Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945) Guglielmo Ratcliff (Tragic Opera in 4 acts 1895)
MacGregor, a Scottish laird - Gianluca Buratto (bass); Maria, his daughter - Mariangela Sicilia (soprano); Count Douglas, engaged to Maria - David Stout (baritone); Guglielmo Ratcliff, suitor of Maria but rejected by her - Angelo Villari (tenor); Margherita, old lady living in MacGregor’s castle - Annunziata Vestri (mezzo-soprano); Lesley, Alexandros Tsilogiannis (tenor); Tom, innkeeper - Quentin Hayes (bass); Willie, his son - Sarah Richmond (mezzo-soprano)
Orchestra and Chorus of Wexford Festival Opera/Francesco Cilluffo
rec. live 31 October 2015 Wexford Festival Opera
Libretto and translation included RTELYRIC FM CD152 [60.28 + 54.51]
Mascagni hit the big time by winning the first prize in a competition sponsored by the publisher Sonzogno. He did so with his one act opera Cavalleria Rusticana, which had a sensational debut at Rome’s Teatro Costanzi on May 17th 1890. At age twenty-six it was not his first opera, nor would it be his last. However, it is fair to suggest that were it not for Cavalleria Rusticana the rest of his operatic compositions would be largely unknown. As it is, only L’Amico Fritz (1891), of which there is a recording featuring Pavarotti and Mirella Freni (EMI), Isabeau (1910) and Lodoletta (1917) are performed very occasionally. It is said that Guglielmo Ratcliff, composed during his student days, and put aside whilst he composed Cavalleria Rusticana, his entry for the competition he won, was his own preferred work of his entire oeuvre.
Perhaps accounting for Mascagni’s attraction to the subject of Guglielmo Ratcliff is the nature of the story by Heinrich Heine. It concerns unrequited love, a condition the composer suffered after his rejection by a young lady during his student days, when some of the music was composed. In many ways the plot would have been ideal for Donizetti and his contemporaries sixty or so years before, being set in northern Scotland. The story concerns Maria, a lady with a propensity for getting her fiancés killed on the night before their wedding in a duel with an earlier spurned lover, the eponymous Ratcliff who, in macabre fashion, presents her with the intended wedding ring suitably bloodied. Count Douglas, a third suitor, arrives and is duly challenged by Ratcliff. This time, Ratcliff loses the duel, but Douglas spares his life in return for the help he gave when robbers attacked him on a previous visit. The plot is resolved in the final act with more bloodshed, after family precedents are revealed by Margherita (CD 2 Tr, 8).
Unlike the music of Donizetti and his contemporaries, that of Guglielmo Ratcliff is through-composed verismo. There are no stoppings for vocal show arias for their own sake and the work contains several monologues. The length and vocal challenges of the title role deterred the greatest tenore robusto of his day, Francesco Tamagno, creator of Verdi’s Otello in 1887 and famous for his vocal strength and stamina! In this performance, Sicilian tenor Angelo Villari takes the role. His somewhat lyric tone had me worrying about the vocal demands: However, by the conclusion of the opera recording and despite one or two places where he sounds vocally at full stretch, I had come to respect his efforts and achievements. In the latter respect his command of the language is a significant plus to make his vocal realisation wholly convincing. David Stout is a tower of vocal strength as Count Douglas singing, with excellent vocal nuance and characterisation throughout. Gianluca Buratto’s strong voice is heard to good effect as MacGregor, his bass only lacking ideal smoothness in his act 1 monologue (CD 1 Tr, 4). In the lesser role of Tom, Quentin Hayes reminds us of his skill and quality whilst the young Sarah Richmond as Willie, harking from Carrickfergus, a sometime ENO Opera Works Artist and former RNCM award winner, makes a distinct impression.
Somewhat like Opera Rara for their recordings, and to a lesser extent some English Country House performances, Wexford comes up with Italian vocal gems for the two main female roles of Maria and Margherita, the somewhat fey, as they say in Scotland, retainer. Mariangela Sicilia and mezzo Annunziata Vestri sing the roles with fearsome characterisation and beauty of tone, particularly in the long act four scene including an aria and duet (CD 2. Trs, 4-9).
Francesco Cilluffo conducts the performance with a feel for the music and its period. His reading of the act three intermezzo, representing Ratcliff’s dream, is particularly distinguished (CD 2 Tr, 3). The recording is derived from RTÉ (Radio Television Eire) lyric fm’s live broadcast of the opera nationally, and to public service radio stations internationally, via the European Broadcasting Union. It is well balanced between the forces involved and seems to catch the natural acoustic of the theatre. The accompanying booklet has a brief biography of the composer, track listings, an act-by-act synopsis, brief singer biographies and a full libretto with English translation.