IT would be foolish to question or attempt to deny the merits of the type of Italian opera established by Mascagni’s lucky inspiration. The brevity of the realistic little tragedy, the swiftness of its movement, its adherence to the Italian ideal of melody first, its ingenious combination of song with an illuminative orchestral part these elements in union created a style which the composers of Italy, France, and Germany were quick to adopt. “Pagliacci” was the first fruit of the movement and has been the most enduring ; indeed, so far as America and England are concerned, “Cavalleria rusticana” and “Pagliacci” are the only products of the school which have obtained a lasting footing. They were followed by a flood of Italian, French, and German works in which low life was realistically portrayed, but, though the manner of composition was as easily copied as the subjects were found in the slums, none of the imitators of Mascagni and Leoncavallo achieved even a tithe of their success. The men themselves were too shrewd and wise to attempt to repeat the experiment which had once been triumphant.
In one respect the influence of the twin operas was deplorable. I have attempted to characterize that influence in general terms, but in order that the lesson may be more plainly presented it seems to me best to present a few examples in detail. The eagerness with which writers sought success in moral muck, regardless of all artistic elements, is strikingly illustrated in an attempt by a German writer, Edmund von Freihold,1 to provide “Cavalleria rusticana” with a sequel. Von Freihold wrote the libretto for a “music drama” which he called “Santuzza,” the story of which begins long enough after the close of Verga’s story for both the women concerned in “Cavalleria rusticana” to have grown children. Santuzza has given birth to a son named Massimo, and Lola to a daughter, Anita. The youthful pair grow up side by side in the Sicilian village and fall in love with one another. They might have married and in a way expiated the sins of their parents had not Alfio overheard his wife, Lola, confess that Turiddu, not her husband, is the father of Anita. The lovers are thus discovered to be half brother and sister. This reminder of his betrayal by Lola infuriates Alfio anew. He rushes upon his wife to kill her, but Santuzza, who hates him as the slayer of her lover, throws herself between and plunges her dagger in Alfio’s heart. Having thus taken revenge for Turiddu’s death, Santuzza dies out of hand, Lola, as an inferior character, falls in a faint, and Massimo makes an end of the delectable story by going away from there to parts unknown.
In Cilèa’s “Tilda” a street singer seeks to avenge her wrongs upon a faithless lover. She bribes a jailor to connive at the escape of a robber whom he is leading to capital punishment. This robber she elects to be the instrument of her vengeance. Right merrily she lives with him and his companions in the greenwood until the band captures the renegade lover on his wedding journey. Tilda rushes upon the bride with drawn dagger, but melts with compassion when she sees her victim in the attitude of prayer. She sinks to her knees beside her, only to receive the death-blow from her seducer. There are piquant contrasts in this picture and Ave Marias and tarantellas in the music.
Take the story of Giordano’s “Mala Vita.” Here the hero is a young dyer whose dissolute habits have brought on tuberculosis of the lungs. The principal object of his amours is the wife of a friend. A violent hemorrhage warns him of approaching death. Stricken with fear he rushes to the nearest statue of the Madonna and registers a vow ; he will marry a wanton, effect her redemption, thereby hoping to save his own miserable life. The heroine of the opera appears and she meets his requirements. He marries her and for a while she seems blest. But the siren, the Lola in the case, winds her toils about him as the disease stretches him on the floor at her feet. Piquancy again, achieved now without that poor palliative, punishment of the evil-doer.
Tasca’s “A Santa Lucia” has an appetizing story about an oysterman’s son who deserts a woman by whom he has a child, in order to marry one to whom he had previously been affianced. The women meet. There is a dainty brawl, and the fiancée of Cicillo (he’s the oysterman’s son) strikes her rival’s child to the ground. The mother tries to stab the fiancée with the operatic Italian woman’s ever-ready dagger, and this act stirs up the embers of Cicillo’s love. He takes the mother of his child back home to his father’s house, that is. The child must be some four years old by this time, but the oysterman dear, unsuspecting old man ! knows nothing about the relation existing between his son and his housekeeper. He is thinking of marriage with his common law daughter-in-law when in comes the old fiancée with a tale for Cicillo’s ears of his mistress’s unfaithfulness. “It is not true !” shrieks the poor woman, but the wretch, her seducer, closes his ears to her protestations ; and she throws herself into the sea, where the oysters come from. Cicillo rushes after her and bears her to the shore, where she dies in his arms, gasping in articulo mortis, “It is not true !”
