Pietro MASCAGNI (1863–1945) Guglielmo Ratcliff- opera in four acts (1895)
Angelo Villari (tenor) – Guglielmo Ratcliff; Mariangela Sicilia (soprano) – Maria; David Stout (baritone) – Count Douglas; Annunziata Vestri (mezzo) – Margherita; Gianluca Buratto (bass) – MacGregor; Alexandros Tsilogiannis (tenor) – Lesley; Quentin Hayes (bass) – Tom; Sarah Richmond (mezzo) – Willie
Orchestra and Chorus of Wexford Festival Opera/Franceso Cilluffo
rec. 31 October 2015, National Opera House, Wexford
Libretto with English translation enclosed RTE LYRIC CD 152 [60:20 + 49:46]
Mascagni had begun the composition of Guglielmo Ratcliff very early but due to his travelling about in Italy with various operetta companies he never finished it. Thus Cavalleria rusticana (1890) became his debut opera and it was a tremendous success. It was quickly followed by L’amico Fritz (1891) and I Rantzau (1892); not until then did he return to Guglielmo. He had it premiered in 1895 at La Scala in Milan. It was fairly positively received there and has been revived a number of times but has never become part of the standard repertoire, even though Mascagni himself regarded it as his best opera. One reason for its relative neglect is the title role which is one of the most taxing tenor parts in all opera.
The libretto by Andrea Maffei is based on an early play by Heinrich Heine. The setting is the north of Scotland in early 19th century. When the opera begins Count Douglas has just married Maria. Not until then does he learn that a certain Guglielmo Ratcliff once wanted to marry Maria but was rejected. After that two different suitors to Maria were killed before the wedding in duels with Guglielmo. Now Douglas receives a letter from him with an invitation to the same place where the other two were killed. In the duel Douglas defeats Guglielmo but refuses to kill him, because Guglielmo had once saved him when he was attacked by robbers. In the last act Guglielmo breaks into Maria’s room and begs her to run away with him. Maria refuses and then Guglielmo first kills her, then her father and finally kills himself.
The finale is no doubt dramatic and violent but the previous acts have been rather uneventful and the first act is primarily devoted to long narrations where we are updated on what happened before the opera began. Structurally the plot is, in other words, rather weak.
This is however a problem it shares with other operas, which are still played. They are saved by the music, and the same can be said of Guglielmo Ratcliff. Anyone who knows and loves Cavalleria rusticana will feel at home in this opera. Mascagni’s orchestral writing is winning and especially his strings are as lush and saturated as in his other works from this time. We encounter this at once in the beautiful prelude, which has a short vocal number embedded – just as in the Cavalleria prelude, where Turiddu is heard off stage. Here it is the mad Margherita, singing: ‘I have killed my beloved! She was so beautiful! My darling was so beautiful and I killed her.’ Also this opera has an Intermezzo, in the third act, and this is the one number non-specialists are likely to know. It has been recorded a number of times. Act IV opens with a beautiful wordless chorus, which distantly reminds me of the most magical scene in any Mascagni opera that I know of: the dawn and sunrise that opens Iris. In the same act Maria and Margherita have fine arias, and Guglielmo’s long impassioned solos in act II and III are both heroic and impassioned.
I have only praise for the contributions of chorus and orchestra under the distinguished conductor Francesco Cilluffo. He has a fine feeling for the verismo style. The live recording is excellent and well-balanced. The singing of the central roles is utterly convincing. The monumental bass Gianluca Buratto is superb as MacGregor and his long narrative in the first act is a vocal highlight. It’s a pity he is absent during the following acts, returning in the final scene only to be killed in a fight with Guglielmo. David Stout’s Count Douglas is also excellent and his nuanced singing is a joy to hear. Angelo Villari, a few moments of strain apart, impresses greatly in the fiendishly demanding title role. In the midst of all the heroism the role requires he also manages to find some softer nuances. Annunziata Vestri’s slightly plummy mezzo-soprano is employed to great dramatic effect in Margherita’s aria in the last act and Mariangela Sicilia’s lyric soprano shines beautifully in her aria as well as in the confrontation with Guglielmo. There is also good singing in the smaller roles.
Opportunities to see this opera live are limited and the only other recording is an old Cetra set from 1963, which can’t compete either on sonic or musical grounds. So this excellent production from the adventurous Wexford Festival has the field to itself. Opera lovers who only know the intermezzo should definitely try this set. There is a lot of good stuff here.