Cavalleria. In truth Mascagni's
other operas reveal a hugely gifted composer who wasn't afraid to give the public
something other than what it expected and sometimes paid the price. Although none
of his other works became an international sensation, most were quite successful in
their day, performed not only in Italy but at major houses like Covent Garden and
the Met. Mascagni founded verismo, but ironically only some of his operas are earthy
dramas. He was constantly experimenting with different styles and subject matter.
L'amico Fritz (1891), his follow up to Cavalleria, was composed in a
similarly intense style, but is actually a light, heart-warming romance with many
beautiful melodies and a happy ending. I Rantzau (1892) first cousins who
are in love try to settle a feud between their fathers over the family fortune
combined verismo flavor with another happy ending. He composed Silvano (1895)
a virtual flood of melody for two acts primarily to satisfy the demand for more
verismo. Another passionate triangle melodrama that ends in murder, it was not as
well-received as Cavalleria or his other out and out verismo effort,
Amica (1905). In this two brothers are fighting not over a fortune but a
woman. It has a vigorous and powerful score which some found "Wagnerian," but
despite the large orchestra the music is pure Mascagni.
His other operas are all quite different from one another. Il piccolo Marat
(1921), which was once very popular, is a story set during the French revolution.
The title character, "Little Marat," pretends to be a fervent follower of Marat but
is actually a prince who hopes to save his mother by gaining the trust of the enemy.
This leads to poignant and horrifying complications. There are thunderous choruses
to make the blood race, soaring orchestral passages, and a beautiful act two duet.
Done well, the opera has an extremely powerful effect.
Isabeau (1911) was another change of pace, a fantasy set in a mythical
medieval kingdom. Luigi Illica's libretto reworks the legend of Godiva in a story
that cannily examines sexual hypocrisy. Princess Isabeau angers her father by
refusing all suitors. To humble her, he makes her ride nude on horseback through the
town, but anyone who looks at her will be put to death. The woodsman Folco disobeys
the edict he feels that not looking will make the princess feel she has something
to be ashamed of. Although Isabeau tries to save him from death by marrying him, he
is torn apart by a mob and she is mortally injured before she can do so.
Mascagni's lush, vibrant score and rich orchestrations bring this all to life in
Mascagni at the time of Isabeau (1911)
Mascagni composed an unabashed tearjerker in Lodoletta (1917), which details
the star-crossed love affair between a Parisian exile, Flammen, and "the little
dove," an orphaned Dutch girl. In act three, wondering what has become of Lodoletta
after they parted, Flammen sings one of Mascagni's most inspired arias, "Ah! dove
avrà posato..." A prime example of the exquisite tenderness and sensitivity with
which Mascagni could compose, it is an anthem for anyone who has ever wondered what
has become of a distant loved one.
Le Maschere (1901), which premiered in six cities on the same evening and
failed in all but Rome, is Mascagni's most atypical work. He wanted to try his hand
at a light Rossini-style opera in the tradition of the commedia dell'arte, and
although he succeeded on an artistic level, it was not what the public wanted from
him. Sì (1919) proved that he could write Viennese operetta with an
Italian twist as well as anybody. Pinotta (1932), and Zanetto (1896)
are also of interest.
Mascagni's personal favorite was Guglielmo Ratcliff (1895), in which he took
Heinrich Heine's gothic play and simply set it to music (the earliest Italian
example of "literaturoper"). Mascagni displayed his genius by writing music that
exactly and expertly mirrors the words and thoughts of the characters. Full of great
dramatic vitality and irresistible melodic power, it is arguably his greatest
But it gets strong competition from Parisina (1913), which Mascagni composed
to a lengthy libretto by Gabriele d'Annunzio. That supreme sensualist d'Annunzio
fashioned a story (from Byron's poem) about a young man, Ugo, who becomes obsessed
with his sexy stepmother, Parisina and vice versa. The centerpiece is an
outstanding scene in Act Two in which Ugo saves his stepmother from invaders, and
covered with their blood, declares his love for her. Unable to hold back her own
feelings, Parisina suggests they go tripping amongst the corpses so they might find
a man who is still barely alive and Parisina can watch him expire as she, the reason
for his demise, is reflected in his eyes. Finally getting a grip on herself,
Parisina then suggests she and Ugo enter the church to pray for atonement but, once
inside, they can not resist their passion. The curtain falls as they grasp at and
cling to each other in total abandonment, the church bell pealing sedately in ironic
counterpoint. For this sequence and many others in the opera Mascagni composed the
most highly-charged and intensely erotic music of his career.