The romantic interest in Mascagni’s life is con-fined to the period which preceded his sudden rise to fame. His father was a baker in Leghorn, and there he was born on December 7, 1863. Of humble origin and occupation himself, the father, nevertheless, had large ambitions for his son; but not in the line of art. Pietro was to be shaped intellectually for the law. Like Handel, the boy studied the pianoforte by stealth in the attic. Grown in years, he began attending a music–school, when, it is said, his father confined him to his house ; thence his uncle freed him and took over his care upon himself. Singularly enough, the man who at the height of his success posed as the most Italian of Italian masters had his inspiration first stirred by German poetry. Early in his career Beethoven resolved to set Schiller’s “Hymn to Joy “; the purpose remained in his mind for forty years or so, and finally became a realization in the finale of the Ninth Symphony. Pietro Mascagni resolved as a boy to compose music for the same ode; and did it at once. Then he set to work upon a two-act opera, “Il Filanda.” His uncle died, and a Count Flores-tan (here is another Beethovenian echo !) sent him to the Conservatory at Milan, where, like nearly all of his native contemporaries, he imbibed knowledge (and musical ideas) from Ponchielli.
After two years or so of academic study he yielded to a gypsy desire and set out on his wanderings, but not until he had chosen as a companion Maffei’s translation of Heine’s “Ratcliff” a gloomy romance which seems to have caught the fancy of many composers. There followed five years of as checkered a life as ever musician led. Over and over again he was engaged as conductor of an itinerant or stationary operetta and opera company, only to have the enterprise fail and leave him stranded. For six weeks in Naples his daily ration was a plate of macaroni. But he worked at his opera steadily, although, as he once remarked, his dreams of fame were frequently swallowed up in the growls of his stomach, which caused him more trouble than many a millionaire suffers from too little appetite or too much gout. Finally, convinced that he could do better as a teacher of the piano-forte, he ran away from an engagement which paid him two dollars a day, and, sending off the manuscript of “Ratcliff” in a portmanteau, settled down in Cerignola. There he became director of a school for orchestral players, though he had first to learn to play the instruments ; he also taught pianoforte and thoroughbass, and eked out a troublous existence until his success in competition for the prize offered by Sonzogno, the Milanese publisher, made him famous in a day and started him on the road to wealth.
It was but natural that, after “Cavalleria rusticana” had virulently affected the whole world with what the enemies of Signor Mascagni called “Mascagnitis,” his next opera should be looked forward to with feverish anxiety. There was but a year to wait, for “L’Amico Fritz” was brought forward in Rome on the last day of October, 1891. Within ten weeks its title found a place on the pro-gramme of one of Mr. Walter Damrosch’s Sunday night concerts in New York ; but the music was a disappointment. Five numbers were sung by Mme. Tavary and Signor Campanini, and Mr. Damrosch, not having the orchestral parts, played the accompaniments upon a pianoforte. As usual, Mr. Gustav Hinrichs was to the fore with a performance in Philadelphia (on June 8, 1892), the principal singers being Mme. Koert-Kronold, Clara Poole, M. Guille, and Signor Del Puente. On January 31, 1893, the Philadelphia singers, aided by the New York Symphony Society, gave a performance of the opera, under the auspices of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, for the benefit of its charities, at the Carnegie Music Hall, New York. Mr. Walter Damrosch was to have conducted, but was detained in Washington by the funeral of Mr. Blaine, and Mr. Hinrichs took his place. Another year elapsed, and then, on January 10, 1894, the opera reached the Metropolitan Opera House. In spite of the fact that Madame Calvé sang the part of Suzel, only two performances were given to the work.
The failure of this opera did not dampen the industry of Mascagni nor the zeal of his enterprising publishers. For his next opera the composer went again to the French authors, Erckmann-Chatrian, who had supplied him with the story of “L’Amico Fritz.” This time he chose “Les deux Frères,” which they had themselves turned into a drama with the title of “Rantzau.” Mascagni’s librettist retained the title. The opera came out in Florence in 1892. The tremendous personal popularity of the composer, who was now as much a favorite in Vienna and Berlin as he was in the town of his birth which had struck a medal in his honor, or the town of his residence which had created him an honorary citizen, could not save the work.
