Article by Robert Thicknesse
How do you follow Cavalleria rusticana? Yes, I know, usually with Pagliacci, of course. But suppose you are the 26-year-old composer whose first work, dashed off in a desperate attempt to escape a life of drudgery in an obscure corner of Italy, has created an unprecedented sensation all over Europe and particularly in your native land: 185 productions in the three years following its first performance in Rome in 1890, including performances in 41 Italian cities in the first year alone. “It raced over the world like wildfire,” wrote one critic; “the peoples of the earth were suffering an acute attack of Mascagnitis.” Nobody was immune, not even God: during the performance of a Mass which Mascagni had written for the 600th anniversary of the cathedral of Orvieto, the Intermezzo from Cav was interpolated for the Elevation of the Host.
Pietro Mascagni, born in 1863, was a baker’s son from the Tuscan port of Livorno who had enrolled at the Milan Conservatory at the age of 19, where he befriended Puccini, five years his senior. He was expelled in his second year when he kept failing to submit his assignments, and he became a jobbing musician, touring Italy with a small opera company and playing double bass in a Milan theatre; later he moved to the backwater of Cerignola, way down south in Puglia, where he earned his crust as a piano teacher. In 1889, desperately enthused by a competition for one-act operas promoted by the publisher Sonzogno, he dashed off the 70-minute miracle of Cavalleria rusticana, based on a Sicilian story of jealousy and murder among the peasants by Giovanni Verga, in a few weeks. Then he got cold feet and decided to submit instead the last act of a full-length work called Guglielmo Ratcliff, a historical tragedy set in Scotland and based on a play by Heinrich Heine. Luckily his wife, behind his back, sent in the score for Cavalleria; it won first prize, and the rest is history.
Although he never again came close to recreating the success of Cav, Mascagni was a major figure, arguably second only to Puccini, in that group of Italian composers who emerged in the 1890s to fill the void left by Verdi, who for the previous 50 years had dominated the Italian opera scene to the exclusion of all others. Variously named veristi (“realists”), or giovane scuola (the youthful school), these composers – who included Leoncavallo, Montemezzi, Cilea and Giordano – have really little in common despite a rough contemporaneity; the word verismo was imported from an Italian literary movement whose most famous member was Verga, and it denoted a concern with the brutal, colourful lives of peasants rather than the aristocrats who had occupied much 19th-century (and before) literature and music. After Cavalleria, it’s fair to say that verismo became steadily less veristic, but the name has stuck. And this repertoire has as we know become one of the major strands in Holland Park programming – a welcome feature which actually began in 1997 with the performance of another Mascagni work, Iris.
While plenty of these composers were one-trick ponies who faded into obscurity, unable to keep up with Puccini’s relentless ability to give the opera-going population exactly what it wanted, Mascagni continued to compose with considerable success, though he was forever overshadowed by his younger rival after the appearance of Puccini’s La bohème in 1896. And it is much to his credit that, while he never attained the success of Cavalleria ever again, neither did he attempt to recreate the formula that had produced it; he absolutely refused to repeat himself. Mascagni was a questing musician, an experimenter, a man who reinvented himself with each work. A manic depressive, he wrote with furious energy and occasional disregard for detail. As active in his personal life as in his music, he dominated the Italian musical scene for 50 years, forever arguing, fighting, impetuously promoting his semi-mystical vision of “Italianness” through music that led him, among other things, to make fateful political choices and alliances: in 1929 he became music director at La Scala in Milan, taking over from Arturo Toscanini, who was sacked because he refused to play the Fascist anthem Giovinezza before each performance as Mussolini required; Mascagni, more compliant and opportunist, had no qualms – something which has blackened his reputation in Italy ever since.
There could be no greater possible contrast than that between Cavalleria rusticana and Mascagni’s next work L’amico Fritz, a gentle rural romance set among mild Protestants and their Jewish neighbours in the cool climes of Alsace, rather than blood and guts in the vicious Sicilian sun; but Mascagni specifically wanted something where the story wouldn’t overshadow his music, as he felt had happened in Cavalleria. And Mascagni’s entire opera-composing career would follow the same pattern: his lurid oriental thriller Iris, the mediaeval fantasy Isabeau, the Florentine miniature Zanetto, the highly charged, very long Parisina, Il piccolo Marat (“Do not look for melody or learning… there is only blood”) and finally, in 1935, the strange Nerone, which is still rather more than the hommage to fascism it is often seen as; each different from the last, apparently conceived from an entirely different starting point each time, each flawed in one way or another, but hardly lacking ambition or vision.
Let’s rewind to 1890, and the sudden fame thrust on the young man. For a while he was the biggest celebrity in Italy, and his publisher Edoardo Sonzogno knew he needed to capitalise on this, though he was in no great hurry for Mascagni to actually produce another opera yet that might interfere with or dilute the ubiquitous Cavalleria frenzy. Already in July 1890, only a couple of months after the premiere of Cavalleria, Mascagni had agreed with his librettists that the next work would be taken from a play by a French duo who were wildly popular at the time, Emile Erckmann and Charles Chatrian, who wrote under the name Erckmann-Chatrian. This pair wrote tales of their native Alsace, recently lost to Germany after the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, and the work which Mascagni and his collaborators fastened on was a play called Les Rantzau, a Romeo and Juliet-style story (with a happy ending) of warring families setting aside their differences. Mascagni set about it enthusiastically but soon he began to lose heart, and Sonzogno needed to come up with an alternative.