One of his most successful post-Cavalleria operas was Iris (1898),
again with a libretto by Illica. Iris is a young Japanese girl who is spirited away
from her blind father by the owner of a brothel because his client, Osaka, badly
desires her. Iris wants only to return to her garden, and Osaka's protestations of
love fall on deaf ears. When her father manages to track her down he flings mud on
her, assuming she left of her own free will. Inconsolable over this betrayal, Iris
flings herself into a pit inside the brothel. In the final act her body washes out
on a river bank where her mind imagines the various men in her short life reacting
to her demise. The warming rays of the sun lift Iris out of this world and into the
next, presumably, happier one.
A painting by Angiolo Tommasi (1858-1923)
at the time of Iris (1898 or 1899)
Despite the sentimental conclusion, this is one of the least sentimental of operas.
Iris is practically a "feminist" work, unflinchingly presenting the heroine's
exploitation at the hands of men. Even her father worries more about who will take
care of him than about his daughter. Mascagni's score is magnificent, but the
gorgeous quality of Osaka's love arias (and his duet with Iris) is somewhat
unsettling when you realize he's singing to a kidnapped child. Mascagni wasn't
trying to sugarcoat the situation, however; Osaka wants to win the girl over by
being at his most romantic, and the music reflects that. The Sun's Hymn that opens
and closes the opera has become justifiably famous.
Clearly the influence of Iris (and L'amico Fritz) can be heard in
Puccini's Madama Butterfly and in the works of other composers. Unlike
Mascagni, Puccini kept giving the public more of what they wanted. It didn't help
that Mascagni's lacerating wit, somewhat arrogant personality, and undeniable ego
often made him enemies. By the time he'd composed his final opera, the interesting
and noteworthy Nerone (1935), Alban Berg had come along with his atonal
Wozzeck, and music of emotion and melody seemed, to some, old-fashioned.
Mascagni only became official composer of Mussolini's regime because he hoped it
would lead to more performances of his operas, but when the Fascists were overturned
his neglect was assured. People were conditioned to snicker at Mascagni. Critics
who didn't understand or respond to the sweeping power of Cavalleria
written for the heart, not the head, as Mascagni put it created an atmosphere in
which praise of his work would be met with ridicule.
His operas are infrequently performed because its difficult to find voices that can
handle them. Plàcido Domingo was disappointed when the Met cancelled a new
production of Il piccolo Marat in 1982, but wrote in his memoirs that he
found the work, "like some of the composer's other operas, unhealthy for the voice.
The dramatic element is so underlined that it causes strain." One can imagine how
lesser singers might feel! Although all of his operas have been recorded and all but
two are available on CD, the quality (in both performance and audio reproduction)
There are signs that Mascagni's many neglected masterpieces may be coming back into
vogue, however. Iris has been revived in Rome (1996), London (1997), and at
Ireland's Wexford Festival (1995); Guglielmo Ratcliff in Bonn (1997). New
productions of L'amico Fritz are in the works.
The baker's son from Livorno would be pleased.
Author's note: Since the publication of this piece, all of Mascagni's operas are
available on CD. A concert version of Iris at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln
Center was sold out; a triumph which got a standing ovation at the conclusion.
Late in 2003, Ratcliff also got the concert treatment at Alice Tully hall.
Although it was not a sell-out, it, too, was a triumph.