Now he turned to the opera which he had laid aside to take up his “Cavalleria,” and in 1895 “Guglielmo Ratcliff,” based upon the gloomy Scotch story told by Heine, was brought forward at La Scala, in Milan. It was in a sense the child of his penury and suffering, but he had taken it up in-spired by tremendous enthusiasm for the subject, and inasmuch as most of its music had been written before success had turned his head, or desire for notoriety had begun to itch him, there was reason to hope to find in it some of the hot blood which surges through the score of “Cavalleria.” As a matter of fact, critics who have seen the score or heard the work have pointed out that portions of “I Rantzau” and “Cavalleria” are as alike as two peas. It would not be a violent assumption that the composer in his eagerness to get his score be-fore the Sonzogno jury had plucked his early work of its best feathers and found it difficult to restore plumage of equal brilliancy when he attempted to make restitution. In the same year, 1895, his next opera, “Silvano,” made a fiasco in Milan. A year later there appeared “Zanetto,” which seems like an effort to contract the frame of the lyric drama still further than is done in “Cavalleria.” It is a bozzetto, a sketch, based on Coppée’s duologue “Le Passant,” a scene between a strumpet who is weary of the world and a young minstrel. Its orchestration is unique there are but strings and a harp. It was brought out at Pesaro, where, in 1895, Mascagni had been appointed director of the Liceo Musicale Rossini.
As director of the music-school in Rossini’s native town Mascagni’s days were full of trouble from the outset. He was opposed, said his friends, in reformatory efforts by some of the professors and pupils, whose enmity grew so virulent that in 1897 they spread the story that he had killed himself. He was deposed from his position by the administration, but reinstated by the Minister of Fine Arts. The criticism followed him for years that he had neglected his duties to travel about Europe, giving concerts and conducting his operas for the greater glory of himself and the profit of his publisher. At the time of the suicide story it was also said that he was in financial straits ; to which his friends replied that he received a salary of 60 lire ($12) a day as director, 1000 lire ($200) a month from Sonzogno, and lived in a princely dwelling.
After “Zanetto” came “Iris,” to which, as the one opera besides “Cavalleria rusticana” which has remained in the American repertory, I shall devote the next chapter in this book. “Iris” was followed by “Le Maschere,” which was brought out on January 17, 1901, simultaneously in six cities – Rome, Milan, Venice, Genoa, Turin, and Naples. It made an immediate failure in all of these places except Rome, where it endured but a short time. Mascagni’s next operatic work was a lyric drama, entitled “Vistilia,” the libretto of which, based upon an historical novel by Racco de Zerbi, was written by Menasci and Targioni-Tozzetti, who collaborated on the book of “Cavalleria rusticana.” The action goes back to the time of Tiberius and deals with the loves of Vistilia and Helius. Then came another failure in the shape of “Amica,” which lived out its life in Monte Carlo, where it was produced in March, 1905.
In the winter of 19021903 Signor Mascagni was in the United States for the purpose of conducting performances of some of his operas and giving concerts. The company of singers and instrumentalists which his American agents had assembled for his purpose was, with a few exceptions, composed of the usual operatic flotsam and jetsam which can be picked up at any time in New York. The enter-prise began in failure and ended in scandal. There had been no adequate preparation for the operas announced, and one of them was not attempted.
This was “Ratcliff.” “Cavalleria rusticana,” “Zanetto,” and “Iris” were poorly performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in October, and an attempt at Sunday night concerts was made. Signor Mascagni’s countrymen labored hard to create enthusiasm for his cause, but the general public remained indifferent. Having failed miser-ably in New York, Mascagni, heavily burdened with debt, went to Boston. There he was arrested for breach of contract. He retaliated with a suit for damages against his American managers. The usual amount of crimination and recrimination followed, but eventually the difficulties were compounded and Mascagni went back to his home a sadly disillusionized man.
“Zanetto” was produced along with “Cavalleria rusticana” at the Metropolitan Opera House on October 8, 1902, and “Iris” on October 16. Signor Mascagni conducted and the parts were distributed as follows among the singers of the company : Iris, Marie Farneti ; Osaka, Pietro Schiavazzi ; Kyoto, Virgilio Bollati ; Il Cieco, Francesco Navarrini ; Una Guecha, Dora de Flippe ; Un Mercianola, Pasquale Blasio ; Un Cencianola, Bernardino Landino. The opera was not heard of again until the season of 1907-1908, when, just before the end of the administration of Heinrich Conned, it was incorporated into the repertory of the Metropolitan Opera House apparently for the pur-pose of giving Mme. Emma Eames an opportunity to vie with Miss Geraldine Farrar in Japanese opera.