He stage-managed the thing rather well, presenting Mascagni with another Erckmann-Chatrian play while they were on a train from Naples back to Cerignola after another first night of Cavalleria in January 1891. “I believe I have a subject for you,” said Sonzogno, who was accompanied by Nicola Daspuro, his Naples agent, and he produced L’ami Fritz for Mascagni to read. By the time they arrived in Cerignola it was agreed: Mascagni loved the piece, and Daspuro would write the libretto. Work started immediately – Daspuro adapted the play in 12 days – and the opera received its premiere at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome, scene of Cavalleria’s triumphant first appearance, in October 1891.
If Mascagni truly wanted something different from the grand Guignol of Cavalleria, this was surely it. In any case, he had asked, “Where would I find a libretto like Cavalleria? I want to take a different road, particularly seeing that too many newspapers, praising Cavalleria, attributed all its success to the libretto. For that reason, I want a simple libretto, something almost insubstantial, so the opera will be judged entirely on its music.” And it seems Mascagni judged his talent, and the taste of the public, pretty well: the reception of Fritz was extremely positive. By December it was playing in five Italian cities and beyond; in January 1892 Gustav Mahler conducted its premiere in Hamburg, and through that year it received 40 productions in places like Berlin, Vienna, Prague… Then, in the shape of Puccini, the world changed. Bohème appeared in 1896, and by the beginning of the new century Fritz was fading, though the beauty of its score ensured it has never entirely disappeared.
And of course the thing that Mascagni loved about it, its libretto, is what we now think of as its weak spot. Not that everyone at the time found it so marvellous, to be sure. Verdi thought it “the worst libretto I’ve ever seen”, the composer Antonio Camps wrote “Fritz will never enrapture audiences because no great passions exist in the plot. There is no doubt that Mascagni was in a state of delirium when he wrote Fritz, for it can be the only explanation for choosing such an anti-musical libretto.”
The gentle and sentimental novel where Fritz started life was published by its two authors in 1864, and is really a collection of scenes of rural life in a little corner of Alsace which since 1815 had been politically part of Bavaria. In 1876, when they rewrote the novel as a play, Alsace had been entirely ceded to Germany as a result of the Franco-Prussian war, and they relocated it to pre-war French Alsace and changed the story slightly: Fritz’s duty to marry has become political, patriotic, to provide sons for the French fatherland. In the novel it is no such thing; the interfering Rabbi David just thinks being single is a bit weird and selfish and not natural, and goes on rather insistently on the subject to anyone who will listen. Daspuro’s libretto irons out some of the irrelevant patriotic angles, so in the opera we are largely back where we started.
And it is true that this idyll of rural life has little about it that we think of as typically operatic. Fritz Kobus is a good sort, set in his ways, approaching middle age (by 19th-century standards: he’s 36), rich, bountiful and generous, son of a judge who left him his fortune, a bon viveur who likes food and wine and is commensurately portly, a confirmed bachelor in the sense that he would appear to have no sexual nature whatever. For 15 years he has followed a pleasant routine of complete idleness: “You will wake up between 7 and 8 in the morning, and old Katel will bring your breakfast; then you might go to the Casino café to read the paper, or take a turn in the fields to whet your appetite. At midday you’ll come home to lunch; afterwards you’ll check your accounts, do your business, receive your rents. In the evening, after supper, you’ll go to the Grand-Cerf brasserie to play a few hands of youker or rams with whomever is there. You’ll smoke your pipe, have a few beers, and you will be the happiest man in the world…. Above all, avoid these three things: don’t get too fat, don’t exert yourself too much and never get married. And then, Kobus, I daresay you’ll live to be as old as Methuselah…”
His best friend is the old rabbi David Sichel, who taught him to speak Yiddish when he was a child; next come his drinking and card-playing companions, and then the gypsy violinist Iôsef (Beppe in the opera), whom Fritz rescued from the attention of the police one cold night and who comes calling every year regular as clockwork. One striking feature of the book, in fact, is this no doubt idealised picture of a peaceful German countryside, the Christian landlord best friends with rabbi and wandering gypsy, the contented peasants of various Protestant denominations (Suzel’s family is Anabaptist) – no hint, of course, of the tempests to come in the not too distant future.
If the outcome of the opera is a foregone conclusion from the moment Suzel appears, the journey is a lovely one. Operas where nobody dies, where the passions are less than grand, can still strike us as odd – particularly at Holland Park, with its certifiable bloodthirstiness. But for an outpouring of melody, for orchestra and voices, few works can beat Fritz; Mascagni just keeps it coming, his light touch with harmonic shifts and modulation keep the ear sharp, and the little folksy interludes, the jokey character roles and above all the character of David, who gives the opera its moral compass, keep this gossamer construction floating along. Fritz is a butterfly among operas, delicate, insubstantial, lovely and endangered. You are unlikely to see it anywhere except Holland Park: catch it while you can.
Robert Thicknesse is a freelance writer and opera critic.